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There's no other band in the world quite like the Grateful Dead. From innovative sound systems to DIY practices early on (broadcasting, tape trading), they've been pioneers of so many musical elements during the past fifty years. It's a very special weekend here in Chicago as we welcome the Dead for a 3-night run of concerts for their 50th Anniversary - July 3rd, 4th, and 5th. To honor Jerry Garcia, the band has planned for the short tour to end in Chicago, as he played his last concert there before passing in '95.
The next few nights are no different for the 'Fare Thee Well' gigs. Fans from all over the world will be able watch and listen, via technology. Pay-per-view streams, viewing parties, and satellite radio feeds will allow people access that they wouldn't normally be able to have. It's no shock that this will be available from a band that has paved the way as one of the most tech-savvy bands in history.
I spoke with Jeff Lyman, our Quality Control Expert here at CME, about what the Grateful Dead have done for music and sound over the years. Jeff has attended many Dead shows over the years and loves how their history has contributed to so many aspects of music. He'll be at their first run tonight, July 3rd, at Soldier Field.
Q: Let's start with what set the Grateful Dead apart musically.
A: Jerry was a banjo player, to begin with, so his style kind of came from the whole bluegrass tradition. Then, you've got Pig Pen, the original keyboard and harmonica player, and he was much more into the blues. Bob Weir was still young at that point, and I think with all that coming together, they were able to take traditional songs, cover of them, eventually bringing it into their own style. You see in some of the songs midway through that they were utilizing all of those parts. So, like any other band who is changing music or molding different types together, they did a lot starting from roots music. Just American roots music. It's cool they did that.
Regarding their idea of free improvisation, their audience would simply be there and listen. It was different from what you were seeing before that, going on long musical explorations - often seen in jazz to a certain extent, but less so in the rock side of things - which lead to jam bands. Today, of course, it's a popular genre and keeps popping up.
They influenced that side of music a lot. Just the idea of improvisation, every show is different, the whole tape trading thing where it's like “I've got this recording of 'Eyes Of The World' from 1974 that is particularly good". You listen to different tapes, and they do change. Even the songs themselves, to a certain extent, can evolve over time or be influenced by the time period that they're playing them - and the equipment, too. Which leads to the other things, since they were such a touring force and they had so many people behind them, they were making a good amount of money doing it, they could afford to pay the people, who would later be Alembic, and they could pay them to make this crazy music- basically the wall of sound eventually- these systems that could support them.
Even in The Grateful Dead Movie from 1974, Jerry recorded in 5.1 stereo sound, and you couldn't even get a player for that back then. He was so far ahead of his time as far as what he wanted, and the band wanted, for sound. It's cool because you can see them using the money they were making to further musical sound reinforcement. And, really, if they weren't in that situation I don't think that necessarily would have been done that way.
Q: That is really incredible, pretty wild.
A: Isn't that cool? This is the stuff that you don't hear about quite as much.
The other thing that's cool that they did with that was that they needed several stage setups, so they'd have trucks with maybe two sets of stage gear, so they'd go to the next venue and get things set up for that next night while they were playing another show. That's a huge scale - and a ton of work. A huge road crew. There was probably a lot of stuff within the whole realm of live sound reinforcement that's because of The Grateful Dead. I don't know if it all can be contributed to them, but part of it most definitely.
I would say that what they did for branding music is huge, too. I don't know of any other bands before them with such an easily recognizable brand. You see a dancing bear, you see a skeleton, you see Space Your Face, you see a skull with a lighting bolt through it, and you just know that's them.
Q: I understood that as a kid, even. Seeing their visuals, I didn't really know many bands yet, but I could recognize them.
A: I knew their brand and name. I knew their pictures before I even heard them for the first time, which is pretty remarkable. I can't think of any other band that had that. There were stores, Dead Shops, just of their stuff. I don't know of any other band that has stores dedicated for their fans. That's pretty crazy.
Q: What about their community stands out to you? People have spent months, even years, of their lives following them around.
A: The whole idea of following a band... this idea is so much more of a lifestyle. People would spend a lot of their life following them. You could feel the unique bond at the shows. I've never felt that same bond at any other show; it's like family. People really truly looking out for each other, really enjoying each other. It's this crazy amount of people, and everyone is pretty cool.
Q: I'd love to be in a band like that...
A: (laughing) “Who are these Deadheads, and why do they keep following me?”
Q: They've remained relevant for an incredible period of time. Why do you think that is?
A: As far as staying power, they've been around for longer than most bands. The lineup has changed over the years, but there's just as much excitement around now as there was 20 years ago. There's something weird and cool about it.
Q: What are your thoughts on why people have been so into with them? Was it from their constant touring and access? Perhaps being pioneers in allowing people to record their music and share it?
A: I think it's so much of that stuff. The fact that from the beginning they were different. There wasn't a jam band at that point in time. It was a different vibe than other concerts, I think - it was this family thing. Golden Gate Park is where would play their early shows a lot, and they would do it for free. Just set up and play! There was such a sense of community there that they'd take the idea of community from within San Francisco and bring it on the road with them. It worked perfectly with the idea of peace, love, and happiness. Free love. It went hand-and-hand with the music, the lyrics, and the feel of it.
Q: What was exiting about going to their live shows?
A: Every show was so different. If you get into the whole trading tape part of things, I remember going to the shows and my friend and I would just wait and listen. Jerry would noodle around before the song started, and we would've known all of the set lists up until that point of shows before the one we were at, and we'd try and guess what they were going to play. Right before the song would start, you'd hear Jerry play a lick and “OH! Their going to play THAT song.” There was such a sense of excitement. There was some book - a song book - and in it, they'd have all these Grateful Dead songs. Next to each one, they'd have the first time it was played. So you know even the cataloging of that aspect of their musicianship, you get a feel of “Oh, that's the first time they played that.” Granted, not always the best version it, but still, it's pretty cool that you can hear that. The idea of tape trading and letting people record opposed every other thing the music industry deemed appropriate. That's a whole other thing.
Q: The group was on the the few rock and roll pioneers to retain ownership of their music masters and publishing rights. It's interesting that they were so smart about their intellectual property and so free with letting others take it, as far as recording, free shows, and so on. It is really the best of both worlds. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I think the idea that doing free shows, anyone can come, enables you to get a lot of fans, people who couldn't see you otherwise. There's a lot of beauty in that. Give it away until people are totally addicted to it. It's pretty neat. The gear isn't as useful unless there is the music there to back it up. And that's what the Grateful Dead brought to their fans. And that is pretty incredible.
Thank you to Jeff for all of the insight into being a “Deadhead”. Do you have a story about the Grateful Dead, your favorite concert, or your favorite tape? Share it in the comments section below.
Enjoy the show tonight, along with all of the fellow Deadheads out there. This will be one for the books.
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