I’m not much of a Grateful Dead fan, so it’s hard for me to work up a case for the Grateful Dead being the American band of the 20th century, despite the fact that the case that is there to be made. Let me sketch it, so that others might come along and flesh it out.
The Grateful Dead produced a massive body of work during their heyday, from the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. But their live performances were always much more important then their recorded work; this is the band that re-invented what a concert tour was, and how fans would relate to it. They criss-crossed the nation (and the world), performing hundreds of shows every year, such that anyone with even a passing interest got to see them preform live. And attendance to a Dead concert was not like anything else — it was to be sucked into a world of people seemingly living a lifestyle outside the mainstream. A virtual city of fans followed the band from city to city. To attend a concert was to become immersed in the Grateful Dead; it was never a casual experience.
But the real relevance of their music comes not from the fans deep commitment, but from the music itself. It had a depth that is seldom matched, and a breadth that probably never can be. Consider: the Grateful Dead were a touchstone of the counter-revolution, the massive upheaval of culturally and politically aware music that swept over the country in the late 1960s. They regularly explored the extreme strains of psychedelia, playing LSD-inspired music inspired by the most avant-garde of late-20th century atonal composers. Yet they just as easily embodied the most populist music. And they reached not just forward, but back in time. The Dead may be associated with trippy jams, but they were always equally at home playing protest folk, country, rock, bluegrass, rockabilly, and blues. That, my friends, is just about the full spectrum of 20th century music.
But it’s not just that they played is all — it’s that they made it all sound as though it were coming from the same cloth. Anyone (maybe) can play a punk song followed by a bluegrass song. But to make them sound like they’re the same thing is something else — it’s a gift that the Grateful Dead has not been sufficiently recognized for.
They are a band that is intensely loved by it’s still considerable fan base, but not sufficiently appreciated by the public at large. Perhaps it’s because of the synthesis they brought to all their music — their rock always had a foot in country, and their MOR always had that touch of psychedelia — that made it difficult for them to get consistent radio airplay. But as popular as they remain, it’s not incorrect to call the Dead underrated, because they deserve to be cherished by all Americans as a band that helped tie together our culture, and to make us appreciate that all things exist on a continuum, dude.