The band’s Fare Thee Well performances, their first as the Grateful Dead for 20 years, were valedictory but vital and passionate — 15-minute drum solos and all
Monday 6 July 2015 11.36 EDT
As the Grateful Dead played Friday, a film camera swooped through the front row of the audience and projected on large screens what it saw: rows of people recording on their smartphones.
The distraction of constant connectivity didn’t exist in 1995 when the Grateful Dead, possibly the most American of American bands, played their final show at Soldier Field in Chicago with founder and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia. Things have changed. These three Fare Thee Well shows, which concluded on Sunday once again at Soldier Field, were billed as a celebration of the band’s 50-year anniversary, and indeed the weekend’s success was a testament to the music’s enduring cultural currency. More than 210,000 tickets were sold and the band earned about $50m, according to reports. All three nights broke attendance records for the venue, with Sunday’s tally of 71,000 people the highest in its 91-year history.
The audience sported requisite tie-dye wear and were ready to reboot the party, but they arrived more in a state of blissful appreciation than they were boisterous. Contrary to speculation, the crowd was comprised not just of fans who are as aged as the band itself: a good portion consisted of younger people who showed up to catch a wave of something they missed the first time around.
Cody Steenbergen from downstate Illinois was born in 1994, one year before the Dead flamed out. He discovered the band through a late friend’s old vinyl record collection that was passed on to him. Back then, the possibility of attending a Dead show in his lifetime was absurd. “I’m still waiting to wake up,” he said.
“I’m in it for life. You can’t help but smile when you hear the Dead. It doesn’t matter what mood you’re in. It’s magical.”
Fans showed up in full Dead regalia, wearing worn concert T-shirts from past tours and other clothing adorned with red, white and blue stripes. The city’s museum campus, which includes the mighty entrance steps to the Field Museum of Natural History, became a temporary staging area for fans to enjoy a bacchanal hours before doors opened. For them, there was finality in the air. Moments after getting their tickets scanned for entry, each fan received a gift in return from the band: a single long-stemmed rose.
Kevin Nesser, a 60-year-old nurse from Columbus, Ohio, roamed outside Soldier Field soliciting a “miracle” in the form of an available ticket. He traveled to California last weekend to see two warm-up shows; for him, the finality of this band is “bittersweet”. “It’s the end of an era,” he said on Sunday. “We lose something precious when we lose our roots.”
Some parents brought teenage children to share an element of their lives they say gave them solace through rough times. Deborah Mulligan, 60, of Madison, Wisconsin, sat on a curb while her 18-year-old son used her ticket to see Sunday’s show. She discovered the Dead in 1970 through a former boyfriend and over the years the music grew more meaningful. “It talks about life and love and the mystery of it all, and they kept that vision,” she said. “It’s a life philosophy that is sorely lacking in today’s world.”
In contrast with the colourful scene outside, inside strictly focused on the music. Facing a sea of general admission ticket holders on the floor, the stage was plain except for two banner-length screens that swirled with colours and scrolled through a montage of photos of the band down the years. Throughout the three nights the band did not repeat a song, which unified the weekend as one long stretch into their back pages. Through those songs, every show inevitably returned to similar themes: road adventure, fatalistic encounters, and music.
But this was a new band. As they evolved out of the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene, the Grateful Dead viewed themselves as free jazz practitioners who just happened to play rock’n’roll. This is a band that collaborated with jazz saxophonistOrnette Coleman and viewed artists like Sun Ra and Sonny Rollins as influences. Garcia honed their improvisatory skills; he was not a bandleader who dictated from above, but a unifying force in a musical democracy that kept all the players connected.
Garcia’s death in August 1995 left the roots without a tree. It is telling that it took 20 years for Phil Lesh (bass), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar), and Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (drums and percussion) to regroup as the Grateful Dead, even given the obstacles of personal misgivings and legal wrangling. While Fare Thee Well was billed as the Grateful Dead, the original members played alongside new and former collaborators. Expecting the original band would be naive. Instead, the band that showed up this weekend ignited fresh sparksand induced a few lulls, both with well-intended reverence for a back catalogue that has remained poignant.
Much of the burden was placed on Trey Anastasio, from Phish, who stepped into Garcia’s spot as lead guitarist and vocalist. On Friday, Anastasio showed he could articulate some of Garcia’s legendary solos and even emulate the sparkling notes of his guitar. But he turned into the band’s best asset when he attacked songs with more force with his instrument. Performing Scarlet Begonias on Friday, he broke away from the band to connect directly with the crowd, whose approval pushed the momentum higher. Weir took notice and signaled his new collaborator to keep it going. On Sunday, the melding of Truckin’ and Cassidy also saw Anastasio jumpstart the house, giving the songs a greater urgency. Pianist Bruce Hornsby also proved a key asset, especially with his reggae-tinged vocals on Fire on the Mountain.
A few times Weir met Anastasio in the centre of the stage, emphasising the musical bond between them. As his sandals and shorts would suggest, Weir is laid-back to the extreme, but he caught fire on Sunday, shouting the lyrics toThrowing Stones and Samson and Delilah and, in a joke on himself, returning to the stage late in the set wearing a T-shirt that read “Let Trey sing”.
Each setlist rotated between the best of the band’s rootsy songcraft era with minimalist funk and celestial prog-rock sections. When he sang, Lesh’s vocals were muddy, but his staccato bass runs always gave the music bounce. Each night featured a 15-minute “drum/space” segment during which Hart and Kreutzmann worked their way through a menagerie of drums and other instruments, updating the soundscape with pulsing electronic loops and other digital confectionary. Could this be the next duo on the EDM circuit next summer?
The final hour was dedicated to the gravity of the Dead’s exit, though without mawkishness. On the grandly autumnal Days Between, one of the last collaborations between Garcia and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, Weir gave one of his best vocal performances of all three days. Then came Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away, a lightning strike of early rock’n’roll set to Bo Diddley’s primal beat. Weir, Lesh and Anastasio bundled their vocals, but the stadium owned the lyrics as tens of thousands of voices shouted the song’s defiant title long after the music stopped, their hands clapping that insistent rhythm into the night.
Remembering and resisting – they were the two themes that prevailed this weekend in both the music and performances. When the band returned to perform a clunky Touch of Grey, the monster hit of their MTV heyday, the song felt like an afterthought. It was only when they returned one more time for Attics of My Life that the true cool-down took place. With Weir on acoustic guitar, the singers’ voices harmonised and then faded away.