It’s been a week since I got home from Chicago and I’m still processing the experience of attending the Fare Thee Well shows. Herein, I shall relate the story of my weekend and, hopefully suss out a few things that I learned along the way.
We set off early on Thursday morning from Washington D.C. I and two of my oldest friends, Andy and Modi, with whom I’ve seen countless shows over the past twenty-plus years of friendship. This would be a big one. We were going to Soldier Field in Chicago for the final shows to feature the remaining “core four” members of the Grateful Dead. Two days earlier, Modi and I had marked the 20th anniversary of our last Grateful Dead shows. Now we were flying down the highway towards a great unknown. Having heard the Santa Clara Fare Thee Well shows, our expectations were tempered, at best. In fact, you could say that we were a bit dubious about what Chicago would bring. But, we were also excited. We’d been waiting months for this day to come, and finally, we were Chicago-bound.
Travel was uneventful and we made good time to our theater district hotel. George, our fourth for the weekend, was waiting in the lobby. Too young to have seen the Grateful Dead, he knew us from Phish shows and other local shows in Virginia. After checking in we copped some power naps before making our way to Millennium Park for the evening’s entertainment, Antibalas.
We touristed with the Bean, and settled in a nearby bar patio for dinner and drinks. As showtime approached, our group swelled to include a half-dozen friends from all over the country. The breeze from the lake cooled things down into the 60s as the sun dropped below the skyline and night time came on. We settled up (Thanks, Dave!) and took over a good sized block of seats in the Gehry-designed pavilion for Antibalas’ set. It had been at least five years since I’d last seen Antibalas but their set brimmed with familiar grooves. New to me was their cover of Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed And Painless” which was a smoking hot crowd pleaser. We also appreciated the guitar player’s nod to the weekend’s event with an extended tease of “Help On The Way”. The show ended early, so we retired to a bar for another round of drinks before calling an end to a very long day.
Friday dawned with bright sunshine and the promise of a show. I woke early, but feeling rested, I slipped out of the hotel to grab breakfast as my friends slept. I returned to the hotel raving about the excellent grub I’d found at Ronny’s Steakhouse and sent my friends out for their breakfast as I made for the CTA. I took the train up to Avondale to go visit an old high school friend, Ben, and to meet his wife and daughter. They showed me a great time, and after a wonderful lunch, I took my leave and got back on the train.
My friends were just getting back from the gym when I arrived at the hotel. I pretended to relax while they showered and got ready to go but they weren’t fooled and I cannot lie. It was time to go to the show. We eventually departed and, after a stop to see some friends at the purportedly haunted and decidedly overrun Congress Plaza Hotel, we made our way to the stadium.
I’m sure there is some sort of logic behind the way pedestrian traffic is routed into the stadium but it all seemed like an infinitely long corral to me. This was even worse after the show. That night, we left via the West gates and found ourselves shoulder to shoulder in a slow moving herd. It took us nearly two hours to get back to our hotel that night. On the subsequent nights, we departed via the North gates, beelined to the lake and managed to avoid such mobs.
We entered the stadium, checked out our seats, then bounced over to join friends who were positioned straight back in the 200s. We stayed there for the rest of the night.
When they dove into “Box Of Rain” to open the show on Friday, the thought that had nagged me for months crystallized. This was Grateful Dead. My logical mind reminds that this isn’t Grateful Dead but my emotional self stands against such thoughts. As Phil sang, both sides fought within me. I cried because it’s “Box” and the emotional side of me controls my eye leakage. When Trey stepped into the solo, The emotional side won. This was not only Grateful Dead but it was the last Grateful Dead. It was as beautiful and imperfect as ever. “Jack Straw” solidified this feeling. Trey crushes the solo perfectly in what shall henceforth be known as the Trey Straw.
After “Bertha” we were surprised by “Passenger” for its rarity and “The Wheel” into “Crazy Fingers” for their unlikely first set placement. They all paid off with great playing and were followed by an outright smoker of a “Music Never Stopped” to close the set.
The second set kicked off with “Mason’s Children”, a beyond-rare number from the early Grateful Dead catalog, before launching into the classic pairing of “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire On The Mountain”. The seven piece moved more nimbly through this than anything in the California appearance with Trey’s lead work shining the way. It would be inaccurate to say that Trey properly played Jerry’s parts. Instead I’d say that Trey breathed life into the lead guitar role; infusing the compositions with life and the improvisation with his own unique but sympathetic energy. Hell, Jerry never played them the same way twice so it’s rather disingenuous to accuse Trey of not play the songs ‘perfectly’. Trey gave us transcendence. What more can one ask?
When “Fire” became “Drums” we were a little surprised at its early appearance but the surprise turned to delight as we danced some more. Plenty of people sat but, how many more chances am I going to get to dance to these two guys? The “Drums” and “Space” segments each night were lengthy and wonderful. The video coverage was an additional bonus, allowing the audience to see what the hell Mickey was fiddling with as he moved about the stage.
When “Space” bled into “New Potato Caboose” I yelled with joy. What a great and odd tune. Phil gave it his best shot vocally and the jam meandered a little before they jumped into “Playing In The Band”. This had a strong jam that got out there. For all the comparisons made between Phish and Grateful Dead, only those who know both bands understand that these two jambands do not jam in the same ways. This “Playing” is a perfect example. To use the word structure would be misleading but the jam certainly held the shape of a Grateful Dead jam and Trey slipped right into that dance with natural ease. Somehow they managed to dive into “Let It Grow” and despite expectations that the show was likely wrapping up, they next played “Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower”. This was a triumphant finale capped by the tear-jerking rendition of “Ripple” with a choir of seventy-thousand.
This entire show seemed directly tailored as a response to the naysayers and haters that bubbled up after the Santa Clara shows. Trey and Bruce took several songs each. Trey’s solos seemed unfettered and, contrary to what we witnessed with the Santa Clara “Hell In A Bucket”, Bobby encouraged and even celebrated Trey’s propensity to keep jamming when the groove feels right.
Saturday’s pre-show agenda included some record digging at Jazz Record Mart (which likely deserves a few more hours of my time) and a rooftop barbeque across from Lincoln Park. We grabbed a few choice records then made our way to the party. Terry and his wife were gracious hosts for a rowdy Independence Day afternoon as we all had a few drinks and got right with the universe before the show.
As we found our spot on Saturday night, the woman beside us greeted us warmly and put us immediately at ease, pleased that we’d come in place of the folks who’d preceded us the night before. Our predecessors, apparently, didn’t approve of smoking. We, however, were from Virginia. Smoking we can handle. And so it goes at a Dead show. It’s easy to lump the audience into a single box and assign a single name to the lot but we are as varied in our attitudes as we are in our haircuts (or lack thereof).
Little reminders like this cropped up several times. Grateful Dead shows were never like attending the symphony. The community connected us and our smaller, overlapping, tribes into a sweaty, stadium swarming, mass. A series of interlocking living rooms encircling the stage; the central point of commonality. Despite the intent of reserved seating, we shift about to find a balance of that which was important: view, sound, dancing space, friendly neighbors, few inattentive talkers, and a thousand other factors that naturally fall into place.
Perched in the proper seats, you get to know those strangers around you. You look out for them and become co-invested in having a great time. You visit during set break and learn about how their kids have grown up and gotten married. This happened to me several times. It’s how I imagine class reunions only with more tie-dye and fewer judgements. But it had been twenty years since we’ve done this in full. As much as I enjoyed the Furthur Fest, Phil & Friends, The Dead, etc… None of that felt like much more than an offshoot from this thing we’d once had. In Chicago, I felt the real thing coming back to life. Find your spot and it’s like being at home — perhaps the largest house concert you’ll ever attend — where the sofas are stadium seats and the coffee table has been moved out to make room for a band. Once they take the stage, we give them our attention and our love and they give us their all.
We sat behind the stage anticipating we-did-not-know-what. Had the previous night been a fluke? Would they maintain the high-level playing, fall off, or go bigger? When they opened with a tight, fifteen-minute “Shakedown Street”, we knew that this was for real. It had the right feel for my feet. We were reminded that it was Independence Day when Bobby sang “Liberty”. This version featured a brilliant solo from Bruce. Next, Trey’s rendition of “Standing On The Moon” slayed me. I bawled like a newborn child bereft of the warmth of the womb. Bobby answered the emotional moment with a lighthearted cowboy song about card playing, horse riding, and gun fighting: “Me and My Uncle”. The bouncy rhymes of “Tennessee Jed” followed with “Little Red Rooster” on its heels. Both benefitted from strong playing across the board. The latter also featured a great organ solo from Jeff Chimenti.
My wife, Amy, has made it known that “Friend Of The Devil” is best played at (or near) its original tempo. Although I’ve enjoyed the languid ballad versions Garcia played for us in the latter Grateful Dead years, I was happy to hear them keep it uptempo in Chicago. “Deal” then closed the set with a blend of guitar shredding and Hornsby’s slow-burn showmanship.
