How Grateful Dead's 2015 Farewell Became a New Beginning

Group's 50th-anniversary concerts were the centerpiece of the year's most remarkable rock & roll rebirth

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Year in Grateful Dead; 2015
The past year saw the Grateful Dead's legacy evolving in surprising, and lucrative, ways. Jay Blakesberg

It was kinda crazy: A band whose irreplaceable de facto leader, Jerry Garcia, had died 20 years prior, and whose surviving members had been touring together in various configurations without much fuss ever since, regrouped with some ringers for five reunion gigs, and wound up launching the biggest concert event of the year.

The numbers were remarkable. Initially just three shows were announced for Chicago's Soldier Field; then two warmups were added at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California; then a pay-per-view simulcast for the whole shebang that dwarfed any music event to date, filling theaters, bars and living rooms across the country and the globe. Post-game estimates clocked the entire take for "Fare Thee Well: A Tribute to the Grateful Dead" at $55 million, and that's before CD and DVD documents of the event were released. Sure, Taylor Swift may have tripled that figure for her fall tour, but that was 50-plus shows over 17 weeks — not five in nine days. 

Tickets ranged between $60 and $200 face value, many times that on the brutal scalpers' market (some creep was asking $116K for a primo seat on Stubhub, and who knows, maybe he got it). The marketing push left a bad taste for many. But the shows were well staged and executed with a good deal of class. Roses were distributed.  The playing was mostly excellent. The ravaged voices of Bob Weir and Phil Lesh were set against the more supple singing of Bruce Hornsby and Trey Anastasio, demonstrating time's inexorable march. Anastasio's guitar walked an admirable line between Jerry-manque and his own more energized style. It was almost like the old days, but fittingly, not quite.

Year in Grateful Dead; 2015
Mickey Hart (left) and Bill Kreutzmann Jay Blakesberg

Astonishing though it was, the success of the Fare Thee Well shows, which marked the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary, was hardly inexplicable. As Blair Jackson and David Gans write in their new oral history of the band, This Is All a Dream We Dreamed, "The Grateful Dead became an attractive destination; the culture itself became a destination." It was a package deal: strong songs, transporting improvisation, unhinged dancing, impressive drugs, a compelling vibe. The group even came with its own set of philosophical gospels, flexible but potent, spun like most theosophies from a freestyle mix of scripture and believer practices. It was a unique place that fans really liked, and they wanted to revisit it.

Unsurprisingly, these "final" farewell shows weren't really an end. After a short break, and to the chagrin of some, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart teamed up with pop star–guitar hotshot John Mayer to tour as Dead & Company. (By most reports, Mayer has been acquitting himself well.) Meanwhile, Phil Lesh & Friends returned to their ongoing Dead-centric residency at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. And with the market whet, release of vintage Dead performances ramped up, spearheaded by 30 Trips Around the Sun, an 80-CD compilation of unreleased concert recordings.

Amazingly enough, the band's story remains compelling, and writers continue to parse what it all means. In addition to Jackson and Gans' oral history, this year saw the band bio So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead by Rolling Stone's David Browne; Bill Kreutzmann's memoir, Deal; Peter Richardson's "cultural history" of the band, No Simple Highway; and The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, a lavishly illustrated volume that might serve as a bedside King James Version for a certain breed of music fan. And due next year, among other titles, is Jesse Jarnow's Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, which traces a nation's neurochemical enlightenment in large part through the Dead's community and affiliates. It's always been about more than just the music.      

Year in Grateful Dead; 2015
Jeff Chimenti Jay Blakesberg

What might be most remarkable about this revival, however, is the critical revisionism around the band's legacy, with knee-jerk punk-generation Dead-bashing — born in the Dead's fallow final years — being replaced by a consensus cross-generational respect, even reverence. After the July 4th Fare Thee Well concert ended, an all-star crew was making their own Dead tribute down the road, organized by Alex Bleeker of the blissy New Jersey indie-rockers Real Estate. Jenny Lewis sang "Sugaree;" Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan soared through "Dark Star." In a similar spirit, 2016 should finally see the release of a Dead-based benefit compilation organized by the National, and featuring Ranaldo, Kaplan, Stephen Malkmus, Kurt Vile, the War on Drugs, Fucked Up, Perfume Genius, Justin Vernon and Sharon Van Etten, among others. The National's Aaron Dessner recently told an interviewer that lead singer Matt Berninger's take on the Dead staple "Peggy O" is "my favorite vocal performance [he's] ever done," and expressed how satisfying the project has been. "To actually shine a light on these [songs]," he said, "and to do it with a lot of care and to see how excited all these musicians are ... I mean, you'd be shocked at all the people."

Given all the Dead accomplished as musicians, and all they clearly still represent, it's actually not shocking at all.

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