Say what you want to about the Grateful Dead, but they are a fixture of American culture. The band transcended 30 years and played over 2,300 shows. They played all over the world, but their primary tour base was the good old United States. The band has been studied from many angles in the years since they ceased playing together with the death of Jerry Garcia. The Dead were true innovators as they were among the first to use social media with their own newsletter, they had their own ticketing system, they had dozens of full time employees who they paid year round (not just during tour season), and they revolutionized audience interaction by allowing taping of their shows. They didn’t rely on their studio albums to earn their money or their exposure, as word of mouth through tape distribution within the community and their constant touring schedule kept people engaged. They earned their first and only charting single in 1987 with Touch of Grey. This led to an explosion of interest and growth of those who considered themselves Deadheads.
In 2004, Daniel Culli, a master’s student at Louisiana State University wrote his thesis on geographic perspectives of the Grateful Dead. He looked at many aspects of the Dead in his research – San Francisco, acid rock and lyrics to name just a few – but of most interest was his analysis of tour geography. He looked at three possible processes of spatial diffusion as related to Dead touring: contagious diffusion, where phenomena spread across space like a ripple in water; hierarchical diffusion, which occurs when phenomena originate in larger or more central places and then spread to smaller places; and relocation diffusion, where phenomena spread to different places with no apparent reason.
Using GIS software, Daniel plotted maps of tour routes and concentration centers in the United States. He broke their touring history up into four periods: 1965-1969; 1970-1972; 1973-1987; and 1988-1995. The purpose of these periods was to highlight important defining aspects of their identity and/or their stage presence. The first period found the band primarily playing in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with a significant spatial gap in cities played between the two major hubs. Throughout this period they played in other major markets on the East Coast, but only at a handful in the center of the country (i.e., Denver, Detroit and Toronto).
The second period found the band leaving the continent for the first time, traveling around Europe for a month and a half and playing in countries such as England, Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands. However, the Dead still played the bulk of their shows in either San Francisco or New York during this period. This era found their travels taking them to more college campuses as well, further demonstrating the importance of student fans.
The third period showcases the fact that the Dead had established themselves as a major band, and as such their tour schedules became more coherent. Up until this time, their touring had been very chaotic, often times flying from one coast to another in a few days span. In the third period, their schedule started to focus on specific seasons of touring with the birth of the Spring, Summer and Fall Tours. Another significant highlight of this time period was their first gig at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado. This became a beloved venue of both the band and its fans in future years.
The final period is marked by their #9 Billboard hit, Touch of Grey. The venues started to become larger in this period, and fan favorites like the aforementioned Red Rocks had to be abandoned because its size would not accommodate the demand. Venues like RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., Soldier Field in Chicago and the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas became popular stops. An interesting fact here is how the tour patterns maintained similar starting and ending locations over the Dead’s last years. There were often warm-up shows close to home in San Francisco; spring and fall tours tended to be in the East; and summer dates were most often in the Midwest. The South and Upper Plains were mostly neglected throughout their 30 year career.
The Dead played at least once in every state except for Delaware, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. California was the state where they played the most with New York a close second. The Dead left an indelible mark on American culture, and to do this they touched almost every corner of our country. What started as a band that paid to play at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests grew into one of the most loved bands of all time. Even sixteen years after the death of their leader, people still get on when the ‘bus’ comes by.