Last night’s final Fare Thee Well show; the final joint appearance, ever, by the Grateful Dead’s "core four" of Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann—if you take them at their word—began and ended the same way: with a group bow and a huge roar from a giant crowd.
It was that kind of night: emotionally heightened, with cheers and tears around every corner for the highly amped fans.
The good vibes were palpable throughout Chicago's Soldier Field and inseparable from the music.
Spending three days in record crowds of up to 71,000 (last night’s released number) was an overwhelming experience. As my friend said, there was as much community feeling as in any crowd ever. No one paid for me to be here. I bought my tickets, paid for my travel and joined the masses entering and exiting like rats in a maze. And like everyone else there, I was invested on many levels. None of us walked out feeling cheated.
After the bow and crowd roar, the first set started out strong with “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider,” songs people have been waiting for every day. It all clicked, with Phish's Trey Anastasio stepping to the fore and Weir smiling like the Cheshire Cat as he stepped to the mic to sing his part of the “I Know You Rider” chorus harmony. During an excellent “Estimated Prophet” that followed, Weir was jumping around as he engaged Anastasio.
The strong, in-sync playing continued throughout the first set. Anastasio has established great rapport with keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti, with the three often engaging in call and response, harmony and counterpoint.
“Built to Last” was nicely played, but remains a rather slight song in my estimation. “Samson and Delilah” was strong. “Mountains of the Moon” was musically excellent, but Lesh’s lead vocal flattened the melody and… well, it was neither the first nor last time a song was musically superb but vocally lacking.
It was also, I believe, the first time that song had been played since 1969. I understand that pulling something like that off is part of the Dead ethos, but on the final night, I’d have taken something like Bruce Hornsby singing “Loser,” whether or not they played it last week in Santa Clara. Emphasizing not repeating a song in a five-night run makes no sense to me at a time like this.
The set closed strongly with “Throwing Stones,” with the “Ashes, Ashes” chorus a giant sing-along each time through and a very nice jam in the middle, involving everyone.
"China Cat Sunflower" > "I Know You Rider" | "Estimated Prophet" | "Built to Last" | "Samson and Delilah" | "Mountains of the Moon" > "Throwing Stones"
The second set—and perhaps the final in the Dead’s 50-year history—began with fireworks. Literally, a gorgeous, extended display over the stadium that made clear again that this was not a normal night. And after a nice, swirly intro, the band kicked into “Truckin’,” a song that just HAD to be repeated, and it was a great, hard-driving version.
“What a long strange trip it’s been” was greeted with roars and mass sing-alongs every time through.
The song wound down into a little jam that segued beautifully into “Cassidy,” which featured another stellar extended jam, highlighted by some nifty harmony playing by Weir and Anastasio and sweet interplay between Trey and Hornsby. The jam went a bit atonal, before Lesh took the lead pumping it back up and leading straight back into another, final verse. The strong start continued right into “Althea.” This aggregation does slinky really well and showed it again here. Trey sang the song beautifully and Hornsby helped it swing.
As the band came down, some familiar piano notes tinkled and the crowd roared: “Terrapin Station” was under way. Lesh took the first verses, Weir the latter. And while neither made anyone forget about Jerry Garcia, it all worked. The whole suite was beautifully rendered, superbly played and emotionally resonant.
Next up was a Space > Drums segment that was highly entertaining. I gladly squatted on the floor, taking a load off my legs, and looked up away from the stage watching Bill and Mickey do their mad scientist thing on the enormous Jumbotron on the stadium’s far side. That was quite the first half of a set.
And then, of course, things got a little weird. Because the Dead need to get weird; they have a perverse sense of equilibrium. It’s just part of their DNA.
They came out of Space and landed on “Unbroken Chain,” another Phil lead vocal. The song was strong, but as the tension seemed to build to a resolution that could only be a hard rocker, the group went into the molasses-slow “Days Between,” one of Garcia and Robert Hunter’s final compositions. Again, this was not on most people’s list of essential Dead listening, but players gonna play.
We finally got the hard-rocking resolution next with “Not Fade Away,” which had the whole stadium singing along and jumping up and down. I looked up and saw the entire upper concrete structure bouncing, a site I will never forget. As the band walked off stage, the crowd continued the rhythmic five-beat clapping rhythm and kept singing the “Not Fade Away” chorus.
Finally, Lesh returned for his donor rap and everyone returned for “Touch of Grey” that felt inevitable, as retrospective photos flashed on the screen and the audience cheered every shot of Jerry. Trey took the first vocals, then Weir took over.
The band returned with Weir on acoustic and the rest of the frontline sans instrument for a quiet, guitar and piano “Attics of My Life” as the retrospective photos rolled through. Photos of deceased members and associates flashed by: Ken Kesey, Keith Godchaux (and the very much alive but absent donna), Brent Mydland (to great cheers), Vince Welnick… and then onto new Jay Blakesberg portraits of the current members, in this order: Phil, Bill, Chimenti, Hornsby, Mickey, Trey and Bob. God knows what went into choosing the order; I’ll let someone else sort that out.
And then, finally, it was over and we were back where we started: a full stadium stomping, hooting and hollering as the band stood in the middle of the stage alternating hugs and bows.
The masses filed out, shoulder to shoulder, a giant crowd moving with purpose and total peace through a maze.
In a tunnel near the final exit, someone started a rhythmic five-note clap and everyone picked up and we all sang together: “Not, not, not fade away.”
"Truckin'" | "Cassidy" | "Althea" | "Terrapin Station" | "Space > Drums" | "Unbroken Chain" | "Days Between" | "Not Fade Away" | Encore: "Touch of Grey" | "Attics of My Life"
Photos: Jay Blakesberg
Alan Paul is the author of the Ebook Reckoning: Conversations with the Grateful Dead and the Top 10 New York Times bestseller One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band.