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.