Setbreak passed with another dose of the dreamy Neal Casal instrumental music. It was amusing watching people attempt to Shamzam this unreleased material. Hopefully this music gets a full and proper release before long.
When they dropped into “Bird Song” to open the next set, I leapt up with joy. There are songs that you simply “like” and then there are songs that you’ve sung as a lullaby to each of your children. This song is the latter. They played it beautifully and jammed it right up to the edge of space before returning to a safe landing. “Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” jolted us out of that “Bird Song” space and got the entire stadium jumping and dancing. It too had a nice little jam. I’d been hoping for a “Lost Sailor”, so when the first notes seeped out from the stage, I simultaneously cheered and teared up. It built slowly toward “Saint Of Circumstance”, which was always a song that I’d never want to see before the show but always loved during & after. This one had us all dancing and throwing our arms in the air and possibly levitating with collective energy.
Bruce moved back to the fore with “West L.A. Fadeaway”. He sang with his best showman style and played a mean solo to boot. During Bruce’s solos all weekend long, I found myself thinking of my buddy Joel whose health kept him away from the shows. Hoping he was listening to a stream, I put on my best Joel-dance and boogied in his honor. This was not the first time I found my mind wandering to loved ones not present and it would not be the last. At other times I thought of various friends who took or accompanied me to shows over the years. Some of them I still see now and then, others have been lost in the shuffle of time. I embraced those memories as they came and danced all the harder to celebrate each one.
“Foolish Heart”, played beautifully and sung by Trey, led us into the “Drums” and “Space”. It is worthy of note that, if you are at all a fan of “Space”, these shows contained really nice jams. On this night, the deep space featured some tastefully applied ‘whale’ from Trey and slipped easily into “Stella Blue”. I’m not sure who managed to remain dry-eyed during this one. Bobby seemed emotionally absorbed as he sang (so much so that he couldn’t even hit the “Gonna make ‘em shine” lyric) and Trey’s solo soared. After such a heavy tune, only rock & roll could shift the atmosphere. “One More Saturday Night” delivered that shift and the stadium lit up. I took a rare jaunt away from my seat during this and was thrilled to see the passageways full of spinners and smilers. After a quick break and Phil’s de rigeur organ donor monologue (for the record, I do wish to be an organ donor), The band returned and played a rockin’ “U.S. Blues”. It was Independence Day, after all. This was capped by fireworks backed by Sousa’s “Stars And Stripes Forever” blasting through the PA.
I woke Sunday looking forward to another great show. It was also to be the last. I tried not to dwell on that detail but it welled up repeatedly throughout the day. First, however, we charged up our spirits at the Art Institute Of Chicago. My foreknowledge of their collection was limited to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Once there, it was clear that the time available was inadequate so I absorbed what I could (mostly Impressionists and Modern) and resolved to return someday with Amy.
Next stop was another record store. This time we hit Reckless Records and, although the weekend had likely seen plenty of folks digging in ahead of us, we each came away with some good selections. Then it was back to the room to prep for the show.
We entered the stadium and found seats dead center behind the stage. The sound and screens were excellent. The lights dimmed and the band jumped right in with “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider”. The core held tight, the keyboardists were on and Trey sailed through the pairing. His tone was well attuned for Grateful Dead music as was his touch. The singers traded verses for “Rider” but they all sang together (along with much of the audience) for The “northbound train” verse which had traditionally been Jerry’s.
“Estimated Prophet” was excellent; far beyond expectations for the odd-metered groove, and was followed by “Built To Last”. Bruce again took to the mic and acquitted himself well with the mouthful of a song. Bobby stepped up next and delivered our Sunday sermon on “Samson And Delilah” which was followed by a beautiful, extended version of “Mountains Of The Moon” sung by Phil.
When not at a show, I’ve mixed feelings for Bobby’s song, “Throwing Stones”. As much as I have enjoyed the song, it came to signify something that I hated: the end of the show. That in mind, I was delighted to hear it close the first set. Bobby gets his political dander up on this one to the point that it probably shouldn’t work… But it does.
Setbreak brought more friends to our spot to finish out the show. Without any warning, more fireworks began to explode overhead. This time they launched as many if not more than they had the previous night. Folks were amped up and cheering wildly when the band came back onstage and began jamming. A bluesy jam built for a few minutes before transforming to “Truckin'”. The second repeat from the California shows, this version took Santa Clara’s “ragged-but-right” approach and ditched the “ragged”. It jammed a little bit before dropping into “Cassidy”. This was always a late first-set song, notable for its jam potential. This version did not disappoint and, after getting weird for a few minutes, it was quickly followed by Trey singing “Althea”. I love this song so much. Suffice to say, they exceeded my hopes.
