Couldn’t make that final Grateful Dead show? Wonder what the party was like? No worries. Our man was there in Chicago and here’s how it all went down…
By Jason Blevins
It was the hug that did it for me.
All around me, three nights in a row, people were bursting into tears.
When Bob Weir stepped to the mic and growled: “All the years combine, they melt into a dream, a broken angel sings, from a guitar.” Or “Faring thee well, let your life proceed by its own design. Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours I’m done with mine. Done with mine.” Or Phil Lesh’s hardened, tone-deaf yet timbered croon “Listening for the secret, searching for the sound.”
I’m not a cry-at-a-concert type of guy. I tend toward giddy wriggling. But when Phish boss Trey Anastasio so tenderly handled “Standing on the Moon,” I couldn’t dance. I stood there remembering Jerry Garcia and how I interpreted that song as a lament to fame, wishing he was not so isolated up on the stage but one of us, hanging out in the crowd. That tune always moved me.
Trey strummed the chords so delicately. He sang so quietly, almost whispering. It was a reverent moment. All the memories – simpler times chasing the Grateful Dead in the early 1990s with friends who still rank at the top of list – engulfed me.
Then Phil walked over and embraced Trey. It was just too much. Suddenly I was the guy crying at a concert. Wiping tears, I looked around. I was not alone.
It seemed nearly every moment in Soldier Field over the weekend was a tear-jerker. It wasn’t the particular musicianship that inspired such a swell of emotions. There were plenty of stumbles and miscues, (see: “Friend of the Devil”). But it was the fact that we had reached the end of the road. After such a momentous journey – for some, 50 years long – we were having the last dance. The long, strange trip was over.
Sure, I know the hard-edge line: The Grateful Dead died 20 years ago with Jerry. Everything else is a mirage. As the band spent two decades whirling through a host of guitarists who varyingly either flouted or mimicked Jerry, that was an easy tack to take.
But over the 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well weekend in Chicago, the emotional outpouring by more than 70,000 in the last place Jerry played brought the band back to life, if just for a moment.
And the Grateful Dead were always about those moments.
When we were kids, we raced from city to city hoping for a glimpse, a tiny taste to keep us going. It was that tremble in Jerry’s voice when he wound down “So Many Roads.” That twangy groove in his musing “New Speedway Boogie.” That spark when he sang about the lady with the fan or dew on the grass in a post-apocalyptic world. The flutter deep in my chest when he released into a frothing jam.
Minus Jerry, those magical glimpses of greatness were as fleeting as ever in Chicago’s swollen football stadium, where the Bears relentlessly disappoint. Still, there’s no question this was the A-Team of Grateful Dead iterations since Jerry left us in 1995. Bruce Hornsby pinged highlights on the piano but, as the best voice on stage, played too small a vocal role. Post-Dead regular Jeff Chimenti manned the late Brent Mydland’s Hammond B3 rig with magical work on the high keys. Bobby was pitch-perfect with his sincere singing and marvelous at elevating Trey’s guitar work, seeming surprised at how adeptly the discrete guitar player found an off-the-path groove. (Truly Bob Weir is the most overlooked rhythm guitarist of our age. His life in the shadow of greats has left his off-camber rhythms too often ignored. No one plucks rhythm like Bobby.)
Phil, the conductor of the scene with his masterful anchoring of the deep end, loomed too large on the vocals, leaving countless fans wondering how no one in the Grateful Dead machine had ever suggested that he should back away from the mic. (Seriously, not one person spoke up when Phil said he would sing “Terrapin Station?” That song would have melted hearts in the hands of Trey or Bruce. Phil left it sounding like Buddhist monks trying to out-“Om” a foghorn.)
Billy Kreutzmann hammered ruthless rhythm like he was still 20 while his partner Mickey Hart’s percussion roused nearly every song from anything predictable.
And the mighty Trey – filling the biggest role on stage – played the perfect guest, never dominating the conversation, always polite and offering captivating conversation with his ornate guitar work.
Still, there was no escaping the feeling that Trey was holding back, deferring to Phil and Bobby; speaking only when spoken to. He was a monster caged. Every once in a while he roared, but mostly he patiently paced inside his cell. (Look out summer Phish tour, the monster will be unleashed.)
