Robert K. Toutkoushian
During the band’s thirty years on the American music scene, the Grateful Dead became well-known for its ability to improvise during live performances. While many of the band’s contemporaries relied on carefully scripted set lists for concerts, and rarely changed the way in which they played individual songs in concert, a Grateful Dead show was viewed by fans as being anything but scripted. The band made a practice of not only changing the songs played during performances, but also varying the order and manner in which selected songs were played. The variety inherent in all Grateful Dead performances most certainly contributed in part to the devoted following among its fans and their seemingly insatiable taste for attending and recording live performances.
To many fans, these improvisations seemed to occur with little rhyme or reason. Other fans quickly observed that in a strict sense, some of the decisions made by the band were not random, in that patterns emerged from performances. While the Grateful Dead changed set lists from show to show, they made a practice of frequently playing particular songs in combinations. Fans soon learned, for example, that if the band began to play the song ‘‘China Cat Sunflower,’’ the probability that it would be followed by ‘‘I Know You Rider’’ greatly exceeded what would be expected if all songs were chosen at random. Other examples where the notion of randomness was violated include the fact that certain songs were more likely to be played by the band in the first set than in the second set, and that a song sung by Jerry Garcia was more likely to be followed by a song sung by Bob Weir.
Fans have gone to great extremes in an effort to understand and uncover