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Grateful Dead fans prove to be loyal and generous (+video)

Jam bands like the Grateful Dead are often characterized by their fans’ subculture and tribute bands and widely circulated fan-recorded live bootlegs have cultivated a new generation of devotees.

When three cofounders and one longtime member of the Grateful Dead stroll onto stages in California and Illinois this summer, they’ll be greeted by a multigenerational community they helped form. In other words, their fans.

Purveyors of diverse styles encompassing vocal and instrumental music that incorporates extended improvisations, jam bands are often characterized by their fans’ subculture. The Grateful Dead’s Deadheads are the model for this communal devotion and interactivity. Tribute bands and widely circulated fan-recorded live bootlegs have cultivated a new generation of devotees.

Dennis McNally, the band’s former publicist, is particularly impressed with the charitable instincts of Deadheads. Members of the band established the Rex Foundation in 1983 to support a broad range of causes, and its fundraising activities are still thriving. Run by musicians, Grateful Dead associates, and fans, the foundation has awarded $8.9 million in grants and has helped to foster continuity in the jam band community.

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“Many [jam] bands [including Dark Star Orchestra and Greensky Bluegrass] that have respect for the Dead have acknowledged their roots by committing themselves to Rex” and its efforts, says Mr. McNally. “Jerry was deeply involved with it, and it meant a lot to him,” he says of founding member Jerry Garcia, who died 20 years ago.

The seminal jam band’s surviving members will play a pair of reunion dates in late June at the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., (12 miles from Palo Alto, where the group got its start) followed by three farewell concerts over Independence Day weekend at Chicago’s Soldier Field, where the Dead played its final show on July 9, 1995. 

Demand was so high for these five extravaganzas that pay-per-view and theatrical broadcasts (for Chicago) and commercially available streams (for Santa Clara) have been set up. In a perhaps de facto nod to musical lineage, they will be joined by Phish guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio. Considered heir to the Dead, Phish will tour July through September.

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