A Guest Blog Contribution by Stu Kelly
I never thought I would make it. Statistically it seemed impossible. With more than 60,00 different mail order requests for tickets (accumulating over 360,000 requested tickets), only about one out of every ten requests was honored. Somehow I managed to secure tickets in the onsale and locked down a flight soon after that. I grew up listening to studio albums like American Beauty and Blues For Allah and I never thought I would ever see the surviving members play a show billed under the name the Grateful Dead.
When the rumor mill started to turn in 2015 that Trey Anastasio was tapped to step into Jerry Garcia’s spotlight and fill the sacred role of lead guitar with the Grateful Dead anticipation was already astronomical. It wasn’t long until the rumors became a reality when three nights of music featuring the core four (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann) featuring Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s legacy. The core four saw this milestone as the perfect way to retire touring under the name the Grateful Dead and they bowed out with grace in the same venue where Jerry Garcia played his final show with the band in August of 1995. The result was a legendary set of performances that will forever cement an invaluable chapter in the jam band community and a priceless piece of musical anthropology billed Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years Of The Grateful Dead.
The three nights in Chicago were more than simply just concerts composed of six sets and three encores as everything blended together to become one long marathon event. It felt like the city of Chicago was draped in a cloak of the Grateful Dead’s culture as the band’s influence could be felt from the moment fans got off their airplanes at the airport, to the moment they ordered a drink at a bar and heard Grateful Dead blasting through the speakers, or walking around downtown at night and seeing things office buildings strategically spelling “GD” in their office windows after hours. This was an event that felt like a family reunion as thousands of fans came together to create a culture that parlayed off what the community had been doing for the past 50 years.
By the time the band descended on Chicago for their final three performances they were much more dialed in and relaxed, especially after the two warm up shows in Santa Clara. The momentum in Chicago shifted as Trey Anastasio stepped into more of a defined role, taking more lead vocal responsibilities and pushing the improvisation well beyond the band’s comfort levels.
Exploring musical parts unknown has always been part of the Grateful Dead’s manifesto but this particular lineup was still getting acclimated to moving into uncharted territory as a unit. When the band was able to break through the stratosphere you could see the inspiration on stage. One of the best examples came early in the first set on the third day, when the band opened up “Estimated Prophet” and took it for a ride. As Trey pushed down on the gas pedal, he carved out a pocket where he could still keep the song driving forward and still keep Bobby in the spotlight. As the jam took shape Bobby even let out an extended vocal jam that really showcased how lose everyone was feeling on stage. My own personal highlight from these shows came deep in the second set of the final day when the band played “Althea” and Trey took the lead vocal responsibilities. I remember there being a long pause on stage after a ripping “Cassidy” and as the band members positioned themselves, Anastasio counted off before the opening notes of “Althea” came crashing through the PA. The crowd erupted in excitement and in that moment I don’t think I’ve ever been more blown away by the power of being apart of an audience. Live music is the most pure form of art in my opinion. Standing in a packed arena and feeling the sense of community is priceless, but standing there and surrendering myself to the music was when I felt totally free. The music coming out of the speakers hit the ears of over 70,000 people, so that means the music was interpreted in 70,000 different ways inside the venue.
By the time the band wrapped up the shows in Chicago it felt like they were just starting to hit their stride, but when it was all over the end result definitely lived up to the hype. This was a unique experience that I’ll never forget and I feel so lucky to have been apart of this unique event.
This was more than just a farewell appearance to the band that inspired the jam band community. As the final note of the Fare Thee Well shows were put to rest, it was another turning chapter for the core four. As each member continues to tour in their own respective ways, their legacy, both as the Grateful Dead or in their side projects, will forever be considered one of the most significant in rock and roll history. The Grateful Dead created a cultural phenomenon and their impact still reigns just as pure and impactful as it ever has.
If you get confused, listen to the music play.