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Grateful Dead gets a psychedelic send-off

2015-07-06 21:00

Chicago - As rock legends the Grateful Dead retire from the stage, their thousands of tie-dyed fans are gathered one last time in an enduring sign of how the band pioneered alternative culture.

In one of America's most sought-after tickets in years, the Grateful Dead are put on three shows in Chicago, in what the aging artists say will likely be their finale.

The Independence Day weekend concerts also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead, whose phenomenal connection with "Deadhead fans" comes even though the band only once entered the mainstream Top 10 chart - in 1987, late in their career, with the song Touch of Grey.

Instead, the Grateful Dead both helped define the counter-cultural spirit that blossomed in the 1960s and became a harbinger of later alternative scenes by creating a community that bonded precisely because the band was out of the mainstream.

Deadheads, many sporting tie-dye shirts and dabbling in the drugs of the era, would travel from show-to-show as much for the music as for the communal experience.

"It was almost like you were going to church. You went and you felt energised, you got cleansed," said Greg Griffith, who traveled to Chicago from Virginia and said he has gone to more than 100 Dead shows starting in 1973.

"You would always just wait for the next opportunity to see them," he said.

High-profile fans 

Formed in the cultural ferment of the San Francisco area in the 1960s, the Grateful Dead were generally described as psychedelic rock but brought in elements of blues, country, bluegrass and jazz.

The Dead adopted jazz's defining trait of improvisation, which convinced traveling Deadheads that each show would be different and not a repeat of the night before.

The Grateful Dead also pursued marketing strategies that were groundbreaking at the time but inspired many copycats.

The band set up its own label and ticket office and personally recorded messages on a telephone hotline for fans.

The legacy endures, even as the band also sold tickets online for the final shows. Fans drew colourful Dead-themed artwork on envelopes seeking tickets - hundreds of which were put on display at the Field Museum across from the Soldier Field football stadium where the band is playing.

Many Deadheads went on to prominence including late Apple founder Steve Jobs and former vice president Al Gore.

Deadhead Patrick Leahy, the senior-most US senator, told AFP after the concerts were announced that the Dead had a "unique sound" and revolutionised interaction with fans.

"It's not surprising that very successful people find the music compelling and engaging, because it's complex," said Rebecca Adams, a professor who has studied Deadhead culture.

"You have to have certain sensibilities to get the music and, whatever your economic background is, you have to be pretty smart," said Adams, director of the gerontology program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Adams said that Deadheads had some antecedents, such as the New Age movement, but that the band managed to nurture an enduring community.

"They made some decisions that created a structure that brought people into touch with each other... and led a lot of people to form identities around them," she said.

Massive demand

Nearly 500,000 people sought tickets online for the Chicago shows when they went on sale in February, setting a record for vendor Ticketmaster, in addition to thousands who sent old-fashioned money orders by mail.

As resellers tried to fetch more than $1 000 per ticket, the Grateful Dead added two additional shows that took place last weekend near San Francisco.

By one measure, the Grateful Dead are 2015's top attraction, drawing 65% higher sales per show than concerts by pop superstar Taylor Swift, according to ticket resale site StubHub.

"This is by far one of the highest demanded concert tours we've seen," StubHub spokesman Cameron Papp said.

Soldier Field was the site of the band's last show in 1995 with Jerry Garcia, the guitarist often seen as the frontman of the synergistic ensemble.

The surviving members performed the closing shows with Trey Anastasio of Phish, the band often seen as the Grateful Dead's heirs, and singer and keyboardist Bruce Hornsby.

(Photos:Getty Images)

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