Last night, the surviving "core four" members of the Grateful Dead began their three-night stand at Chicago's Soldier Field after two earlier, quasi-warmup shows in Santa Clara, California, the weekend before. With it came the return not only of a certain sound — in last night's case, the loose-and-nimble jamming of the Seventies, heard in an almost entirely Me Decade set list drawn from albums like Blues for Allah, Europe '72, American Beauty and From the Mars Hotel — but in the surrounding atmosphere. A few things that have changed with times — and some that haven't — at the first Chicago night of the Fare Thee Well shows.
What's changed: Things one can bring into the venue. Signs at the Soldier Field entrance gate warned that prohibited items included glow sticks, "illegal drugs" and strollers. Even "horns and whistles" made the list. Also, the frayed T-shirts worn by many loyalists now include those for Dead spinoffs like Phil Lesh & Friends and Furthur, none of which existed before Garcia's death in 1995.
What hasn't changed: The band's legendary outside-the-venue hangout area, "Shakedown Street." Vending booths sold tapestries, T-shirts, and seemingly healthy food. At a tent-style store selling Garcia merchandise, fans danced in the outside pre-show sun to live recordings of the Jerry Garcia Band.
What's changed: The price tags. Some tickets were as much as $199. "Fare Thee Well" hoodies were selling for $120.
What hasn't changed: Just beyond the venue grounds, a clearly unauthorized vendor was selling balloons filled with nitrous.
What's changed: Despite earlier concerns about tens of thousands of Deadhead converging on Solider Field, some without tickets for the sold-out show, the overall atmosphere was mellow and carnival-like. Venue employees handed out free red roses as concertgoers entered the venue. (This was the idea of promoter Peter Shapiro.) Memories of gnarly Dead shows of the Nineties overrun by gate crashers and excessive partying were gone. "Everyone says hello and is being nice and friendly," said Jon Lese, a Connecticut marketing consultant who drove overnight with friends. "Maybe we're a little older and more responsible. It's night and day compared to '95."
What hasn't changed: Famous Deadheads. Among those in attendance were skyscraper-tall retired basketball legend and unabashed Deadhead Bill Walton (who happily posed for photos with fans outside the venue), John Mayer with Katy Perry, George R.R. Martin, and, reportedly, Senator and longtime Deadhead Al Franken. Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who caught numerous Dead shows on his native Long Island in the Seventies, was also in the crowd. "It's amazing, like having that experience all over again," he enthused. "I love the way the band just wandered out on stage and started playing. It was just like the old days." The experience extended away from Soldier Field; Chicago was overrun with Deadheads and Dead-related museum exhibits. "We were on the corner near Wrigley Field and there was a freak on the sidewalk, smoking weed and going into this stoned rap," said Ranaldo.
What's changed: The respectability quotient. On one American Airlines flight to Chicago, a flight attendant gave one of the most unusual announcements ever heard in the air: "If you're going to the Grateful Dead concert in Chicago — and I wish I were! — one of your fellow passengers would like to swap a Friday ticket for a Saturday ticket. If you can do this, come see me." After a round of applause in the cabin, the ticket swap went down. When told of the story at Soldier Field, Dead scholar and SiriusXM radio host David Gans smiled: "That's the best story I've ever heard that we're everywhere."
What hasn't changed: Deadheads and this music. Throughout the over-four-hour show, Deadheads largely stood and swayed, roaring at the start of certain songs ("Scarlet Begonias," "Box of Rain," "Fire on the Mountain") and whenever Phish's Trey Anastasio powered into one of several riffy solos. The Dead shuffle dance was back in the crowd, as were rampant air-guitar outbreaks, especially during "Bertha." As one fan said out loud, "Everyone is so happy to be here."