Deadman’s Renaissance

by Domenick Trentalange

Photo Credit: Herb Greene, University of California Santa Cruz
Photo Credit: Herb Greene, University of California Santa Cruz

My brother loves music. He worships Phish. But before he found a taste for hour-long improvisations helmed by Trey Anastasio, he rocked to the Grateful Dead. Yes, my brother is a Head.

I owe a lot of my own musical discovery to Silvio’s sonic journey. I wouldn’t consider myself as well versed in the jam community as he, but exposure to this realm has had great influence on my musical appreciation. I specifically have the catalogue of the Grateful Dead to thank for teaching me to view musical composition and form in a different light. It’s just hard to get bored with their music. Whether a simple melody or the intricate slide of Jerry Garcia’s seemingly botched notes, the tune inevitably ends in a melodic fusion that negates any doubts of their harmonic prowess.

Guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir once said that the music of the Grateful Dead is about immersion. Taking a chronological trip through the band’s 30+ years, starting with their humble beginnings as The Warlocks, across the mind expanding Acid Tests of the 1960’s, and into present day incarnations after the loss of Jerry Garcia, it becomes increasingly clear how influential this big bite approach has been toward the American popular music landscape. So it should come as no surprise that even now, in a world dominated by overproduction and overly sexed focus group-manufactured hits, the Grateful Dead is experiencing a rebirth of popularity.

Photo Credit: Robert Altman/Invision/Asociated Presss
Photo Credit: Robert Altman/Invision/Associated Presss

The influence and reach of the Dead can be found everywhere. From punk apostle Henry Rollins, to rock icon Eddie Veder, Ska Punk from Sublime, Sax legend Ornette Coleman, iconoclast Bob Dylan; the list goes on. John Mayer, now touring with the remaining members of the Dead as the collective Dead & Co., once said that he could trace the degrees of separation from the Dead to even hip-hop culture. Tunes aside, perhaps the Dead’s greatest achievement will be a seemingly ever lasting legacy, which will again impact our current musical landscape with the release of The National’s ambitious Grateful Dead tribute album, Day of the Dead, featuring over 20+ artists due out May 20th on 4AD records.

The Grateful Dead remains for me a whirlwind of musical discovery. Pre-empting a logical progression to guitar god Jimi Hendrix, blues icons Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King, and Buddy Guy, Prince and R&B Neo-Soul pioneer D’angelo. Eventually I began to see the correlation. This coming from someone who used to beg their dad to put on the latest from Lil’ Bow Wow and Fabolous in the car to get pumped for his grade school basketball games. That was, until I handed him a copy of the Dead’s seminal 1970’s album, American Beauty. He nearly had a heart attack.

The Grateful Dead - American Beauty

In a recent edit on men’s tailoring brand Sciamat, Wei Koh, founder of The Rake, quotes Valentino Ricci saying “It was never our intention to create a new fashion but to make clothes as a natural reflection or our creativity. Every man needs to follow his own star, in love and in clothing.” By replacing “clothes” and “clothing” with “music” in this sentiment, I believe we achieve a perfect summation of the legacy of the Grateful Dead. With projects like Day of the Dead and Dead and Co., the music and legacy of the Grateful Dead is set to reach a younger audience. It seems not a day goes by that I don’t see another twenty-something proudly donning tie-dyed dancing bears, skulls and roses across their chest.

Regardless of your allegiance, a denial of the effects of the Grateful Dead’s music on popular American culture would seem absurd. As someone who owes so much to this rich tapestry of musical exploration, I welcome the chance for a new generation of listeners to decide for themselves whether or not the Dead is for them. I know from experience that if they opt out, it will lead to a long, strange, but beautiful trip of not only musical, but self-discovery.