A moment’s pause was broken by Trey strumming a familiar, tentative, pattern. “Terrapin Station” had been predicted by most folks for this show, but that did little to ease my excitement when it began. I quickly channeled that excitement into dancing. Bobby’s voice held up and the band executed the suite well, leading us into “Dums”.
“Drums” was cool and I danced as long as it was danceable. Billy took his leave and Mickey leaned on the beam for a bit before breaking out the train horns last spotted on Summer Tour ’92.
“Unbroken Chain”, special to most for its rarity in the Grateful Dead days, has become a staple for Phil over the past twenty years and justifiably so. It’s a masterpiece of lyrical and musical composition. Here, they eased gracefully into it from “Space” and delivered an excellent performance. This yielded to one of the last great Hunter/Garcia collaborations, “Days Between”. If you’d been saving tears all weekend somehow, they came loose now. The way this song illustrates time’s passage through the seasons has always worked for me, especially the Summer verse with its “Dandelion Wine-esque” lyrics about “hearts of Summer, held in trust, tender young and green, left on shelves, collecting dust, not knowing what they mean”.
This quiet, heavy moment was blown apart by Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”. They rocked this fan favorite out to its limits, leaving the audience clapping and chanting the traditional “You know our love will not fade away” until Phil came out to the stage to, once again, remind us of the lives we can change by being organ donors. The chant then resumed until the entire band returned for the encore of “Touch Of Grey”. This joyous song is as a middle finger to those who’d see one stopped by adversity. The Grateful Dead and its fans have seen quite of few of those over the past fifty years and, those of us still pushing through, moved out feet and raised our voices. Trey played one last, beautiful solo and it was over.
We didn’t want it to be over.
Many fans started back with the “Not Fade Away” chant. Others chanted “One More Song”. There was no threat of riot but the crowd was resolute. We weren’t leaving until the lights came on and dammit they’d better not turn the lights on yet…
When they returned to the stage, Bobby slung an acoustic guitar while Trey and Phil approached their mics empty-handed. Accompanied by the keys and drums, they sang “Attics Of My Life”. It was an apt song – one that reflects on the history of an unconditional love – for the closer. And this band, who had been harshly criticized for their singing just one week before, was giving us a moving performance of the most challenging vocal song in their catalog. Behind them, images of the band and its members, past and present, flashed on the screen. As each face appeared, we cheered. Were they ever so young? From Pigpen, gone so long now, to Keith, to Brent whose organ was onstage in use by Jeff Chimenti. Even Vince appeared. Bruce, and Jeff did as well. Jerry, of course smiled down on us. Billy and Mickey, and Phil, grinning broadly with the look of a man who knows the value of the times he’s having all garnered wild cheers. Trey drew a massive ovation. Then Bobby, shown as he appears now, all shaggy beard and bushy mustache looked back as we cheered once more.
The song ended. They bowed and Mickey took to a mic to remind us, as we go out into the world, to “Be Kind”. The players left the stage, and the lights came up.
After a round of hugs, we gathered our spent and tired selves, left the stadium in search of dinner and sleep. Sunrise would soon come and see us slipping out of town and back to our lives.
Was it the same? It could never be the same. But, it was special and as close to that feeling as I’ve had in twenty years. The band rose to the occasion and among them Trey Anastasio rose the highest. Trey stepped into a minefield of expectations and doubts. He performed with skill, respect, and grit; and proved to us all that he was more than the man for the job.
Twenty years ago I was the kid at the shows. Now, we’re all that much older and, a new generation of “kids” turned up for their best shot at seeing a Grateful Dead show. This gives me hope for the legacy of the Grateful Dead. The weekend was more than just a set of concerts. It was more than just a road trip with some old friends. It was not just the period on a long, unfinished, sentence. The Grateful Dead, both the band and the experience that surrounds it, has no fixed ending. Instead, a new chapter has opened as another is closed and each of us, musicians and audience members alike, shall carry the light forward into the future.
For more on the Fare Thee Well shows, beside to check out Episode #60 of the Helping Friendly Podcast.
Thanks to @LL_Rain, @Rubes425, @GDTRFB, Scott Harris (http://www.scottharris.photography) for use of their photos.