By Roy Trakin.
Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead – Soldier Field, Chicago, July 5, 2015.
(AMC Universal CityWalk 19 – Fathom Events)
Coming down with a severe case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) last Sunday morning, I decided at the last minute to purchase (at $18 apiece with senior citizen discount and $4 handling charge to my PayPal account) a pair of tickets for the “final” Dead show at Chicago’s Soldier Field, putting aside for the moment all thoughts ofJerry Garcia’s absence, cash grabs and misplaced hippie nostalgia, and I’m glad I did.
That the “core four” of Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (with Phish guitarist Trey Anastacio and keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimneti) could sell upwards of 350,000 tickets for five shows, never mind the ancillary income derived from pay-per-view, streaming, recordings and the like – was pretty remarkable.
Sure this was little more than a Grateful Dead tribute band, like Dark Star Orchestra, say, albeit with four original members, one former and two guys who seamlessly fit in. Even more amazing was the band’s decision to make each show distinct – of the 82 songs played over the five engagements, only two (“Truckin’” and “Cumberland Blues”) were repeats – though that did make some nights more compelling music-wise than others.
For the finale, though, it was all about goodbyes, farewells and trying to keep the dream alive, even when it’s apparently over. From the opening salvo, “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know Your Rider,” it was clear, as Weir – in true laid-back Dead fashion, wearing cargo shorts and sandals — sang, “Gonna miss me when I’m gone,” the tone would be one of bittersweet regret.
The hour-long first set balanced obscurities (Terrapin Station’s “Estimated Prophet” and “Samson and Delilah,” highlighted by Chimneti’s churning B3 organ) with pleasant surprises (Hornsby’s spry vocals and jazzy piano runs on “Built to Last,” Lesh’s craggy vocals on Aoxomoxoa’s psychedelic “Mountains of the Moon” and Weir’s politically charged “ashes ashes all fall down” refrain in the first set-closing “Throwing Stones,” from 1987’s In The Dark.
Anastacio proved more than capable replicating some of Garcia’s crystal-clear riffs with an urgency that seemed to drive the band out of its occasional languorous stupor, a beatific glow on his face, as he musically straddled both Lesh’s supple, cushioning bass lines and Weir’s chunky, explorative rhythm guitar.
Meanwhile, Kruetzmann – resplendent in his unabashed Uncle Sam “I Want You To Grow Hemp” T-shirt – held the high end with cymbals and snares, while Hart handled the tribal percussion below, the sometimes under-appreciated key to keeping the band’s momentum alive, even in the midst of sonic explorations that sometimes seemed to dissipate in the early evening air. The second set began with a celebratory “Truckin’,” Weir crossing his eyes at the “long strange trip” chorus, his Chuck Berry-style guitar solo segueing into “Cassidy,” Bob’s tribute to the ultimate Merry Prankster, goosed along by Hornsby’s keyboard tinkling. Anastacio – perhaps spurred on by Weir’s cheeky “Let Trey Sing” T-shirt – took up the vocals on the Dylanesque “Althea,” a Garcia song from 1980’s Go to Heaven, culminating in a hearty on-stage bear-hug between Trey and Phil.
For someone like me, who dismissed the Dead in 1973 with the death of Pig Pen, the majestic title track to Terrapin Station proved a revelation, even with Lesh’s barely audible vocals.
A word here for the simulcast production, which was magnificent throughout, offering superb close-ups and long shots to capture the spectacle, nowhere more apparent than during Drums/Space, the traditional percussion interlude that climaxed with Mickey Hart blowing a diesel horn, signalling the train leaving the station, seemingly for the last time, leading into Lesh’s sprawling funk-jazz “Unbroken Chain,” a song from 1974’s Life on the Mars Hotel, was next before the pre-encore finale, Weir leaning into “Between Days,” reportedly the last song Garcia ever wrote with Robert Hunter, an elegiac look back on the lifetime span between his August 1 birthday and August 9 death, doubling as an epitaph for the band: “Walked halfway around the world/On promise of the glow/Stood upon a mountain top/Walked barefoot in the snow/Gave the best we had to give/how much we’ll ever know/we’ll never know.”
Leading into “Not Fade Away,” the crowd on the screen and in the theatre chanted the refrain in traditional manner, long after the band left the stage: “You know our love/Will not fade away.” They returned for a winsome, unexpectedly moving “Touch of Grey,” their biggest mainstream hit, and a suitable fare thee well, into a second encore of the almost a cappella, ethereal “Attics of My Life,” an American Beauty selection which proved the perfect prayerful benediction: “When the secrets all are told/And the petals all unfold/When there was no dream of mine/You dreamed of me.”
Is the dream over? Is it time to wake up from our reverie? And while it seems a shame for this particular lineup to depart after just five shows, if indeed this was the end, it proved a fitting one to what was, a long, strange trip indeed. Still, the Dead will not be forgotten, and we remain forever Grateful for that.