How Grateful Dead’s 2015 Farewell Became a New Beginning
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.
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.