Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo on His Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well Experience: High Times in Chicago

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Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth photographed on Aug. 31, 2007 in London.

"I was ready to climb back aboard the bus one last time."

Upon entering Chicago's Soldier Field, the first thing that I -- and 70,000 grateful others -- were presented with was a single long-stemmed red rose. An American Beauty, dig? The Grateful Dead always had their iconography down pat. Nice opening touch...

My second impression was of the massive size of the place. The group played its last shows here in 1995, and ended with the death of Jerry Garcia shortly afterwards. Last Friday night they picked up again in this same spot, in fact opening the show with the beloved Phil Lesh/Robert Hunter song "Box of Rain," the same American Beauty song they ended that last show in ‘95 with. The band had obviously thought this whole finale deal through, as would be evident by their set lists and song choices across the whole run.

I suppose a large percentage of their audience -- the massive throngs that they attracted from the mid-80s on -- saw them mostly in places like this, huge outdoor venues (there were plenty of kids at these shows who weren’t old enough to have seen them at all). By then, I’d long left the fold, swept up in the tide of punk and beyond. But I saw them quite a lot in their 70s heyday (first show: Nassau Coliseum, March 1973 -- the same month original lead singer Pigpen checked out), back then before the darkness began creeping into their scene, both onstage and off. Recently I’ve renewed my acquaintance with their story a bit, and I was ready to climb back aboard the bus one last time.

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I was attending these shows with my three dear high school buddies, now scattered across the USA. We cut our teeth together on Grateful Dead music in the early 70s, and decided to meet in Chicago for the shows and an extended hang together. We talk about life, love, youth, aging, music, art, world affairs, and our evolving hopes and desires for ourselves and our families. In some ways The Dead and their music had a hand in shaping our world-view about so many of these things, so these Chicago shows seemed the perfect confluence to meet up and continue our ever-evolving conversation.

The festivities started, for me, at Newark Airport on Thursday. It was easy to spot the Heads among the passengers on my flight. From about 17 to about 70, the spectrum was wide and, uh, high, everyone flyin’ their tie-dyes one last time -- face-painted, Merry Prankster-costume’d, Uncle Sam top-hatted, barefoot, guitar-strumming, scarves and bandanas, rings on their fingers and bells on their shoes. Sweet smelling smoke wafting from every corner. The circus was indeed in town.

Every aspect of the Grateful Dead concert experience was on display in Chicago. Freaky conversations with crazy-eyed folks from all over the country, the “too high” guy who has to be helped out of the crowd, etc. An aging blonde Cali beauty from Humboldt managed to fly in with her homegrown stash intact. These shows were too important to leave some things to chance! A nice man near us up close to the stage told us he’d been taking “huge quantities of drugs” all weekend (he was tripping at the time) and hadn’t really felt a thing -- the whole atmosphere was already so high!

Entering the arena on Friday, red rose in hand, a guy coming in beside us quipped, “When have you ever been among 70,000 people who were all this happy?" That statement stayed with me all weekend, because it was true. There were no hassles, no impatient lines, no pushing or shoving. Everyone was super-mellow and pretty much on their best, most polite behavior -- including the stadium security and ushers (also in tie-dye). The vibes were very high.

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The band was amazing and exactly as I remembered the Dead: brilliant and inspired one minute, dragging tempos the next, spot on then completely out of sorts. The two drummers shuffling furiously and poly-rhythmically. Vocals as always ranged from pretty nice to kinda shot in spots. Just like always. But their fans have always managed to overlook the vocal shortcomings in hopes of some exploratory instrumental brilliance, and The Dead delivered. All three shows were incredibly exuberant in every way, If certain spots dragged, they also pulled out a whole handful of very early wow-zers like "Mountains of the Moon," "New Potato Caboose" and (in Santa Clara, Calif. the previous weekend) "What’s Become of the Baby?" Crazy! Their songbook is so vast and chock full of so many fantastic classic songs that they really couldn’t go wrong.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the group would not repeat songs across the 5 nights of these shows, but of course they wouldn’t! Only TWO songs repeated over 5 long nights of music ("Cumberland Blues" on July 4 and one last what-a- long-strange-trip-it’s-been version of "Truckin’" to open the final second set). Amazing ...

