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Podcast: Three Reasons the Grateful Dead were Great

Millions of words have been written about The Grateful Dead. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a band that is more of a lightning rod in a way that is to a great degree distinct from the music they played. That’s really something for a band that never had a big hit – nor seemed to particularly want one.

There are several reasons for this. Longevity is one reason. The GD – or “the boys,” as many fans call them – were around for a long time with relatively little shifting in personnel. The key players all remained until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. The exception is Pigpen (Ron McKernan) who died in 1973.

The band and the jam bands that followed distinguish themselves by embracing improvisation. Grateful Dead fans reacted to that by interacting with the band on a show by show basis as the improvisations on familiar tunes changed. Folks at a Rolling Stones or Elton John concert know exactly what to expect. They enjoy the predictability. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The Stones’ or John’s mood likely comes across in subtle ways, but the music is characterized by its perfection, which some see as a sign of imperfection.

At a more esoteric level, it shows that those acts are selling a commodity – a perfect rendition of what is on an album – as opposed to creative art. Grateful Dead and jazz concerts were and are designed to be creative. They come with the understanding that on some nights the results will not be that great. This approach led to a difficult to describe ethos: The fans were faith-based. Neither band nor fans knew what would happen at a given show. This created a culture that was – and remains — freewheeling, relaxed and accepting.

Saying that you are a Deadhead or a fan of the Grateful Dead said something about you. It also, by implication, said something about your lifestyle and politics. Think about it for a moment: Can you in any way characterize Rolling Stones fans? Who fans? Pink Floyd fans? I can’t. I have my opinion of the bands themselves, but can’t think of any particular quality or ethos of their fan bases.

In this video, I take a look at three things: The love that a collaborator – jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis – has for the Deadheads, the long-term impact of the band’s policy of allowing fans to record concerts and Robert Hunter, whose lyrics gave The Grateful Dead a dimension that always will make them the greatest jam band.

One correction and an apology: It’s (painfully) obvious that I don’t script these videos. Towards the end, I mention David Dodd’s tremendous book “The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.” The apology is that I got his last name wrong. It’s available at Amazon and elsewhere. And here is a link to the interview with Branford Marsalis that I cite.

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The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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