I first heard of the Grateful Dead from my uncle sometime in my early tweens. I would listen, fascinated and confused, as he talked about mysterious “shakedowns,” an infamous “Jerry,” whom he talked about like an old friend, and the summers he spent traveling to see the band in concert. Every time we visited him, I would end up in the kitchen with my mom, listening as he put on a Dead bootleg (he almost never listened to their studio albums) and talk about the genius of a particular guitar solo while he cooked us dinner. His tones of reverence gave his stories about the Dead a sense of fiction, as if he was explaining to me a mythical world. I was enchanted and mystified.
Now, nearly ten years later, I am rediscovering the Dead, along with many of my peers. Contrary to my previous belief, Deadhead culture is still very much alive. While the Grateful Dead have always maintained their steady, yet aging, fanbase, their popularity seems to be being revived by a new generation: Gen Z.
Established in 1965, the band grew quickly into a cultural phenomenon made up of improvisational live music, psychedelics, community, and counterculture. Their concerts evolved into near-religious experiences, and Deadhead culture became a way of life that has survived for decades. The band’s most recent iteration, Dead & Company, is currently embarking upon their final tour, which will wrap up in July of this year.
So, what about this music, subculture, and lifestyle appeals to Gen Z? Perhaps it’s the romanticism of the ’70s or the appeal of jam culture. Or, perhaps, it’s the counterculture sense of rebellion that The Dead foster. Or maybe it’s something simpler, like a longing for nostalgia and community.
Aidan Lineaweaver, 22, from Tacoma, Washington, was first introduced to the band in his childhood through a collection of his mother’s old records, and then again in 2013 through the TV show, Freaks and Geeks. The main character, he says, is seeking community and finds it in the Grateful Dead, which is what drew him to return to the band.
What really drove his listening, however, was the band’s live recordings. “I was more or less a casual listener until I started getting into the live stuff, and that’s what really opened the door,” he says. “Their live catalogue is pretty expansive.” Since finding a community on Reddit that opened his eyes to these archives of recordings, his affinity for the band grew. Lineaweaver has since seen Dead & Company live six times, sometimes traveling across the country just to see them perform.
Being attracted to this sense of community that the Dead creates appears to be a common theme among listeners. It is what keeps bringing old Deadheads back, and for Gen Z’ers like me, it’s one of the things drawing us in.
A near-lifelong Deadhead, Peter Shulman, 59, from Portland, Oregon, lived the true Deadhead experience when he followed the band around the country on tour for the whole summer of 1987. The experience, for him, was driven by the sense of community and shared enjoyment among fans of the music and culture of the Dead. “Some of my closest friends came out of people I met dancing,” he says. He even met his wife at one of the band’s shows.
For Shulman, the band has a way of bringing people together through music in a unique way. “The crowd and the band create an energy together,” he says. In his experience, many of the friends he made at Dead shows continue to travel and attend shows because it’s a way to stay connected and a part of the community.
However, as Lineaweaver points out, the cost of traveling to and attending concerts can be a barrier for many younger Deadheads. With Dead & Company tickets going for several hundred dollars, it makes sense why many Gen Z fans prefer to listen to live recordings and albums. Some, however, have found other ways to enjoy the music.
Grace Twomey, 22, from Holbrook, New York, watches tribute bands as an affordable way to experience live music from some of her favorite artists. Twomey, who was first introduced to the Dead’s music through a friend in late high school, says that tribute shows offer her a similar experience to the real thing. “It’s like whatever you hear about [The Grateful Dead] concerts, but like the generic version of that. People are wearing tie-dye, people are dancing,” she says, laughing. “But I still have a good time.”
Despite the band’s more recent rise in popularity among a younger crowd, live shows seem to still be primarily populated by older generations. Both Twomey and Lineaweaver note that they are often some of the youngest fans at concerts, with most guests somewhere in their forties to sixties. But does this mean that Deadhead culture is really dying?
Well, I don’t think so. What has kept the culture alive since the band’s initial rise in popularity is what is still bringing listeners back today. It’s the complexity and ease of their music, combined with the sense of community, nostalgia, and shared love of music.
“It’s still evolving,” says Lineaweaver. “I think that [Bob Weird] said something like ‘a song is a living thing and that it changes over time.’ And so that falls in line with their philosophy of constantly improvising and constantly being open to reworking material.” This fluid element of their music is what keeps him coming back, and is what keeps many other listeners continually engaged despite the band’s almost sixty-year run.
Even though Dead & Company will soon wrap up their final tour, sending the remaining original band members into retirement, it seems that Deadhead culture isn’t going to end any time soon. Through their almost-endless catalogue of live recordings, five-dollar tribute band acts, and the stories from older Deadheads of times past, their music and legacy will live on as Gen Z makes it their own.