"Box of Rain," with Phil handling the vocals, opened the first set Friday night. I thought he was singing great and it was somewhat unexpected for him to be such a strong vocal presence, unexpected and great. Next Bob Weir dropped a pretty awesome "Jack Straw" on adoring ears. His voice, like Phil’s, would come and go throughout the run, and to me it was sometimes hard to hear him sing some of his youthful-cowboy songs as a now-old man. Plus, what’s Weir doing playing a Strat?? Mostly he sang quite well, and belted out a whole range of his best songs across the evenings, from "Estimated Prophet" and "Cassidy" to "Throwing Stones" and an excellent, growling "Samson and Delilah."

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The "core four" -- Phil, Bob, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, were augmented by organist Jeff Chimenti and their old touring buddy Bruce Hornsby on piano, who also capably handled some vocal turns (hey, he got "Casey Jones!"). There was obviously a massive hole to fill stage right where Garcia often stood... and there was....Trey Anastasio! I’d heard reports about how in Santa Clara he was maybe too respectful of the legacy, not stepping out enough, but I saw none of that in Chicago. He may not have realized it immediately, but everyone in the crowd was rooting for him. I mean, who else was gonna do it, really? Trey took the third song on Friday, a rocking "Bertha" and I think our collective heads kinda exploded as he sang the line “Test me test me / Why don’t you arrest me?” with a gleeful grin, and everyone in the crowd laughed and relaxed but also roared as if to say: 'Yes, motherf---er, we ARE testing YOU!’ 

The entire stadium made it clear that he’d passed his own acid test of sorts with flying colors. His vocal turns were among my favorites across the three shows, probably because they were Jerry’s songs and his voice is intact. His guitar playing took the band out into the nether regions just like the old days. He had Jerry’s feel down without being slavish or imitative, and incorporated his own sound too, honed from decades of playing with Phish. His melodic language is different from Garcia’s, perhaps a bit less lyrical, but he soared high and the band right along with him. I had to wonder what it must have been like for the original band members to be in the middle of several jams that felt SO much like the best of the old days, and then look to their right and go “...now wait a minute, who’s THAT guy over there?!?” A re-creation of the original sound and spirit of the music was happening in front of our eyes, and it was superbly done.

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Sunday night’s last first set opened right out the gate with "China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider" and the place went nuts. But there was also a bittersweet quality all night. The Grateful Dead hadn’t played for 20 years, and this reconstituted version wasn’t built to last more than these 5 final shows. But I sensed that many in the crowd had, like me, rekindled their love for this quintessential American band and every aspect of the crazy collective trip we took with them. It was unexpected that they’d do this sort of victory lap at all, but the days in Chicago and, I expect, those in Santa Clara, were celebratory in the most exuberant sense of the world, allowing us to send them off properly, with a sense of closure. The band is now truly finished, but the music will most certainly never stop. I’m #stillhigh from the whole thing. But I’ll admit to shedding an unexpected tear or two as they played the encore, "Touch of Grey." The last live Dead song, it seemed. The actual ending had come up almost out of nowhere, just like that. But... not quite yet. "Attics Of My Life" would be the final song, and with Weir playing an lone acoustic guitar to minimal accompaniment, Trey, Phil, Bobby and Bruce raggedly harmonized those well-worn, much loved Robert Hunter Lines:

I have spent my life seeking all that's still unsung
Bent my ear to hear the tune and closed my eyes to see
When there were no strings to play, you played to me
When there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me

Bottom line: I would not have missed this for the world! What a blast it was!! There is still nothing under the sun quite like a Grateful Dead concert. And like that they bid us goodnight, and goodbye.

Read more by Lee Ranaldo at leeranaldo.com