July 3, 4 and 5, 2015 marked the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary and Fare Thee Well concerts at Soldier Field, Chicago. The set of shows were an intimate goodbye jamboree for 70,000 fans each night with many more tuning in online through pay per view.
Most may think that a venue of 70,000 people would be anything but intimate. That is one of the most endearing things about this band. Their identity as a musical group exists because of the interwoven tapestry of its fans, affectionately known as Dead Heads.
There are various kinds of popular musical groups, such as studio bands like Steely Dan, and manufactured groups like New Kids on the Block. All bands rely to some extent on their fans to make their livelihood possible through the purchase of albums, merchandise and show tickets. But The Grateful Dead brings the audience/fan relationship to a near religious or spiritual level.
The Grateful Dead is more than a band. It is a movement and an experience. It has never done well without the presence of its fans. The Grateful Dead stands out significantly in a music industry that relies heavily on radio singles and hits. Though it is one of the most successful touring bands ever, the Grateful Dead has only had one moderate hit song and very tepid studio albums.
Over the years, I must have seen over 70 Grateful Dead concerts. When I try to explain the Grateful Dead’s appeal to non-Dead Heads, all I can say is you have to see them live. A friend of mine is an A&R rep at Warner Brothers. He makes his living off of scouting for the next big thing. He once asked me to please help him understand why so many people adore the Grateful Dead because from his perspective, “the music sounds like garbage.”
I could understand why he felt this way. The music does not have the polish of many successful bands and it does not translate well on recording. For the most part the studio recordings misrepresent the magic that fans experience live. Dennis McNally, the band’s long-time manager, once told me that the band believes that the fans are a part of the band.
There must be something exceptional about the Grateful Dead. Otherwise they would not be able to sell out a ten-day stretch at Madison Square Garden, packing in three hours of new musical material each night all through the 80’s and 90’s, when their lead guitar player Jerry Garcia was still alive.
This level of synergistic commitment and interplay illustrates how the band and the audience clearly love each other. The common thread that the band and the fans share is the love for Americana fusion music and free form ecstatic dancing. Often shows were held outside, which added another magical element to the mix: nature. If I could pay homage to the band’s 50 years of dedicated touring, writing and performing, it would best be expressed by illustrating the dance between nature, music and fans.
In the mid 90’s during their summer tour stop at the Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, The Grateful Dead came on stage and a downpour started. Rather than cancelling the show or the audience running for cover, the band played “Take Me To The River” by Al Green Green, The Beatle’s “Rain” and their own song “Let It Rain”. As the raindrops danced on our heads, we were also showered with their sweet musical sounds. The joy in the stadium for all who attended was palpable. There was a sense of timeless freedom, akin to watching children playing carefree in the rain in surrendered joy.
As I watched the final pay-per-view concerts of their Farewell tour in Chicago, I saw 70,000 people dance through the night. I could not help but reminisce about the phenomenon known as the Grateful Dead. They have been an essential piece of American music cultural history that weaves the fabric of storytelling, music and rhythms. The impact of the Grateful Dead will long be etched in the history of rock and roll. I will be forever grateful for being a part of it with them.
Since 1994, Rishi Deva, founder and CEO of RishiVision and entrepreneurial coach, has empowered thousands of businesses. Rishi has an MBA in marketing and entrepreneurial studies and a BBA in accounting. He has spent nearly twenty years coaching, consulting, managing and supporting thousands of businesses from new startups to active global leaders.