And that’s the thing about Grateful Dead shows. Sometimes everything comes together. Other times? Not so much.
Night Number Two of the three-night Fare Thee Well goodbye shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field had moments, as every Dead show has moments. There was a lovely, handsomely abstracted “Bird Song,” the Janis Joplin benediction, now an all-purpose requiem. A fire-spitting take on “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)” — the first song on the Grateful Dead’s first album — a psychedelic garage rocker conjuring the Sixties San Francisco hippie scene. A hot take on the extended gambling metaphor “Deal.” A deliciously sad and lyrical “Stella Blue,” sung by Bob Weir and a very pretty “Standing on the Moon,” delivered by the moonlighting Trey Anastasio. There was a jaunty “Friend of the Devil,” sung by Phil Lesh with the rare bonus of the usually omitted fifth verse. There was a powerful, thundering “Drums”/”Space.” And being July 4th, of course, there were fireworks at the end.
But the song selection, rooted in the Dead’s thin Eighties and Nineties catalog, was notably weak. (The decision to not repeat songs during this run of shows — which, notwithstanding last night’s reprise of “Cumberland Blues” and the usual “Drums”/”Space” section, the band has stuck to — has left them with slim pickings.) And the chemistry wasn’t there like it was for Night One, or the best parts of the two warm-up shows in Santa Clara last week. Tempos were sluggish or weirdly accelerated; there was little overarching sense of flow. The ringers — Anastasio, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, pianist Bruce Hornsby — played well, but didn’t always sync with the original band members, and rarely tapped into the musical mind-meld characteristic of the best Dead shows.
As happens during dull stretches, attention wandered. One might have thought about shows past. About what a shame it is to have to sit through songs as boring as “Liberty” “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” — even when lit up with nice spots of improvisation — during such a special night, or another pro-forma bar-band run-thru of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.” Looking up to the sky above Soldier Field, one might have pondered the Direct TV blimp with the flashing side panel, which alternated quotes from Grateful Dead songs and animated dancing bears with ad pitches (“HIGHER SATISFACTION THAN CABLE” “THE MOST PGA COVERAGE” “STREAM ON ANY DEVICE”). And it might have driven one back to the concession stands for another $11.75 beer.
Indeed, Fare Thee Well and the surrounding 50th anniversary hullaballoo has been a rock & roll cash grab to rival any that have come before, on every level. Scalpers, corporate and indie, went to town. Chicago hotels price-gouged mercilessly. There have been branded pay-per-view video streams and satellite radio simulcasts, and an 80-CD anniversary box set. Meanwhile, the haters have had their knives out. The Wall Street Journal followed the ticket market like an IPO while letting the editorial dogs bark (“They sounded like stoners,” observed one critical sage of a golden-era Dead show that apparently left him with his dick in his hand). The clickbait has been ladled out like chum. And the faithful had every right to grouse.
For a fan on the ground in Chicago, the cash-grab vibe has felt sketchy at best, and the scale of the shows dispiriting. After all, the supersizing of the Dead experience was the beginning of the band’s end. The residency shows Phil Lesh has been convening, with rotating casts, over the past couple of years at the small and beautiful Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York — a favorite venue of the band in the early days — have been truer to the Platonic ideal of the Dead than any cattle call could ever be. (They will resume in October for a five weekend run.)
But the Dead have always been big on ritual events: New Years Eve shows, the closing of Winterland, the concerts at the Great Pyramid in Giza. And even with cable-pimping blimps and pricey swag, the vibe in Soldier Field has been magnificent to behold, conceptually magnified by fan-gatherings around the world, in theaters and bars and living rooms.
In the end, Night Two was perhaps a fitting Independence Day celebration of the contradictions of American entrepreneurial capitalism by the quintessential American band, a group that astonishingly, for all its druggie outlaw spirit, has become so mainstream that politicians are now lining up to sing its praises. (“Here’s to 50 years of the Grateful Dead,” wrote President Obama or his proxy in the concert program, “an iconic American band that embodies the creativity, passion and ability to bring people together that make American music so great.”) The show concluded, predictably if satisfyingly, with “One More Saturday Night” and, naturally, “U.S. Blues.” “We’re all confused” sang the crowd during the latter, waving their flags, ironically or not, and dancing hard enough in the stadium’s second tier to make the steel and concrete structure roil like a water bed.
“Standing on the Moon”
“Me & My Uncle”
“Little Red Rooster”
“Friend of the Devil”
“The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)”
“Lost Sailor” > “Saint Of Circumstance”
“West L.A. Fadeaway”
“Drums” > “Space” > “Stella Blue” > “One More Saturday Night