The circus has definitely come to town.
Chicago was crawling with tie-dyed and skull-clad visitors all day Friday. They speckled the crowd at Wrigley Field, dominated the lines at beloved hot dog joints and filled the subways heading to Soldier Field, banging up against drunken, sunburned Cubs fans on their way home from another loss.
The festivities kicked off shortly after 7:00 pm at Soldier Field, where the surviving members of the Grateful Dead — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, ?Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, known as the “core four” — kicked off a three-night run they say will be their final shows ever, augmented by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti. The mood was rowdy and energetic but peaceful and relatively calm as the masses rushed in to both celebrate one more time and bid farewell.
“They’ve been nice,” one Chicago police officer said, as he stood his ground before the entry to the park in which the stadium sits, politely telling people they had to finish their beers before they passed him by. “Everyone’s happy to be here and in a great mood.”
Moving closer, the sidewalks around the home of the Chicago Bears were filled with Deadheads holding their fingers up in search of a miracle — a free ticket — as people hawked photos, stickers, hats, T shirts, glass pipes and various other sundries. Ten Will Call windows saw snaking lines of increasingly agitated people, concerned that show time was approaching and tickets remained lost in computer systems.
Most of the problems seemed to be resolved before the first note of the opening song “Box Of Rain,” with bassist Phil Lesh taking the wobbly lead vocals on his best-loved composition. Next up was a tad-too-slow “Jack Straw” and the crowd-pleaser “Bertha,” with Trey Anastasio taking the reins and running with the vocal and guitar leads, but struggling to find his groove amidst a slightly off-kilter rhythm section. After two shows last weekend in Santa Clara, which gained power and cohesion as they went on, it still felt like the septet was feeling each other out.
The Dead hit its stride on the Bob Weir-sung “Passenger,” which put organist Chimenti and pianist Hornsby to excellent use, creating a surging groove. The band plowed back into some sludge on “The Wheel,” which should be a fist shaker but was a bit too plodding, though the massive crowd enjoyed every minute of the sing-along chorus. Trey Anastasio sang “Crazy Fingers” with gusto, lending the band some real energy and seeming to pull them onto a unified track. They hit a true and lasting groove on the interlocking intro to “The Music Never Stopped,” which they maintained throughout the song. Then they walked off stage.
The crowd remained happy and friendly throughout the hour-long set break, entertained by some excellent music written and recorded by Chris Robinson Brotherhood guitarist Neal Casal.
Perhaps they were energized by shaking off cobwebs, or maybe they felt more at home in a dark stadium on a gorgeously lit stage, but the band was more dynamic and harder hitting from the get-go during the second set. They launched into “Mason’s Children” then took off on “Scarlet Begonias,” with Anastasio soaring and making the song his own. The groove continued into “Fire on the Mountain,” with Hornsby on lead vocals engaging Anstasio in some lovely musical call and response.
Just as they hit a strong groove, the band walked off again — for Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart’s Drums/Space, a segment that is easy to skip over on recordings but comes to life booming through a giant stadium sound system. As the band members returned to the stage, Anastasio added some spacy filigrees and then the whole group settled into the atonal “New Potato Caboose,” one of the most obscure tunes in the Grateful Dead canon, written by Lesh for 1968’s Anthem of the Sun. The real Heads jumped for joy as many others in the crowd scratched their heads.
The song segued into an even more atonal jam that found it welcome tonic in the opening chords of “Let It Grow,” with Weir leading the band into a steady groove and Anastasio again taking flight. The two guitarists took control and kept rolling into “Help on The Way,” followed by its partner “Slipknot!” The Dead was fully alive, and threw the stadium into a frenzy with a rollicking “Franklin’s Tower.”
As they played the much-loved tune at an appropriately up tempo, the sound, which could be muddy down front, boomed crisp and clear through the upper decks, where delirious fans stomped and twirled away. It was the kind of moment that lured everyone here from every corner of the world — group ecstasy.
After a quick break, Lesh returned to the stage for his normal “donor rap,” imploring everyone to become an organ donor and noting, as always, that someone who did saved his life. (Lesh had a liver transplant in 1998.) The lone encore was “Ripple,” with Weir playing acoustic guitar and taking lead vocals, as the entire massive crowd first hushed and then sang along. It was a powerful moment of grace that is hard to achieve at a stadium show and left the crowd energized. Many cheered and whooped as they exited. Most will be back two more times; all good circuses have three rings, after all.
Box Of Rain
The Wheel > Crazy Fingers
The Music Never Stopped
Fire On The Mountain
Drums > Space
New Potato Caboose
Playing In The Band
Let It Grow
Help On The Way
Alan Paul is the author of the Ebook Reckoning: Conversations With the Grateful Dead and the Top Ten New York Times bestseller One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band.