The legendary band will say farewell to fans this weekend, with a concert at the venue that saw their last gig with singer and founder Jerry Garcia in 1995
Thursday 2 July 2015 13.35 EDT
To Chicago sports fans, Soldier Field is the home of the Chicago Bears. To veterans, it’s a monument to fallen servicemen and women.
To Grateful Dead fans meanwhile, Soldier Field is where the band performed on 9 July 1995, the band’s final show with Jerry Garcia – though no one knew it at the time. The Dead’s leader and founder died the following month of a heart attack at a rehab facility in California, where he was fighting to kick his addiction to heroin and cocaine. On Friday, the band’s remaining members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh return – under the name the Grateful Dead – to play three consecutive shows called Fare Thee Well, that are part tribute to Garcia’s memory and part opportunity for them to capitalise one final time on one of rock music’s most enduring legacies.
Drummer Kreutzmann says the Grateful Dead mythology will not be on his mind when he sits behind his kit to perform what is expected to be a four-hour show to 60,000 people on Friday. “Whatever happened at Soldier Field so many years ago, that’s in the past. I’m very much a person that is in the now. I believe in playing great today, I don’t relive any of that old stuff,” he says.
Even though members of the Dead have had other musical projects, from the Other Ones and Ratdog to Kreutzmann’s Billy & the Kids, it took 20 years for them to feel the time was right to perform together again as the Grateful Dead.
Kreutzmann says he felt not doing so short-changed the band’s fans. As more time stretched between their last performance and this weekend, the market has been flooded with substitutes, including a sprawling subculture of Grateful Dead cover bands, many of whom fill theatres performing entire shows from the past. One player, John Kadlecik, of Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, even proved he had the mettle to substitute for Garcia in Further, a band fronted by Dead founder members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh.
Even though he sees the cover bands as “a compliment” to the strength of the band’s songwriting, Kreutzmann says the Fare Three Well shows are meant as a final testament by the original band itself.
“Fans deserve to hear great music again and this is the last opportunity for them to do it, plus I still like making music with these guys,” Kreutzmann says. “We’re not a cover band. We are the band.”
Since helping establish the psychedelic rock scene swirling around San Francisco in the mid-1960s, the Grateful Dead became rock’s first communal band of outlaws that performed everywhere – at street parties, in parks, aeroplane hangars, large theaters, auditoriums, the foot of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, and finally sports stadiums – cultivating a bottomless songbook of blues, country, folk, bluegrass, space-jazz, and other traditional strains of American roots music that never fell out of style. Having played more than 2,000 shows between 1965 and 1995, the best way to appreciate their longevity is to think of them as jazz players who continually search for new avenues of interpretation and musical symmetry created in the moment.
Unlike their peers, the Grateful Dead did not establish a catalogue of hits they could rely upon to keep the franchise going into the new century. This was a band that operated by intuition; and while they may not have always hit their mark, their effort earned the loyalty of legions of fans.
In his recent memoir, Kreutzmann portrays Garcia as a passionate and obsessive music lover who grew distant as the band became more successful. As the Grateful Dead tapped into a subculture that used the band’s touring schedule to dictate a nomadic lifestyle, as fans known as Deadheads followed the band around the world, the Dead themselves grew increasingly alienated, not just from the music but among each other. This took the toughest toll on Garcia. He stayed at home during their induction ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and he also descended deeper into a heroin addiction that eventually robbed his talent.
“Because he was so recognisable, he couldn’t get away from his fame,” says Kreutzmann, 69. “And because he’s such a great player and beloved musician, people were always following him. I don’t have the same problem. I can be invisible. But it was much, much harder for him. Before he died his popularity was so intense, he had trouble getting away from it. Put yourself in his shoes: If you couldn’t leave your house, it would drive you bananas.”
Now as the band is forced to confront the reality of playing without its leader, there is also the new reality of age.
Being off the road prevented the Grateful Dead from grooming a younger audience, which makes these final shows even more emotional experiences for longtime fans who are now hovering near retirement age. According to a joint survey released this week by the Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies, Grateful Dead fans are predominately white, educated, high wage earners ($100,000 and up), aged 55-64, and – here’s a surprise – tend to vote Republican.
The historic nature of the event has created a cottage industry of all things Dead. Tickets for these Fare Thee Well shows are flooding the secondary market, with prices as high as $11,000 on StubHub as of Thursday. For three days this weekend, Chicago businesses are also jumping onboard. StubHub reports that 86% of ticketholders buying from their site are from outside Illinois, so music clubs and cruise operators are hosting Dead-related events.
The Grateful Dead themselves are also capitalising on this last hurrah. With Rhino Entertainment reissuing new packages of archive material, fans can already pre-order recordings of all three shows on multiple formats, including limited editions of 12 CDs and seven blu-ray discs. The band has also struck deals to livestream or broadcast the shows via SiriusXM radio, YouTube, multiple cable operators and movie theatre chains. Famous for their indulgence of bootleggers back in the day, in recent years the band has also taken a more hard-nosed approach to fans who want to tape their concerts, ordering high-quality soundboard tapes to be removed from the internet so they can be monetised for streaming. (Free audience recordings were allowed to stay put.)
The long goodbye started last week with two shows in Santa Clara, California. The lineup has been augmented by Trey Anastasio of Phish, who stepped into the lead guitar role, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and pianist Bruce Hornsby, who toured with the Dead between 1990 and 1992 and was enlisted to share lead vocals with Weir and Anastasio.
Kreutzmann says the band has worked up about 100 songs for the final shows – almost “every song we know”. Despite playing for the first time together after many years, he says, the band had few kinks, because everyone was in good musical shape due to their respective side projects.
“It actually came quite fast. The first day was easier and it got easier and easier and yesterday went exceptionally well,” he says. “These are only the most important shows we’ve ever done.”
After Chicago, the future of this current lineup is uncertain. Lesh is booked to tour with his own band this fall. According to Billboard, Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart are rumored to keep playing through the end of the year with John Mayer. There is big money on the table: Fare Thee Well generated $50m in ticket sales and Billboard estimates that the band could have sold six million more tickets, judging by the demand.
Kreutzmann insists the Chicago shows “will be final” but he admits that part of him “wishes it could go on forever.”
“I am of the mind that if this thing would magically happen again, I would say yes to doing more shows,” he says. “But that’s not our reality.”
- The Grateful Dead shows will be broadcast live in cinemas throughout the US and on 6 July in the UK. Details here