For me, the point of going to their shows was never the acid/LSD and, to be honest, not even really their music (due to a lack of hallucinogenics maybe?), it was the colorful people, eccentric crowd and unpredictable circus/fair-like environment they attracted. There's really just nothing and no act or show that compares, none.
I never saw the Dead with Jerry, but I did take LSD at my first Dead-related show in 1998 in St. Louis (when I was 26), and I didn't take any at the last Dead-related show I saw in 2015 in Chicago (when I was 43), and I can say that I had an amazing experience at both shows (and I was 27 the last time I took any at all). It really is about the music for me. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had been a "straight edge" punk before I discovered the Dead in 1992 and still retain elements of that lifestyle (I'm a vegetarian and don't drink alcohol, for example).
There is/was a group of Dead Heads called Wharf Rats, named for the song Wharf Rat about an alcoholic who wants to get back on his feet ("the good Lord willing, if He says I may").
Wharf Rats are a group of concert-goers who have chosen to live drug and alcohol free ... Their primary purpose is to support other concert goers who choose to live drug-free, like themselves. They announce their presence with yellow balloons, signs, and the Wharf Rats information table ... Like Deadheads, members of Wharf Rats come from all walks of life.
Not that I am one; whatever floats your boat is my view.
And I found this discussion that attempts to explain what it is about the Dead that inspires so much devotion.
http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/sho ... p?t=563189
What was it about them that made the hippies/potheads/insert label such devoted fans that they (many/some) saw hundreds of their shows per year? There are other bands that inspire loyalty, with fans who travel hours and hundreds of miles to see multiple concerts, but few in such an almost mythic dose (Phish seems to come closest since the Dead). What separated them from the pack along this particular point?
Their songs (so far as I know) didn't explicity pander to the drug set (in terms of lyrics, at least not any more than other bands -- they weren't the folk-rock version of Cheech and Chong, in other words), and although they were a jam style band, they weren't the only ones. A lot of jazz consists of jamming (as well as rock during the 60s and 70s), and while it can be argued the jazz musicians were notorious drug users, you never hear about Birdheads (in reference to Charlie Parker-I know he died in the mid-50s, but he's just an example).
So was it mainly a relaxed, intimate style, a festival with 5 or 30,000 of our closest friends, a jam session sort of atmosphere at their concerts? A kind of, "hey man, chill out, smoke a doobie, and get into the music and let it flow" sort of thing? I know they allowed (encouraged?) fans to record their concerts, but was there a particular reason they inspired an almost fanatical devotion (no "almost" about it, but otherwise, the reference wouldn't work)?
I've been to maybe a dozen or so Dead shows. I'm not sure if you'd call me a Deadhead; I didn't follow them around the country but I always tried to go see them when they were in the area. Your description isn't that far off from many people's experiences....except that there are in fact many people there NOT taking any drugs or even drinking. I loved the live shows because it was never the same show twice, unlike a lot of other bands who play the same damn set list every show. There was always a lot of dancing, too, which doesn't happen at a lot of other concerts. It was usually like one really big party, at which many people are drinking or getting high, but a lot of other people were just listening to the music or dancing. If I were going to follow a band around the country, it would have been them. I can't imagine doing that with any other band, but the experience at each show was always unique, which can't be said for many other bands.
Each show is different. Not only are the set lists different but the way they play the songs can be different too. Their jams are improvisational. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. When they were on, they were the best rock band ever.
There was really only one consistent aspect--the music.
Drugs? Plentiful and fun, sure, but there were vast numbers of non-users. There was even a large AA-like group (the Wharf Rats) that you could count on finding at every show. Not that for many folks the allure of drugs wasn't there, but to say that was a prime motivator in going to shows is hopelessly naive. Pot could be easily found outside of shows, and usually cheaper too. Saying it was about the drugs is the same as saying that people like NASCAR or baseball for the beer. Yeah, it's an element to many, but not the driving (heh) factor.
Tribe? Yeah, sure. Hitting a show and not making it inside (Cash for your extras! Need a miracle!) was a letdown, but there was (almost) always a great time to be had nonetheless. Did I enjoy seeing familiar faces on the road? Sure. Icons that are sorely missed (anyone remember the Ryder disco truck?), but that's an element that made going to shows a lot of fun and comfort, not what going to shows was all about. Do fanatical Packer-Backers go to their games every week because they love tailgating and get to know other season ticket holders? Or do they love watching football and game-day festivities are part of the fun?
It's the music. Underneath it all, for most Heads I've known, it's the music. Outside of shows, back before the net opened easy access, people went out of their way to trade and collect (legal) concert recordings. Collections with hundreds of hours weren't uncommon--the music was legally and free for the trade, all it really cost was a blank cassette and time. And they weren't collecting for the sake of collecting -- they were collecting to listen. Hearing the elegant flight from one song to another, dissecting the musical conversation during a jam that landed in a song, debating whether or not Donna was a good addition, whether '72 or '77 was the better era, what this or that song meant, and so on. Conversations and interactions outside of shows was all about the music. Yeah, there were exceptions, and yeah, there were a lot of great non-musical things (veggie burritos and grilled cheeses just aren't the same), but the dominant factor is the music.