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Woodstock Performers: Grateful Dead

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

A 1970 trade ad for The Dead's LP "American Beauty."

A 1970 trade ad for The Dead's LP "American Beauty."

The Grateful Dead were already a legendary jam band by the time Woodstock rolled around. Featuring a mix of blues, folk, country, jazz and rock, the band's shows were known for their long, improvisational treatment of songs. Woodstock should have been a great show for them...but things just didn't work out that way.

This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Leslie West and Mountain had just left the crowd in a lather, and up after the Grateful Dead would come Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Jerry Garcia

Like the band Mountain, it is impossible to talk about the Dead without talking about Garcia. Born Jerome John Garcia on August 1, 1942, Garcia was a talented musician known for his technical and songwriting ability. His father had retired from a career as a professional musician and his mother loved piano, and young Garcia took up the piano at an early age. His maternal Grandmother's love of country and bluegrass influenced his early love of roots music, and when he was 15, his mother bought him his very first guitar.

Garcia was an unhappy kid who was mostly disinterested in school, though he loved to draw and paint. Music was always there, just not a focus for him, until a fateful car accident in which a friend died. That event proved to be an awakening for him and he realized that making music was his calling.

In April 1961, Garcia first met Robert Hunter, who would later collaborate with Garcia on many of the Dead's songs. They both became immersed in the San Francisco Bay area music scene, playing in local bands for dances, parties and even in book stores. In 1962, Garcia ran into Phil Lesh at a house party, and the two connected immediately. Lesh suggested that they record Garcia for a radio program on the publicly-funded Berkeley station KPFA, and a star was born. The recording became the core of a radio special featuring Garcia performing old ballads, folk and roots music. About this time, Lesh introduced Garcia to Bob Weir, a friend from high school.

From 1962 through 1964, Garcia taught guitar and banjo to pay the bills, and also sang and performed bluegrass, roots, and folk music, sometimes as a solo act and other times as part of a band. One of these early efforts was Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, featuring Garcia, Weir and a powerhouse blues vocalist by the name of Ron McKernan, who Garcia later nicknamed "Pigpen." By 1965, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions had become the Warlocks, and Phil Lesh (bass) and Bill Kreutzmann (percussion) had joined the lineup. They soon discovered that the band that would become the Velvet Underground was already calling themselves the Warlocks, so the hunt was on for a new name. Garcia opened the good old Funk & Wagnalls, and spotted an entry for "Grateful dead." And though none of them liked the name, it stuck.

The Grateful Dead was born.

The Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead's first ever gig as the Grateful Dead was in San Jose on December 4, 1965. Their popularity was growing by leaps and bounds and they honed their signature improvisational, psychedelic/roots music while they were the house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, where their jams often went all night. They first played Bill Graham’s Fillmore in San Francisco on January 8, 1966 and were soon booked solid into venues in the Bay area, appearing with bands like Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother & The Holding Company. It was at the Big Beat Acid Test that they hooked up with a proper manager, Rock Scully, and a character by the name of Owsley Stanley, who became their financial backer, landlord, chemist and soundman.

The band released their first album, the self-titled "Grateful Dead," in March of 1967, kicking off a busy year that saw them touring relentlessly. They also added a second drummer, Mickey Hart, and keyboardist Tom Constanten to the lineup. The second Dead album was released in 1968. "Anthem Of The Sun" took their psychedelic experimental flair to even greater heights, and by 1969 the Grateful Dead were big names on the circuit, attracting a fanatical following that eventually became known as “Deadheads.”

They were a natural fit for the Woodstock festival.

"Come on baby, baby please come on baby, cause I'm on my knees

Turn on your light let it shine on me shine on your love light

Let it shine on me let shine, let it shine, let it shine"

The Grateful Dead at Woodstock

The Grateful Dead's Woodstock

The Grateful Dead were late taking the stage because soundman Owsley Stanley was fiddling with the PA system. His tinkering had also removed the electrical ground, making the equipment unsafe and exposing the band to electric shocks whenever they touched instruments or mics. The guys were all high on LSD, their drug of choice, and seemed to be quite lost.

At about 10:30 p.m., their good buddy Ken Babbs introduced them, and they started their set with “Saint Stephen,” from their new album, Aoxomoxoa. Weir made the sad mistake of touching his ungrounded guitar and ungrounded mic at the same time, resulting in a major electrical shock. This stopped the band and caused a power outage that needed to be fixed before they could continue. The guys filming the band were also without power, so none of the chaos was captured on film. They finally gave up on the song, and launched into “Mama Tried.” Songs had long breaks between them and way too much acid-fueled banter for even the most devoted fan to contend with. The final number was "Turn On Your Lovelight," which ran for about 38-minutes. It was midnight when they finally wrapped up their set.

