Other than the lineup, there were few givens about the debut of Fare Thee Well, the five-date run of shows headlined by the “core four” of the Grateful Dead — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — to mark the band’s 50th anniversary. Sure, Trey Anastasio from Phish had guest billing alongside keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti, but who would take the leads on guitar, steer the jam and, most importantly, handle vocals once sung by Jerry Garcia, remained a mystery come showtime.
As it was, anyone expecting the Phish-ification of the Grateful Dead at Santa Clara California’s Levi’s Stadium on June 27 was both satisfied and a bit underserved. That’s because Anastasio, a guitar god in his own right with 30 years of heavy touring under his belt who’s known for his onstage showmanship, has the role of player in this group — a featured one, to be sure, but it’s not his band.
Well, duh, you’re most certainly thinking — except that Anastasio holding back is so uncharacteristically un-Trey that, for a Phish fan, it’s almost jarring. So set one of Fare Thee Well took some getting used to, not just for the audience, but even for Anastasio, Weir and Lesh to settle in.
But settle they did, finding a groove not long after opening the night with two of the Dead’s biggest hits, “Truckin’” and “Uncle John’s Band.” Both got the mid-tempo treatment, the latter airy and bright in tribute to its acoustic, singalong origins, as they set the pace for the rest of an hour-long set that dove back into the Dead archive for even older choices like “Alligator,” which still found Anastasio somewhat restrained.
He loosened up during “Cumberland Blues,” a longtime favorite of the rockabilly variety that seemed well-suited to Anastasio’s playing style, and got to shine more on “Cream Puff War” by taking the lead on vocals, but heading into the intermission, all was put aside as a spectacular rainbow arched over the venue as “Viola Lee Blues” played on. Whether it was real or not became an instant debate (an insider tells Billboard it cost the production $50,000 to pull off but others say, no way). If the former is true, it’s money well-spent as the jubilation that came with it, certainly was.
The hour-long break between sets seemed all about nostalgia. As vintage images of the Grateful Dead — curated in part by Bill Kreutzmann’s son — were projected to a soundtrack composed by noted Phil Lesh/Chris Robinson Brotherhood/Hard Working Americans guitarist and longtime head Neal Casal, the talk of the stadium was “Jerry.” Garcia’s presence was felt — in pictures, T-shirts, drops of rain (worth noting: very little merchandise being sold on “Shakedown Street” was of the Phish variety). Even backstage, a door near the band members’ dressing rooms was marked Garcia.
There’s no tip-toeing around it — Jerry Garcia was a frontman of the highest order, idolized by nomadic masses who hung on his every note. He was a legend of his time and beyond, as witnessed by the very existence of Fare Thee Well. Hardly a cash-in gig – although the band does stand to make a killing: $50 million in ticket sales, by Billboard’s estimate – it’s the result of a movement that never died: one that inspired Trey Anastasio as a guitar player and prompted Fare Thee Well conceiver Pete Shapiro to go into the concert business. Phish carried the torch extinguished in 1995 when Garcia left the world and here, 20 years later, the music of multiple like-minded generations coalesce.
It’s a beautiful thing, and it seems once concertgoers put down their phones and had a chance to look around, they were reminded of what made this scene so special in the first place: how indiscriminately inclusive it is.
Of course, the crowd was grayer — some even snoozing for large portions of the Dead’s signature Drums/Space continuum (to be fair, this used to happen in the old days, too, and pot is way stronger now) — and richer (not only is Levi’s Stadium in the heart of Silicon Valley, it literally resides in a tech office park), with such VIPs as Bravo’s Andy Cohen and Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell in attendance. But ritually speaking, there was little to separate the earliest of Bay Area followers from the Gen-Xers and even the present-day college-aged Phish fans.
Perhaps it was that realization that ramped up the second set for all. Delving deep into the sort of psychedelia for which the Dead is known, Anastasio let his freak flag fly during the winding “Dark Star” and turned up the energy for “St. Stephen,” which segued into “The Eleven” and the endlessly bouncy “Turn On Your Love Light.”
Drums/Space allowed a breather for the non-drummers of the band – a tradition going back decades – and took on a more electronic feel as Mickey Hart had his way with an assortment of drum machine-activated sounds. Those mixed with the organic pounds of giant, otherworldly timpani felt more EDM than hippie: maybe that was on purpose.
Set two wound down with crowd-pleasers: “The Other One,” a Weir-fronted rocker going back to the band’s nascent years and “Morning Dew,” a song primed for Anastasio to slay, as he did with soaring turns on the crescendos that build in intensity during the ballad. The night wrapped with “Casey Jones,” which allowed Hornsby to take lead on the vocals, alternating with his bandmates, each of whom handled the song ever-so-gingerly — like they’d been playing it since they were teenagers, which most of them certainly had.
Only two of the band members spoke during the night and both as the lights were about to come on. Lesh, who has successfully undergone a liver transplant, pleaded with his followers to become organ donors, and Kreutzmann marveled at the love in the room on the heels of a “beautiful and really important” weekend, not just in Santa Clara, but all over the country.
A rainbow gathering, indeed.
Uncle John’s Band
Cream Puff War
Viola Lee Blues
Turn On Your Love Light
What’s Become Of The Baby
The Other One
[Update: this article has been updated to include the continuing debate over the appearance of the rainbow, which upon further investigation appears to have been real.]