Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well Sets Attendance Record at Chicago's Soldier Field

Jay Blakesberg
The Grateful Dead perform during the 'Fare Thee Well, A Tribute To The Grateful Dead' on July 3, 2015 in Chicago.

"The response has been one of police, the city, and fans working harmoniously," co-promoter Peter Shapiro tells Billboard the morning after night 1.

The trippy circus that follows the Grateful Dead descended on Chicago en masse as the first of the three-night Fare Thee Well, the final performances by the core four -- Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, ​Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, along with guest musicians Trey Anastasio from Phish and keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti -- got out of the gates smoothly. The attendance of 70,764 shattered Soldier Field’s post-renovation attendance record of 67,936 set by U2 360 in 2009.

The morning after the opening show, Peter Shapiro, co-producer of Fare Thee Well with AEG’s Madison House, says the show came off well logistically. “One [show] in out of three, we’re in good shape right now,” he says. “The response has been one of police, the city, and fans working harmoniously. And the weather is working with us, which always helps. You learn that on the first day of ‘Concerts 101,’ and it really is true: when the sun is shining, people are happy.”

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Indeed, the mood matched the weather -- sunny and warm -- in the massive footprint of Soldier Field, where a family reunion vibe ruled the day as fans reconnected and revived a community unmatched in music in both its scale and passion. Freak flags flew, grills smoked and the Dead's music blared for blocks around the stadium and Lake Michigan. “It was a real scene,” observes Shapiro, himself a self-avowed DeadHead and largely the catalyst for making the shows happen.  

Traffic problems were minimal heading into Chicago, and the streets around Soldier were busy but manageable. “We did a good job encouraging people to walk or take public transportation,” Shapiro says, “so [city officials] told us they had less pressure than they expected.”

Fare Thee Well producers created a festival atmosphere on the Soldier Field concourses, with merch tents (including  wealth of branded products touting the Garcia label), as fans ponied up for a wide array of Fare Thee Well products and checked out interactive exhibits and non-profit booths on Participation Row. Shapiro says 17 non-profits have a presence at Fare Thee Well, and “we’ll be giving each a pretty sizeable check.”

Inside the stadium, fans were presented with American Beauty roses as they entered (55,000 were handed out, courtesy of FTD.com and Madison House), and a pervasive sense of community prevailed, as fans in full DeadHead regalia ranging from psychedelic wizards to freaked out Uncle Sam (in a nod to both Independence Day and the Dead’s own all-American spirit) strutted through the complex. A tangible energy only increased as show time neared, and erupted when the Dead took the stage, with fans surging from the concessions stands and merch booths and headed to their seats. By the time the band wrapped opener “Box Of Rain,” there was nary an empty seat visible.

Fare Thee Well fully captures the best elements of a stadium show, more intimate and confined than a festival, “where the energy flies out over the field and out,” Shapiro observes. “It’s great in that stadium environment. It’s intense.”

The audience was a living, breathing entity, dancing as one as the upper decks of Soldier Field literally rocked in time to the music. As the band found its footing very early in the opening set, the mood ebbed and flowed but remained exuberant, with mood-inducing lights directed by Dead veteran Candace Brightman, generally crisp sound (although some complained of a lack of clarity in front of the stage, in the upper decks the sound was pristine), and colorful video that alternated between real-time live footage, vintage band images, and shots of art from mail order ticket envelopes.

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Fans exuberantly discussed the performance in the restrooms and across the concourses during a lengthy intermission, dissecting various performances, stumbles and triumphs.  When the band -- and this lineup has truly become a band since launching Fare Thee Well in Santa Clara, Calif. last weekend -- was confident and ambitious in the second set, with Trey Anastasio solidifying his place in Dead lore to exuberant response on “Scarlet Begonias.” “You see them getting more and more comfortable,” says Shapiro. “I can’t wait for the next two.”

Also in attendance for Fare Thee Well Chicago’s first night was Jay Marciano, COO of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and chairman of its live music division AEG Live, which bankrolled Fare Thee Well and co-produces the shows through AEG wholly-owned subsidiary Madison House in a 50/50 partnership with Shapiro. Marciano, a live music industry veteran who was formerly CEO of Madison Square Garden, among other high-profile music biz posts, was also impressed by the positive energy at Soldier Field. “That vibe amongst music fans has been missing since [the Grateful Dead] quit [following Jerry Garcia’s death 20 years ago],” he tells Billboard. “I’ve never seen a happier group of 70,000 people in all the years I’ve been dong this. We’re all kind of feeling it. There were 70,000 smiles in that stadium, from the minute they went on until the minute they quit. Everybody loves music and expresses themselves in different ways, but those fans were united in that they were just extremely happy to be there and be part of this.”

A “skycam” drone that hovered over the audience and stage delivered the scene to Internet and pay-per-view audiences at home, in theaters, and at satellite venues across America. Shapiro says early returns indicate a “great response and big numbers” at his own venues hosting viewing parties, the Booklyn Bowl in New York and the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. “We had big crowds, says Shapiro. “And we expect them to grow, Sunday night should be big.”

So Fare Thee Well is through the beginning of its end, this return of a familiar scene also inexorably headed toward its inevitable conclusion as both band members and fans will head their separate ways come Monday.  “You see this energy and realize that it’s needed in the music business,” Shapiro muses. “What we just saw last night is not out there, it doesn’t exist, at least on this scale. We’re getting it again [with Fare Thee Well], it definitely feels like a Grateful Dead show, even beyond that with the scale, power and energy. But it’s also a little bittersweet, because you want more of it. You don’t want it to end.”

Update: The final numbers for the 4th of July show 70,844 tickets purchased. The July 5 bow had attendance of 71,000.