The members of the Grateful Dead began their third and final Fare Thee Well show at Chicago’s Soldier Field with a bow. Gathering at center stage, the “core four” — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, ?Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — along with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti, stood shoulder-to-shoulder, as if to symbolize a band united. They faced their admirers who paid big bucks — or had big connections — to gain access to the pits down front, but also made sure to turn around to the “obstructed view” seats for a nod. After all, those fans are no less loyal when it comes to loving — and living — the Dead. And with a huddle, they were off and running.
If the first set of the last of five shows proved anything, it’s that this band knows how to cater to its audience, delivering old standbys from the bygone era — “China Cat Sunflower,” “I Know You Rider,” “Samson and Delilah,” “Estimated Prophet” — with the precision of not just a highly professional outfit of musicians, but one that’s finally gelling.
“China Cat” set the tone for a stellar start with Anastasio taking the lead on vocals that, for a second, sounded eerily similar to the late Jerry Garcia. Anastasio deftly handled the guitar work, which serves as the real hook to the song and a through line to the extended jam that is “I Know You Rider.” It was a seamless segue, which could not be said for previous nights (or even the rest of this show necessarily) and, again, a sign that this assembly was meant to be.
The slowed-down reggae strut of “Estimated Prophet,” with its wah-wah lead and Cali-proud chorus, suited the audience just fine. Looking even fuller than the record attendance from Saturday night, the cement rungs of Soldier Field literally bounced as the masses grooved and smiled along. Down on the floor, VIPs like Bill Murray, Jane’s Addiction‘s Perry Farrell and Jon Popper from Blues Traveler, joined the elated throngs.
Among the perma-grinners was Anastasio, who kicked up the volume and intensity on his solos, so much so that Weir found himself leaning in to maximize the guitar duel. So far, at all five of the shows, the crowd has responded most to Anastasio: the louder the better. (Weir, clearly in on the joke, would later don a T-shirt that read “Let Trey Sing.”)
Indeed, that drive looks to be having an effect on the players as Hornsby and Chimenti kicked things up a couple notches and Weir let his vocals — now warmed up from a week of playing stadiums — stretch throughout “Throwing Stones” (another favorite from the old days) and into the sort of crowd-accompanied chant you’d expect from U2‘s Bono not the guy wearing Birkenstocks and shorts. (It should be noted that U2 also played Chicago in the last week, at nearby United Center, which seats 50,000 fewer people than Soldier Field; The Dead also broke U2’s Soldier Field attendance record from 2009.)
But then again, that’s what the Grateful Dead has always been about: organic fandom without the pomp and circumstance. At the same time, being a part of the greater Deadhead community is like having membership to an exclusive club — one that prides itself on its indiscriminate, open-armed inclusiveness.
Still, at a Dead show, you’re kind of on your own when it comes to recognizing songs, even as they wind around to parts unknown. Shazam won’t help you — a dedicated head is expected to be in-the-know (although now you can hop online and look up the set list in real time) and understand the significance of a mid-set suite like “Terrapin Station” (more on that in a bit). But ever the democratic lineup, as these concerts have increasingly showed, the band eased into their second and final full set with a poppy “Truckin’,” a version that, upon repeated listens now (it was also performed in Santa Clara), has benefited from the “touch of Trey” — its melody heightened by the crunch and gallop of Anastasio’s guitar.
But what Anastasio brings to the table goes beyond his signature shredding. On “Cassidy,” he played sherpa to a long, winding psychedelic jam. On “Althea,” Anastasio seemed to be channeling Bob Dylan with his vocal lead, and launching into the three-act “Terrapin Station,” a Dead anthem if ever there was one, brought the vibe right back to 1977 with the unmistakable intro that is “Lady With a Fan.”
“Terrapin,” of course, is treacherous territory, not only because of its complex key changes and tricky time signatures, but it’s the sort of psychedlia that could easily veer into Spinal Tap “Stonehenge” territory if not handled the right way — which is to say, delicately.
To that end, the band did pull it off, but it was a shaky start and had its bumps along the way. Vocals were split between Lesh, Anastasio and Weir, respectively, with some solo turns faring better than others, but it was once the song took a turn, and the threesome came together in harmony, that it took on the feel of a slowed-down lullaby.
The song’s powerful third act was just that, but the Dead could have used more in the way of synchronized lighting to bring the crowd even higher — notes it might want to take from the Phish tour and its longtime lighting director Chris Kuroda; no doubt he would have pushed the white beams to the max so that everybody could see the tens of thousands of arms up in the air.
But then one is reminded that the Dead is really more about what you’re hearing, feeling and seeing on an insular, personal level, whereas Phish, with its litany of secret cues and pauses, comes off more as a group experience. Certainly that would explain the underwhelming inclusions of “Unbroken Chain,” a Lesh song, and “Days Between,” a Weir contribution, which slowed the second set to a crawl.
To be fair, the “core four” are not young men, and as much as a Dead show serves as an endurance test for those in the audience, multiply that by a hundred and imagine the strain, both physical and otherwise, that Weir, Lesh and crew have weathered over the last week — or, for that matter, the last 50 years (according to the T-shirt of one fan sitting in section 210, the Grateful Dead have played 2,317 concerts in 298 cities since 1965.)
Fortunately, for those about to fade, it was “Not Fade Away” to the rescue. A staple closer of Dead shows going back decades, it’s also the most participatory, with the crowd’s in sync claps helping to keep time. On this final show, the chorus came with a minutes-long fadeout, as the crowd chanted “You know our love won’t fade away” in an effort to cajole the band back to the stage.
Another reminder of the band’s decade-defying stamina: “Touch of Grey,” a top 10 hit for the Grateful Dead in 1987, showed up as the first encore. Not only one of the poppiest numbers in the Dead arsenal, and a perfect match for Anastasio, it’s the song that introduced Generation X to the band — many of those late 80s and early 90s deadheads were clearly in attendance with their kids – and effectively completed the arch that is the Dead’s musical legacy.
What came next could be handed the highlight-of-the-night honor: “Attics of My Life,” a deep cut from the band’s seminal 1970 album American Beauty, served as a poignant cap to the “tribute” portion of Fare Thee Well. As archival images of the band, among them especially beautiful portraits of co-founder Garcia, cycled through on the video screens, Anastasio and Lesh put down their instruments, while Weir picked up an acoustic, and delivered a stunning, and stark take on the pensive folk song.
At eight minutes to midnight (curfew for the venue), there was time for another closer — “Brokedown Palace” being the most logical for having inspired the name “Fare Thee Well” from its lyrics — but it was not to be, despite what looked like some light seesawing on stage. Did its absence take away from what was billed as the band’s truly final bow? Hardly. The Grateful Dead experience never relied on any one song, and this Dead show was no different.
China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider
Built to Last
Samson and Delilah
Mountains of the Moon > Throwing Stones
Drums > Space
Not Fade Away
Touch of Grey
Attics of My Life