Pigpen died thirty years ago. Oh, my... Now I feel old. I saw the Dead for the first time the week after Ron died.
I always liked the San Francisco groups of that era. Still do. Dead, Airplane, Quicksilver, Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship, Santana ... each good in their own way. All different.
From a technology standpoint, the Dead was on the cutting edge. The first time I saw them, they were touring with the "wall of sound". When the lights came up, my first thought was that the wall was an elaborate stage set. (I knew *nothing* about the Dead's live shows at the time.) Once I realized that those were all speakers (I counted over 500 cones at a later show), my second thought was something along the lines of "Oh my gawd, my ears are gonna bleed before this is over." (Thinking back to my first rock show - Led Zeppelin - and how my ears rang for hours afterwards.) And then they started to play. And I was amazed - it was like sitting in my living room listening to a live band through a great stereo. And this was in an indoor arena known for its awful sound at rock shows. Thirty years later, "line arrays" (what the Dead's wall of sound used for each instrument) are the hot topic among pro sound guys. Old Owsley was a man of many talents...
They did some interesting experimental music, as well. Lesh collaborated with Ned Lagin, who programmed some computers to generate sounds that took advantage of that wall of sound. Anyone remember Sea Stones? It's another one of those projects that you either love or hate. But the recording was only half of the experience. Live, they played that wall of speakers like an instrument. Ever hear of a phased array? Well, they could localize sound and make it move around the venue. No joke. Imagine ten thousand Deadheads all tracking the same imaginary point in space as it moves around a stadium. Weird. That's another audio technology that was way ahead of its time - now appearing (in simplified form) in DAW plug-ins.
The Dead had their moments... But they were known more for quantity (five hour concerts were the norm) than quality. But if you realize that they were making up a lot of that five hours as they played... Tastes may differ, but I have a lot of respect for what they did.
I stopped going to Dead concerts after a few years and maybe a dozen shows, so I can't speak to what they did in their later years. I did see a PBS broadcast from the last days of the Fillmore, and I frankly thought it was embarassing. But I occasionally listen to and enjoy some of their older recordings.
I don't know if this old guy's ramblings will help you "get" the Grateful Dead... I just wanted you know that there's more to GD fans than twirlers and stoned trustafarians.
Wearing my tie-dye proudly,