The Grateful Dead‘s opening Fare Thee Well show at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., kicked off with a classic. “Truckin'” set the pace for a mellow 65-minute first set featuring the “core four” surviving members — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — along with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and guest keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti (alternating keys duties later in the set), easing their way into a 10-minute version that included an extended jam.
The midtempo pacing seemed purposeful — almost as if to emphasize that Anastasio wasn’t looking to be a stand-in for the late Jerry Garcia, rather, he brought his own flavor and guitar stylings to an audience that’s always prided itself on being open to anything. Bassist Phil Lesh cued his guest with hand signals, tweaking the jam as it went along, giving the audience exactly what they craned for — a hit.
Ask and you shall receive. “Uncle John’s Band” came next, sweetly plucking its way into the audience’s hearts like a lullaby. Everyone knew the words.
Accentuating the set were pictures of hand-drawn envelopes to GDTS, the Dead’s in-house mail order system, as well as psychedelic video images of tie-dyes and Dead symbols and a pan to Bill Walton, the former NBA-er and lifelong Dead fan.
Anastasio’s harmonies were on point along with his intricate guitar playing — so uniquely Trey without him even trying. Hornsby also shined when taking a lead on the keys — he’s certainly had plenty of practice, having toured with the Dead extensively in the late 1980s into the 1990s.
Anastasio too has been rehearsing — as many as 10 hours a day, according to sources — and the effort clearly paid off, as demonstrated by “Cumberland Blues.” The fan favorite was a return to the song’s rockabilly roots and allowed Anastasio’s versatility to take charge, which it did as well in “Cream Puff War.”
The set ended with a 17-minute “Viola Lee Blues” that segued into a deep jam accentuated by a glorious rainbow encircling the venue in the sky. Said one longtime head: “This is the band that jams with God.” Whether it was Mother Nature stepping in became an instant debate, intensified by Billboard‘s own report citing an insider who claims the production sprang for the effect, at a cost of $50,000.
No matter, the sentiment prompted massive cheers which led to an hour-long intermission.
Check back to Billboard.com’s Grateful Dead hub for a full report later in the night.
[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. Turns out this band really does jam with God.]