The celebration of fifty years of the Grateful Dead came to a bittersweet conclusion on Sunday at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the last of five “Fare Thee Well” concerts billed as the final shows of this quintessentially American of institutions. During this abbreviated final run of shows – that some had labelled a nostalgia trip or worse, a “cash grab” – a band emerged that very closely approximated the spirit of the Grateful Dead. Not just in the authenticity provided by a lineup of its surviving members, but in the truest spirit of the band, producing music that – in, at times, brilliant flashes – transcended all the bullshit, and gave us the real thing.
Photo © @soldierfield
Before the first set began, the band gathered to offer bows to audience and a group hug before The Last Grateful Dead Show Ever. Constructing the final setlist must have been an enormously difficult task – one last shot at their enormous repertoire as a group. The celebration kicked off with a rousing “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” with Trey and Bruce trading verses on “China Cat” and Bobby taking lead vocals on “IKYR.” As was the case for large segments of this run, Trey shined throughout, weaving leads both delicate and powerful. They opted for a democratic approach with Bobby, Phil and Trey sharing Garcia’s signature “I wish I was a headlight, on a northbound train” line, and the fifteen-minute combo set a tone of celebration and earnest joy for the gig. “Estimated Prophet” added to this first set’s “second-set feel.” Approached with an almost funereal pace that saw Trey intently following Bobby’s lead to keep (the lack of) pace, the jam nevertheless gathered some steam toward the end.
“Built to Last” was offered seemingly not as self-congratulations, but as a nod to the enduring bond between the band and its fans. Bruce assumed the vocal duties, but it was Trey who would shine on this tune with confidently delivered lines that floated effortlessly and optimistically. “Samson and Delilah” rarely missed a Sunday show, and this version stayed true to the Dead’s history, even in the band’s heyday, of often sloppy performances. Phil’s “Mountains of the Moon” was a surprise call, given that it was never performed in a Dead show after 1969. “Mountains of the Moon” sent more than a few fans to the restroom and concessions, but that would have been a mistake; “Mountains” was brilliant, easily provided the jamming highlight of the first set, and one of the most patient, balanced, and engaging conversational passages of the entire run. The traditionally spirited “Throwing Stones” closed the set with an almost unrecognizably slow pace. At one point it seemed that Bobby had forgotten the song’s lyrics and we were heading for a “senior moment” but instead he delivered a modern day improvisation that “you can buy the whole goddamn government today!” We give you a hard time, but we love you, Bobby!
Photo © @languagestrange
The second set began with fireworks (literally) and then opened with their first big radio “hit” (and one of only two repeats from Santa Clara), “Truckin’.” “Cassidy” offered a good-bye from the band – “Faring thee well now / Let your life proceed by its own design / Nothing to tell now / Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine” – and also the jamming highlight of the second set, twelve blissful minutes that would have been notable show highlights in almost any Grateful Dead era. Trey took a crack at Garcia’s loved “Althea” that was compact but far from throw-away before yielding to the beloved “Terrapin Station.” Phil and Bobby traded vocal versus on this “Terrapin” that proved one of the only questionable decisions of the night, as the band was unable to find solid footing in the basic mechanics of the song.
After the final “Drums” -> “Space” segment – augmented by an array of psychedelic computer graphics on the venue’s massive video screen as well as on the webcast feed, in the event that stuff wasn’t already happening inside your head – Phil offered another moving testament to the collective love that all had gathered to celebrate with “Unbroken Chain.” Though born in the band’s prime and appearing on 1974’s From the Mars Hotel, “Unbroken Chain” almost never made it into the Dead's live repertoire, emerging only in the spring of 1995 just months before Garcia’s passing, also appearing in the Dead’s final Soldier Field performance on 7/9/95. They made it through the composed section mostly unscathed and validated the choice with an inspired if brief jam. Bobby then delivered a moving rendition of the final Garcia ballad performed by this band, “Days Between,” with the set predictably concluding with “Not Fade Away.” Trey, Bruce and Bobby shared vocals on the “Touch of Grey” encore that hilariously saw Bobby donning a “Let Trey Sing” t-shirt… never too late for one final joke. Never trust a prankster! A single encore would simply not suffice and the band returned one more time for a touching “Attics of My Life.”
Photo © @jayblakesberg
Especially given the unrelenting amount of shit given by many fans in the lead-up to the event's organizer, Pete Shapiro, for everything from ticket prices and distribution to the show’s venues, it should be said that these events were exceptionally well-run, professional, and fan friendly. The record-breaking crowds of 70k+ in attendance each day truly put the revamped Soldier Field facilities to the test, with bathroom and concession lines often challenging, and the biggest complaint being the congestion ordeal of exiting the venue on the routes back to civilization. But other than some of these difficulties inherent in any big event, those in attendance seemed no worse off from the experience (far from it!). The in-venue visuals by Candace Brightman and Paul Hoffman were spectacular, and the at-home production was also stellar, with virtually flawless delivery, outstanding production value, crystal clear and full sound, and magnificent halftime video montages by Justin Kreutzmann with original music by Neal Casal. There were a million things that could have gone wrong, but most everything went right; so kudos to everyone involved in putting together these historic events in a way that allowed fans to keep their focus where it belonged, on the stage.
Photo © @languagestrange
The band on that stage produced some truly inspired music. I’ll readily admit that I was skeptical from the outset – these guys don’t play together regularly, for reasons. The Grateful Dead was a democratic institution to a fault, and you don’t need to be a rock-and-roll hall famer to know that sometimes you just want to do your own thing, the way you want. Put those guys who are used to having things precisely their way back into that democratic cauldron… it doesn’t often work. To be honest, it hasn't worked all that well in the post-Jerry attempts to date. That they put aside those differences to gather as a group one last time was no surprise, as the incentives to do so were plentiful. That they did so and produced music of a quality that was deserving of the mantle of the band’s name, Grateful Dead – that surprised me. To Bobby, Phil, Mickey and Billy: thank you, for this weekend, and for the music that has been the soundtrack to my life since my first show in 1981. Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti also deserve the appreciation, respect, and thanks of fans for their contributions to this continuum of music known as the Grateful Dead.
Photo © @languagestrange
These shows were clearly not about Trey Anastasio. But we’re covering this on phish.net because of his involvement, so a few concluding words about his performace are in order. What a moment for him… as happy as I was to be listening to my favorite living musician playing with the band I grew up with, I was more happy for Trey. This obviously was far from the first time he’s had the opportunity to play these songs with members of the Dead, but to be able to attack the catalog so fully, to not only perform the songs but really lead the band through jam after jam, on the biggest of stages, it was a profound joy to witness. Grateful Dead music that is good requires a lead guitarist who can execute the compositions competently; Grateful Dead music that is great requires a lead guitarist that can converse as an equal, but also put the band on his shoulders and elevate the whole. Trey did both. Trey Anastasio didn’t need the validation of being able to fill the hardest hole to fill in all of rock and roll – and to gain the appreciation, respect and even love of the only rock audience more skeptical than Phish fans – to be known by many as the world’s greatest living rock musician. But it sure doesn’t hurt. The implications for Phish of this experience? Could be huge... simply huge.
Sayin’ thank you!… for a real good time!
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