They came from the East, the West, the North and the South Side, pilgrims all: the stoned and the rehabbed, wistful greybeards and start-up dreamers, pungent trustafarians and parking-lot strivers, CEOs and short-sellers, doctors and lawyers, dealers and hustlers and Teva-strapped miracle-seekers, jackasses and zen masters, cowboys and card sharks, bros and flower children, lovers, BFFs, clients and drug buddies — thousands blanketing the provisional Mecca of Chicago with roses, tie-dyes, grinning vibes and kind-bud vapor. Not to bury the Dead but to praise them, pay proper respects and party our asses off.
And so we did. Last night was the first show of the group’s three-night Fare Thee Well run, billed as the last shows the surviving Grateful Dead members will play as a group. It was beautifully executed under a waning gibbous moon, on a cool summer evening, with a soft breeze coming in off Lake Michigan. About 70,000 people danced and sang through the night, packing one-hitters, drinking, hugging and welling up.
Sure, “the Grateful Dead” is a qualified moniker, and has been ever since quicksilver lead guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and spiritual adviser Jerry Garcia died on August 9, 1995. Strictly speaking, the band ended that day. But the songs and the scene remained, vital and viral. Younger bands bloomed in the Dead’s image, good, bad and meh, spinning variations. So did the surviving members, almost from the get-go, in various configurations. All of it — these final three gigs included — could only be tributes. Is it what Jerry would’ve wanted? Fuck knows. But Garcia would be the first to tell you: This thing blew up bigger than anyone would’ve dreamed, one afternoon long ago.
The night was a perfectly unpredictable mix of classics and curveballs, opening with “Box of Rain,” the American Beauty gem written by Phil Lesh for his dying father; it was the last song the band played together when Garcia was alive, performed on the same spot in Chicago nearly 20 years ago. “Such a long long time to be gone/And a short time to be there” sang Lesh, his voice — utilitarian at best even in his prime — leathery and cracking, fittingly weary, but resolute in its testifying, buoyed by thousands of backing vocalists. “Jack Straw” followed, Lesh and Bob Weir trading vocals, with Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Garcia’s ringer for the weekend, punctuating the vocals with guitar gilt in a way that the late guitarist never did. Anastasio’s guitar took full flight before the last verse, with a burst of silvery machine-gun strafing, at which point you knew: It was on. If the critique of the band’s warm-up gigs in Santa Clara was that Anastasio laid back too much, that was not a problem tonight. This was some of the most soulful, sympathetic music he’s ever made.
Singing lead on a feisty “Bertha,” Anastasio’s voice uncannily mirrored early-Seventies Garcia, and he spun beautiful circles through “The Wheel,” pinging lead lines off of Bruce Hornsby’s piano fills amidst a spray of hammer-ons. Anastasio shone brightest on the mid-Seventies material that dominated the show. On the paired “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire On The Mountain” — a signature Dead combo — he worked his way up the scales by measured increments while Lesh’s bass circled and nipped at his heels. The band performed nearly the entire of 1975’s Blues for Allah LP: “The Music Never Stopped,” “Crazy Fingers” (its instrumental intro greeted by a sea of jazz hands) and the second-set triple-header of “Help On The Way” into “Slipknot!” into “Franklins Tower,” the LP’s funky-mystic white-boy jazzbo feints sitting squarely in Anastasio’s wheelhouse.
The second set opened surprisingly on “Mason’s Children,” a Workingman’s Dead outtake rarely played even back in the day, a parable about literally digging up a dead father figure. “He’d hardly aged a day/Taught us all we ever knew” croaked Lesh, comrades choogling alongside. “New Potato Caboose” was another deep-crate highlight, about a dark psychedelic vision redeemed by love and music — at core, really, what the band’s entire oeuvre is about.
Hornsby, who did time with the band in Nineties, once again shored up ragged vocal harmonies with his bright tenor, and deepened the improv weave with elegant piano comps. On the Seventies material, he was a one-man Keith and Donna Godchaux, the husband-and-wife team who logged miles with the band during that era. Journeyman keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, for his part, added muscular organ and occasional sci-fi electronics, bringing squishy synths to an unraveled section of “Playing in the Band.”
On thousands of hours of bootlegs, and often live, the abstract second-set excursion known as “Drums/Space” is a snooze. But last night, with walls of bass bins and shit-tons of amplifier power, it was enveloping, even profound. Mickey Hart drew a pattern on kalimba, tag-teaming with co-worker Bill Kreutzman on massive taiko-style drums, and unleashing drones and loops and sonic booms with a variety of tools. They including the custom string instrument known as “the beam,” a huge steel guitar, strung with piano wire, alternately played with hands and a bow. (Its appearance dates back to the Seventies, part of a percussion arsenal created when Hart and Kreutzman were asked to provide a soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now.) It was possible to hear scores of 21st-century electronic beat composers contained in the maelstrom.
Or maybe it was just the drugs. In fact, the sort of excess that brought down the Dead scene during the tail end of the fraught Eighties/Nineties stretch — prolific barfing, blackouts, fans crawling around on their hands and knees — was thankfully not in evidence. Maybe the steep ticket prices dictated a crowd of folks who could keep their shit somewhat together. Or perhaps some of us, along with getting older, had grown a tiny bit wiser.
Thoughts like this came easily watching this group of old musicians, who have somehow survived where many of their fellow travellers haven’t. And the words they sang, having served as gospel and tattoos for so many, informed it, too. These were songs about dogged endurance, about staying the course and staying true to whatever reality you pledge allegiance to, and of course, having been born of the Sixties, about the redemptive power of love. “Without love in the dream, insanity’s king” sang Anastasio in “Help On The Way,” popping out glistening notes like Ben Wa balls from the black hole of the cosmos. And when Phil Lesh stepped to the mic before the sublime encore of “Ripple” — during which roughly 70,000 voices incanted “let there be songs to fill the air” into the night sky — the bassist got a little choked up talking about “the love we have for each other,” meaning the musicians and the fans.
“Thank you for being here for us,” he concluded. And all these pilgrims, who have collectively logged so many miles with this music and this band — and plenty of whom will be back in Soldier Field tomorrow and Sunday, too — cheered as if to say: No worries. The pleasure was ours.
“Box Of Rain”
“The Wheel” > “Crazy Fingers”
“The Music Never Stopped”
“Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire On The Mountain”
“Drums” > “Space” > “New Potato Caboose” > “Playing in the Band” > “Let It Grow” > “Help On The Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower”