Last night, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead – Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann (a.k.a. the “Core Four”) – along with part-time band member Bruce Hornsby, long time post-Dead band member Jeff Chimenti, and Phish’s own Trey Anastasio, descended on Levi’s Stadium for the first of five shows to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead. The run-up to these historic shows was full of mixed emotions, from those of pure joy to those of total apathy or even disdain. When the gates opened in Santa Clara, CA, last night, most of these emotions had turned into anticipation and sheer excitement, as the energy of the crowd was palpable.
Despite the age of the band members, the stadium and the concert set-up were decidedly modern, with high-definition screens on each side of the stage, a “Steal Your Face” logo flanked by (what must have been) roses along the top, and another large screen on the north end of the stadium above the nose-bleeds, facing the band. The band took the stage a few minutes after 7:30 to a rousing applause from the near-capacity crowd, as many other fans streamed in from the lots, navigating some of the suboptimal set-ups from the event staff (e.g., minimal flow towards the general admission area).
The band was all smiles as they took the stage, with Trey in particular looking honored to share the stage with some of his favorite musicians. The band started off with a noodling improvised section that led into “Truckin’”, an appropriate sing-along that would allow the band to work through one of their “greatest hits” (#1 in Turlock County!) and get their sea legs. The music seemed well-rehearsed, though the mix seemed off, at least from where I was standing. “Truckin’” finished with a few bombs from Phil, and the sing-along portion of the show continued with “Uncle John’s Band”. Trey took a soulful melodic solo, Hornsby added some color on the ivories, and they took the outro for a little walk before ending the tune.
Phil took over on vocals for the older rarity, “Alligator”, with images of Pigpen fluttering around the edges of the big-screens. After what seemed like a lack of synchronization between band members, and some visible frustration from Bobby regarding his monitor levels, the jam picked up some steam about six minutes in, ultimately careening and segueing into “Cumberland Blues." Trey began to assert himself a bit more in “Cumberland," and Bill Walton appeared on the big screens to some applause, but there still seemed to be some hesitation from the band. “Born Crosseyed” > “Cream Puff War” continued with the “old school” Dead, while Trey showed the elder statesmen that he meant business, providing some clean vocals and slaying his first extended solo of the evening. The Trey-built momentum carried over into “Viola Lee Blues," the first set closer. Jeff played some Brent-style synth, and though the band fell out out of sync again during the first keys solo, Trey led them out of the fog into a peak and a big first climax. After another Walton sighting, Phil, Trey, and Bobby came together mid-stage to trade licks and take it down a notch before finishing the last verse. The playing morphed into a near-“Love Light” jam, Bruce hinted at “Fire on the Mountain," and then that’s when the crowd noticed there was a huge rainbow behind the stage!
For those who don’t know, this weekend is Gay Pride weekend in San Francisco, and with the recent Supreme Court ruling, a rainbow spontaneously forming over the stadium sent the locals into a frenzy. Though there are now questions about the authenticity of the rainbow, the band fed off the crowd, injecting some much-needed life into an up-and-down 63 minute first set. During the hour-long setbreak, there must have been some discussion about how to right the ship, as the second set made all the first set jitters and hiccups a distant memory.
Shortly before 9:40 PM, the band re-took the stage and began tuning and noodling around “Cryptical Envelopment," which started in earnest a minute later. Phil led the vocals, and the cameras and crowd zoomed in on Trey. The look on his face was that of laser-sharp focus, but his fingers were loose, flying all over the fretboard with utmost precision, as fireworks began blasting off behind the southwest end of the stadium. This is why we’re here. Trey wasn’t just channeling Jerry, he was leading the band with mellifluous melodies and taking the music to new heights. The crowd was locked in, and when Jeff launched some extraterrestrial effects, Trey, Phil, and Bobby huddled mid-stage again to signal their next transition: “Dark Star”.
