Their live shows, fed by their improvisational approach to music, made the Grateful Dead different from most other touring bands. While most rock and roll bands rehearse a standard show for their tours that is replayed night after night, city after city, the Grateful Dead never did. As Garcia stated in an 1966 interview, We don't make up our sets beforehand. We'd rather work off the tops of our heads than off a piece of paper.  They maintained this operating ethic throughout their existence. For each performance, the band drew material from an active list of a hundred or so songs. Due to the band's varied song selection and the improvisational nature of their playing, no two Grateful Dead concerts were exactly the same.
Their numerous studio albums were generally collections of new songs that they had first played in concert. The band was also famous for its extended musical jams, which featured both individual improvisations as well as distinctive group-mind improvisations during which each of the band members improvised individually while simultaneously blending together as a cohesive musical unit. Musically, this may be illustrated in that the band not only improvised within the form of songs, but also with the form. The Grateful Dead have often been quoted as having never played the same song the same way twice. The cohesive listening abilities of each band member made for a very elevated level of what might be called free form and improvisation. Their concert sets often blended songs, one into the next (a segue).
On April 24, 2008, members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart, along with Nion McEvoy, CEO of Chronicle Books, University of California, Santa Cruz chancellor George Blumenthal, and UCSC librarian Virginia Steel, held a press conference announcing that UCSC's McHenry Library would be the permanent home of the Grateful Dead's complete archival history from 1965 up to the present. The archive includes correspondence, photographs, fliers, posters, and several other forms of memorabilia and records of the band. Also included are unreleased videos of interviews and TV appearances that will be installed for visitors to view, as well as stage backdrops and other props from the band's concerts.
To commemorate The Grateful Dead: Now Playing exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, the museum commissioned a new poster from Grateful Dead artist Dennis Larkins. The poster is in the style of the iconic design for the 1980 Grateful Dead concert at Radio City Music Hall, and features the Historical Society’s building, the famous skeletons, a cast of Grateful Dead characters, and a welcoming committee of popular historic and current figures associated with the New-York Historical Society.