Regardless, there was no better choice than Trey for Fare Thee Well. With his jaw slack, Trey filled Soldier Field with soaring riffs that didn’t mirror Jerry, but exemplified the master. Trey tapped Jerry’s style without aping. He captured the essence with his own interpretations, sometimes ripping arena-worthy jams – like Saturday’s “Shakedown Street” or Sunday’s “Althea” – and sometimes stirring a mellow ripple that grew into a tsunami, like in Friday’s “Crazy Fingers.”
Trey added his own voice – essentially spreading Phish – across many frames, spinning a “West L.A. Fadeaway” riff into Friday’s “Playing in the Band.” He took “The Music Never Stopped” to new heights with a funky groove, just as he expanded the typically staid “Golden Road” into an open-ended, could-have-gone-for-hours jam. He would point to Bruce and urge the piano player to pop, cajoling the one-time Grateful Dead keyman to elevate songs like “Franklin’s Tower” and “Fire on the Mountain.” Bobby pushed Trey into two distinctly different, resonant jams inside “Stella Blue.”
The crowd howled for Trey, appreciating his just-right approach with a revivalists’ fervor. It was an eclectic lot in Soldier Field, a mingling of happy hippies reliving their glory days with 20-somethings who never saw the Fat Man play.
Young or old, they were spending mad cash. They sported well faded tie-dyes and bought $60 concert T-shirts and guzzled copious amounts of $10.50 beers. The money-grab at Soldier Field was overwhelming. Noting a last chance to snatch a Deadhead’s dollars, the capitalist machine was in full force, with $100 “artistan” tie-dyes and $7.50 hot dogs for those who might have forgotten they paid $99.50 to $199.50 for tickets. The band sold more than 210,000 tickets for the three Chicago shows in a matter of minutes. (The last Grateful Dead show I saw in 1995 cost $32.50 and I remember thinking the boys were getting greedy. As I mailed in my money order.)
But, judging from the lines everywhere, no one seemed bothered by the high prices. The music was the reward, blasted into every corner through more-than-loud-enough stacks. Even the hour-long set breaks featured music composed special for Fare Thee Well by Chris Robinson Brotherhood guitarist Neal Casal.
The stadium’s brand new, incredibly vivid video screens were key for many a fan, especially those who appreciate psychedelic swirling with their trippy jams. Many a pie-eyed fan stood motionlessly staring at the screens during the psychotropic “Drums > Space” jams each night.
While the “core four” – Bobby, Phil, Billy and Mickey – took a while developing a cohesion with their newcomers on stage, the progression of the band grew over three nights. Trey’s jamming was strong early, but tying into the rest of the band took a while, with the most inter-locked tunes landing the final night.
The final Fare Thee Well show was classic Dead, with hits, misses, deep cuts and out-of-the-park grand slams. The “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider” kicked off the night with a promise of feverish dancing that could have spun Soldier Field into Lake Michigan. Bobby’s “Estimated Prophet” saw Trey’s eclectic jam eclipse the bushy bearded singer’s maniacal howling. The deep cut “Built to Last” was one of Chicago’s true shockers, an overlooked gem from the band’s final studio album that Bruce handled well in one of his few moments in the spotlight. The evening unraveled coming out of a dynamite “Drums > Space” – which saw Mickey try to roust most of Chicago with an air horn blast that reverberated into Canada – with Phil’s “Unbroken Chain.” That’s a chilling tune, but we were on the doorstep at the end of a 50-year date. It was time for fireworks. Time to send us home a sweaty, puddled mess. Phil’s brooding tune spilled into Bobby’s even-darker, more haunting “Days Between” and suddenly the lines for the bathroom were hundreds deep.
As if to rub in the fact that the core four neglected to truly utilize the best player on the team, Bobby wore a “Let Trey Sing” tee for the “Touch of Grey” encore, which he dominated with a lifeless, chanting tone.
A stirring “Attics of My Life” – with Bobby strumming an acoustic guitar – sent us into the Chicago night with the heartfelt a goodbye that included the lines “I have spent my life, seeking all that’s still unsung. Bent my ear to hear the tune. And closed my eyes to see.”
Highs and lows defined the Grateful Dead. When they were up, they brought us to our knees. When they were down, we shrugged it off and came back the next night, hopeful as a child. It was half-century trip filled with lifelong friends, hope, tension, release and long lines with happy people.
Chicago was that ride condensed into three nights. It could have been better but it was perfectly Grateful Dead. What more could we ask?