As “Dark Star” began, another round of fireworks erupted outside the stadium. Phil, Bobby, and Trey traded the first three singing lines of the first verse before harmonizing beautifully, and when it came to a close, Trey resumed control of the stage. Not because of hubris, but rather because the rest of the band needed him to take charge. Jeff and Bobby provided more outer-space motifs as things grew increasingly dissonant 10 minutes into the jam, and in typical “Dark Star” fashion, the jam explored previously-unexplored territory, and transcended music as we know it. In fact, I jotted down “-> Space” in my setlist, though others may disagree. As the space collected and collapsed on itself, leaving Phil and the drummers in sparse territory, things began to pick back up again. I can only describe this next section as an ascending tension jam, and Trey picked up what the others were putting down and started letting his crazy fingers fly again. His melodious trilling put a huge smile on Phil’s face, as if to say “I knew this was the right guy for the job!”, and as the jam approached the 20 minute mark, the familiar “Dark Star” riff crept back in and led to the second verse. Trey sang the first line this time, followed by Phil, and Bobby was feeling so good that he belted out an extended third line before the final harmonies led to some vocal riffing on the “transitive nightfall of diamonds."
From the dust of “Dark Star,” Phil asserted himself just enough to hint to everyone that the darkness had gone, and it was time to celebrate as the opening lines of “St. Stephen” rang out in the air. The crowd went from spaced-out to boogying down in the blink of an eye, as Trey’s focus remained apparent as he nailed riff after riff, both in Jerry’s honor and in his own way. The band brought the boil down to a mere simmer before the second verse, and despite another minor technical glitch leading into the “Lady finger” portion of the tune, one could feel the anticipation building in the crowd and on the stage. Right before the should’ve-been-explosion, there was a slight hesitation, and the band missed the peak following “call it your own." At the time it was disappointing, but the band forged ahead. Trey and Phil traded licks as Bruce comped the two to build towards a peak to redeem the missed opportunity. Phil added his “walk up, walk down” riff to lead the band on another tangent through the jam, before a well-executed peak led to the final verse. The tune continued onward across the “William Tell Bridge," not played by the band since the late ‘60s (but played by later post-GD iterations), and Bobby channeled Jerry by forgetting some lyrics. More than an hour into the set, as 11 PM approached, “The Eleven” and “Turn On Your Love Light” continued the Live/Dead theme. Bobby’s vocals were markedly better for “Love Light” than they had been during the first set, paying appropriate homage to Pigpen. At this point, it was unclear whether the show was winding down; it was not.
“Drums” > “Space” was extended, tribal, and a complete juxtaposition between primitive sounds and the hyper-modern electronic instruments used to make them. “What’s Become of the Baby” featured Phil essentially chanting over the remnants of “Space," before the entire band joined musically to build “The Other One." Though relatively straightforward, there were some nuanced major mode musings in between verses to add a little flavor, and before the crowd could catch their collective breath, “Morning Dew” began. All I could think to myself was, “this is the Slave slot!”, and like many of the top-tier renditions of “Slave," Trey weaved melodies through the chord progression in a delicate and precise manner, while gradually intensifying the mood. By the end of “Dew," Trey had taken complete control of the tune and the set in the best way possible.
“Casey Jones” with Bruce on vocals provided a nice exclamation point on the set, and though Trey actually seemed to lose a bit of his intense precision during his last solo, we were all sent off into the mean streets of Santa Clara with smiles plastered on our faces. While many had viewed the Santa Clara shows as “warm-ups” for Chicago, that line of thinking was dismissed by last night’s second set. See you tonight! -Pete
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March 27, 1993
25 years ago
Set 2: Buried Alive > Halley's Comet > It's Ice > Bouncing Around the Room, Chalk Dust Torture, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Hold Your Head Up > Cracklin' Rosie > Hold Your Head Up, Poor Heart > Golgi Apparatus
 Beginning featured Trey on acoustic guitar.
 Fish on trombone.
 All Fall Down signal in intro.
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