Deadheads at Red Rocks Amphitheater in 1987.

Deadheads at Red Rocks Amphitheater in 1987.

Life After Woodstock

The long and often improvised sets performed by the Grateful Dead meant their concerts were unlike anything else out there. So, despite the self-inflicted poor effort at Woodstock, the band remained one of the hot bands of the time. They continued to release studio albums, but were best known for their live shows. Songs were never played the same twice, and hearing a Grateful Dead LP was nothing like seeing them live. Their loyal "Deadheads" literally followed them on the road as they traveled from place to place. It was a badge of honor to have seen dozens—or even hundreds—of live shows.

On November 1, 1970, the band released their fifth studio album. American Beauty, a country/folk gem, entered the Billboard album chart as soon as it was released, and peaked at #30. The album contains one of the Dead's most recognizable songs, "Truckin'," as well as "Sugar Magnolia" and "Friend of the Devil." The single version of "Truckin'" that was released for radio play is a completely different version than the one on the album, with extra lead guitar, no organ and fewer verses. My advice would be to grab the Expanded and Remastered version of American Beauty. It has three versions of "Truckin'," including a live version. In 1997, "Truckin'" was even recognized by the United States Library of Congress as being a national treasure.

The band continued their grueling tour schedule into the '70s. Mickey Hart, one of the "rhythm devils," as he and Kreutzmann were known, took some time away from the band from 1971 until 1974. Pigpen's drug of choice wasn't psychedelic, just liberal amounts of alcohol, and by 1971 he had developed severe liver damage. After a short break from touring, he rejoined the band in December 1971, but had to give it up for good in June 1972. He died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on March 8, 1973.

Through the '80s and into the '90s, the band would tour, then take time off to record an album, then embark on "the endless tour" again. Garcia's health began to decline in the early '80s, and in 1986 he went into a diabetic coma. He did recover, but folks who knew him said he never regained the vigor he once had. Ongoing problems related to diabetes and his on-again-off-again use of heroin impacted his ability to continue as he had in the past. After yet another confrontation with the band over his heroin use, Garcia checked himself into the Betty Ford clinic for two weeks in July 1995 and then into the Serenity Knolls Treatment Center. He died of a heart attack while at that Center on August 9, 1995.

The band finally decided to call it quits. Garcia had always resisted the label "leader." But he was, and they couldn't go on as the Grateful Dead without him. Original members including Weir, Kreutzmann, Lesh and Hart have all appeared in spinoff groups—The Other Ones, The Dead, and Furthur—over the years.

With 22 albums to their name, the Grateful Dead have a pretty impressive catalog of music, and in February 2007, the band received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

A long, strange trip for sure.

The Grateful Dead Performing "Truckin'"

Five Musical Facts

  1. Due to the poor stage lighting, a power outage, and a set that even the band judged to be sub-par, they do not appear in the 1970 Woodstock movie or on the soundtrack LP.
  2. The Grateful Dead regularly bootlegged themselves, so there is actually a clean soundboard bootleg of their entire Woodstock set out there. They even encouraged fans to record their shows, meaning that there are boots readily available from many of their earliest shows.
  3. When Pigpen died in 1973, he became another member in the "27 Club."
  4. “Truckin’,” an autobiographical song about life on the road, was first performed at the Fillmore West on August 18, 1970. The lyrics "Busted down on Bourbon Street, Set up like a bowling pin..." refer to an actual bust in New Orleans on January 31, 1970. Most of the band and members of their entourage were arrested for possession of various illicit drugs. They managed to make bail, and their concert the following night went ahead as planned. If you love the Dead, you can find lots of great stories in a book written by drummer Kreutzmann. There are many, many books on the Dead, but Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead is a very raw and honestly-written insider's tale. A great read.
  5. The band's only top-10 single, "Touch of Grey," appeared on their album "In the Dark," which was released on July 6, 1987. It was the band's first studio album in seven years and went double platinum. The song "Touch of Grey" also marked the first time the band ever released a music video.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson


Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 10, 2019:

Hi Flourish,

Glad you enjoyed this. Yes, they sure did have a large and rabid fan base, that's for sure!

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 10, 2019:

Although not much of a fan myself I do have to give them credit for cultivating such a loyal fan base. I enjoyed your article.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 10, 2019:

Hi Pamela,

Other bands have devotees who follow them around, but the Deadheads were something special. Their devotion to the band was amazing. The guys in the band were all super-talented musicians.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 10, 2019:

This is an interesting account of this group, which I didn't know. I was never a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, but I remember how popular they were.