Inside the Grateful Dead's Final Ride

Trey Anastasio on the band's historic reunion shows this summer

Bob Weir and Trey Anastasio onstage in 2012. The Phish guitarist will join the Dead for reunion concerts marking the Dead's 50th anniversary. Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty

On January 5th, just after his band Phish ended a four-night run of shows in Miami, singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio received an e-mail from Phil Lesh, the former bassist of the Grateful Dead. Lesh asked Anastasio to join him and the other surviving members of his band — guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart — onstage for reunion concerts this summer marking the Dead's 50th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the passing of founding guitarist Jerry Garcia. Anastasio recalls his immediate reaction: "It was a thrill and an honor." Still, he adds, "I thought about it for a minute, tried to think about the implications." Then he said yes.

"Phil said all four of them thought it was the right thing," Anastasio says of the shows, to be held at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 3rd, 4th and 5th. Garcia last performed with the Dead at that 61,500-seat stadium, on July 9th, 1995; he died a month later, on August 9th at 53, of a heart attack. Anastasio notes that Lesh, in his message, "talked about the healthy relationships between the band members," that the reunion "was going to be a real positive experience. And Phil said, 'This is the last time I'm doing this.' He seemed pretty definitive about that."

The Dead's July run — dubbed "Fare Thee Well" and featuring keyboard players Bruce Hornsby, who played with the Dead in the Nineties, and longtime Weir and Lesh sideman Jeff Chimenti — is on track to become the biggest single-act concert event of the year, and possibly the largest ever. Two weeks after the shows were announced, ticket requests via presale mail order totaled more than 400,000, well past capacity. Peter Shapiro, the New York-based promoter and entrepreneur who conceived the shows, says he and co-producers Madison House Presents are "looking at going 360" — opening up the seating behind the stage — and "going general admission" on the field "to accommodate more people and have more of a vibe."

Shapiro estimates the cost of producing "Fare Thee Well" – and potential revenue — in "the multiple millions of dollars. But with this response, we can put on a show that takes the spirit of the Grateful Dead, what they were doing production-wise, and push it to the highest level." He promises vintage touches such as a tapers' section, specially printed commemorative tickets and "a safe, energetic lot scene." The demand for tickets ensures that "not everyone is going to get in," Shapiro warns. So he is working on simulcasting the shows around the country; Shapiro is already holding the dates at his venues, including the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, and the Brooklyn Bowl.

The road to "Fare Thee Well" began in early 2014, when Shapiro made his first proposal to Weir, Lesh, Hart and Kreutzmann, based on returning to the site of their last concert with Garcia. The four received other offers from Live Nation and the producers of the Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals for 50th-birthday performances. (The Dead played their first show, as the Warlocks, in May 1965.) But Shapiro, 42, had special qualifications. He "grew up on Dead tours," as he puts it; ran Wetlands, the New York jam-scene club, from 1996 to 2001; and since then has promoted many shows with the ex-members, particularly Lesh. "I believe in it," says Shapiro. "I'm a fan. I want to see it." 

Anastasio's history with the Grateful Dead goes back to his first show, at the Hartford Civic Center in Connecticut in 1980. The guitarist regularly attended Dead gigs through 1984, when he began to focus on the launch of Phish. In 1999, he performed with Lesh in San Francisco at the bassist's first concerts after his 1998 liver transplant. Anastasio has also played with Weir and Kreutzmann. "The flow of the whole thing," Anastasio claims, "is in my DNA." Yet, he admits, "I never sat down and studied what Jerry played until the last two weeks.

"It's really been unbelievable," he says, taking a break on a recent morning from his now-daily regimen of practicing Dead songs and analyzing the melodic purpose in Garcia's soloing and the musical genealogy inside his most iconic licks. "A couple of days ago, I started listening to 'The Wheel' [a Dead-show standard from Garcia's 1972 solo album, Garcia]. There's a line he plays after the first verse — it slides all the way from the bottom of the neck to the top. I learned it exactly, note for note. Then what I do, since I don't want to go out there and just copy Jerry — I play it in all 12 keys, so that I get it into my body.

"The thing is, there is a lot more intent in those lines than people might think," adds Anastasio. "It was not just noodling. Based on the number of ideas Jerry had in any one-minute period, he was very much a musician first, a guitar player second. The music was coming out, and the guitar was a vehicle, a transparent filter." Garcia has also been, for Anastasio, a historical guide. Working through Garcia's "country-vernacular" playing in a Seventies version of "I Know You Rider" led Anastasio to a new passion. "All of a sudden," he says, "I found myself listening to Buck Owens, this Bakersfield-country sound," and particularly Owens' legendary lead guitarist, Don Rich. "That's what I've been doing, listening to Don Rich to get to Jerry."

Anastasio and Weir have traded lists of Dead songs — 60 apiece — that each would like to play. They will meet "in a couple of weeks," Anastasio says, to "play a few things together and connect." The full band will "rehearse in June a little bit." Anastasio expects the singing to be largely shared by Weir, Hornsby, himself and the audience. "People have such lifelong relationships to these songs," Anastasio says.

Then, a week after the Chicago shows, Anastasio will be back on the road with Phish. Asked if he is putting a lot of work and heart into an experience that will last only three days, Anastasio replies firmly, "No. To me, it's a labor of love. I'm learning so much. I kind of went away from this [in 1984]. Now I'm coming back to it, a little bit older, and rediscovering some great little gems.

"I'm providing a service," Anastasio says of his role in what is likely to be the final live Grateful Dead reunion. "The cool thing is it got me back inside the guitar. I thank them. And I thank Jerry."