What song did the Grateful Dead play most live?

Across their 30 years together, the Grateful Dead played well over 2,000 concerts. In that time, their setlists evolved radically with each passing year. Early concerts would feature R&B covers, while just a year later, the band had a host of psychedelic originals ready to blow minds in and around San Francisco. 

With each new incarnation and tour came a new batch of songs that reflected the band’s past. Covers were always an essential part of the Grateful Dead experience, from Bob Weir’s fascination with “cowboy songs” to Jerry Garcia’s infatuation with the music of Bob Dylan. Everything from New Orleans calypso to proto-punk garage rock was played at one point or another by the Dead, and each new song would be filtered through their unique lens.

That being said, some songs were perennial favourites. During the late 1960s, songs like ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’ were played nearly every night, owing as much to the band’s enjoyment of them as they did to their restricted setlists at the time. With the explosion of the songwriting collaboration between Garcia and Robert Hunter, the early 1970s saw an onslaught of new songs that helped define the band’s identity. 

Comparatively, co-vocalist Weir had a smaller songbook, especially when his own writing partnership with Hunter fell through. Eventually, Weir found a permanent collaborator through his boarding school buddy, John Perry Barlow. But Weir was expected to carry roughly equal vocal weight, something that caused him to repeat songs more frequently than Garcia.

In fact, according to most sources, Weir’s go-to songs represented the most-played songs in the band’s entire catalogue. Formalising the exact details of the Dead’s live history is virtually impossible: despite being the best-catalogued band in the history of popular music, there are still missing tapes, incorrect setlists, and general blank spots littered throughout the band’s live archives. We’ll never know exactly how many times ‘Dark Star’ was played, for instance, but we can get pretty close.

In actuality, the most played songs of the Dead’s career aren’t actually songs. Rather, they’re specific segments in the band’s live sets that are usually labelled the same way. The band’s drummers, Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, often got solo drum segments in early shows during songs like ‘Good Lovin’’ and ‘Alligator’. That led to the eventual adoption of writing ‘Drums’ segments into setlists.

Around the end of the 1970s, a formalised structure took hold of the Dead’s shows. About halfway through the second set, the drummers would take over for an extended, highly improvised segment. Once they were done, the rest of the members would then improvise without percussion. You’ll never hear two versions of either ‘Drums’ or ‘Space’ that sound remotely the same, but because all performances were given these specific titles, it’s estimated that ‘Drums’ is the most-frequently performed “song” in the Dead’s history, with nearly 1,500 traceable performances.

When it comes to actual songs, most Dead-ologists agree that Weir is responsible for four of the five most-played songs in the band’s live career. The debate as to which one reigns supreme is uncertain: the Dead-specific online database puts Weir’s cover of ‘Me and My Uncle’ as the most-played song with 616 performances. However, contends that Weir’s original jam vehicle ‘Playing in the Band’ was the most-played song, with their math totalling its number of performances at 676 ( also has ‘Me and My Uncle’ being played 629 times).

Whichever source you prefer to cite, Weir is the clear winner for band members with the most frequently replayed songs. Some of his other signature tracks, including ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and ‘The Other One’, also hover around the top of most estimations. The only song that Garcia sings lead on that could contend for a spot at the top is ‘China Cat Sunflower’, which was played at least 550 times over the course of 27 years.

Check out ‘Me and My Uncle’ down below.

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