Fare Thee Well: The Grateful Dead's Final Stand at Soldier Field
Written by Jordan Kirkland - Live & Listen
When I awoke and drove in to work on Friday, January 16th, I was already excited and knew that I was in for a long day. Several of us were heading to the Charleston Pour House for four rotating sets of Phish and Widespread Panic, courtesy of tribute bands Runaway Gin and Machine Funk. Sometime around noon, my phone started to light up with calls and text messages asking if I had heard the news. The rumors were officially true: The Grateful Dead were playing a three-night run at Soldier Field over the weekend of July 4th. To make things even sweeter, Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby, and Jeff Chimenti were all set to round out the lineup. Any chance at the slightest bit of productivity that afternoon was officially shot, and a hotel reservation in Chicago was made immediately.
In order to honor their creative tradition, the initial ticket offer was made via mail order, in order to ensure that the band's total ticket allotment would be available only to those willing to make the extra effort. Elaborate, Dead-themed artwork was encouraged on each envelope. Over 500,000 ticket requests were received, leaving just a ten percent chance of "winning the lottery." The overwhelming response led promoters to adjust the seating arrangement to accommodate more guests. Peter Shapiro, the event's organizer and head promoter, gave his word that the level of production would provide all mail order ticket holders with an amazing experience.
On April 10th, more rumors were confirmed when the band announced that their final run would now consist of two additional shows at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA on June 27th and 28th. It only seemed right that the band make a return to the Bay Area, where it all officially started 50 years prior. Much debate surrounded the band's selection of Anastasio on lead guitar, as past Dead lineups have included many other amazing guitarists such as Warren Haynes, Steve Kimock, Jimmy Herring, and John Kadlecick in that role.
Tremendous progression was made over the course of the initial Santa Clara shows, with countless highlights that easily outweighed a handful of rusty moments. As expected, momentum was established, and it was time for the final three shows in Chicago. After a brief tease from Lesh and Anastasio, all seven members took the stage and were met with an eruption from 70,000+ at Soldier Field. "Box of Rain," the final song played at Jerry Garcia's last show (June 9th, 1995 - Soldier Field) allowed Bobby, Phil, Mickey, and Billy to pick up right where they left off. Next came "Jack Straw," and Bobby could barely be heard when it came time for the line "Leaving Texas, fourth day of July!" This was just the first of many moments that you could truly feel 70,000+ singing in unison.
"Bertha" made for three consecutive classics from the early 70's, just before a rocking take on "Passenger," an original which was debuted in 1978 at Memorial Coliseum in Tuscaloosa. Weir handled lead vocals, while Hornsby put a touch of Brent Mydland on harmony vocals. The late, great Mydland was also honored this weekend as Chimenti played the fallen organist’s Hammond B-3 all three nights. In an interview in Dupree's Diamond News, Lesh once said of "Passenger": "What's weird about that song is I sort of did it as a joke. It's a take on a Fleetwood Mac tune called "Station Man." I just sort of sped it up and put some different chord changes in there..." We were pleasantly surprised with "The Wheel," which has often come out of a "Drums" or "Space" since its debut in 1976. "Crazy Fingers," a tune named after jazz pianist Claude Hopkins, opened up a nice challenge for Anastasio, as the song features a vast array of chords and key changes, as its title suggests. The opening bass line of "The Music Never Stopped" sent the stadium into an all out frenzy. This song embodied the occasion; celebrating "a band beyond description" that would play all night long and never let the party slow down. Anastasio took his game to another level when it came time for the solo, and just like that, the weekend's first set came to a close in just 60 minutes, ending with two consecutive tunes from Blues for Allah, which later proved to be the theme of the night.
One of the biggest surprises of the weekend came as the second set opened with “Mason’s Children,” an outtake from Workingman’s Dead. Chimenti, who was absolutely brilliant all weekend, delivered one of his more memorable solos of the night as this rare gem winded down. As Anastasio hit the opening notes of “Scarlet Begonias,” I honestly thought I felt the stadium shake. We were well into the thick of the evening, and Scarlet seemed as perfect as any tune for Anastasio to sing. We all knew what was next, as Chimenti took to a heavy synth effect with the transition into “Fire on the Mountain.” Anastasio was absolutely nailing that signature Garcia sound before Hornsby jumped on the vocals just a little early. The rare mishap by Bruce was quickly forgotten as he delivered in beautiful fashion. What had become one of the best jams of the night was abruptly ended with “Drums > Space,” which required a moment of mental transition. Another rare gem came in “New Potato Caboose,” a tune named for an old Irish jig, which appeared on the 1968 release, Anthem of the Sun. Caboose made for a memorable series of exchanges between Hornsby and Anastasio.
The home stretch of the second set was as special as any moment throughout the weekend. “Playing’ in the Band” made for another moment where it was truly difficult to hear yourself singing along. The level of cohesion from the entire stadium was truly overwhelming. Chimenti showed no sign of holding back and led the jam into some seriously spacey places. An overwhelming, seamless transition led us into “Let It Grow,” as Weir took the helm. Usually a first set song, “Let It Grow” seemed to light up the sky after the lengthy, trippy jam that preceded it. “Help on The Way” > “Slipknot “ > “Franklin’s Tower” made for two of the bands’ most revered segues in the same set, and provided a resounding ending to the set. The closing trio of songs totaled the night at five out of seven tracks from the 1975 release Blues For Allah. Weir led the band back on stage, this time with the acoustic guitar, and brought the night to a close with a chilling take on “Ripple.”
Video via LazyLightning55a
The Grateful Dead – Setlist – 07.03.15
SET ONE: Box of Rain > Jack Straw, Bertha > Passenger, The Wheel > Crazy Fingers > The Music Never Stopped
SET TWO: Mason’s Children > Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain > Drums > Space > New Potato Caboose > Playing’ In the Band > Let It Grow > Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower
Another beautiful day was in store for July 4th, allowing those who were traveling much of the day Friday to get to Soldier Field in time to enjoy the best parking lot atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of. With three out of five Fare Thee Well shows in the books without one song repeated, the speculation and predictions were coming in from all directions. Those wishing for a “Shakedown” opener got just that, and night two was off and running. Weir took the lead vocals in stride, while Anastasio nailed the signature Garcia “multron” effects that we all know so well. “Liberty,” another Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia original was a fitting choice to follow. “Liberty” first appeared as the title track of Hunter’s 1988 studio album, and was debuted by The Dead on February 21st, 1993 at Oakland Coliseum Arena. Anastasio was next on the mic for “Standing on the Moon,” another late 80’s Hunter/Garcia product. This was one of Garcia’s well-known ballads and undoubtedly a humbling moment for Anastasio. “Me & My Uncle” then picked up the pace and pumped some much needed energy into the stadium after things had slowed down a bit.
The energy in the stadium took a surge upon the opening notes of “Tennessee Jed,” one which Anastasio was given the nod on lead vocals, much to the crowd’s delight. The first repeat of the Fare Thee Well run turned out to be “Cumberland Blues,” one which was as common as any in the late 60’s through the mid 70’s. “Friend of the Devil” felt perfectly placed for this rootsy, bluegrass-friendly stretch of the first set. Weir took the lead next on Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” one of very few covers over the final five shows. This made for quite the entertaining bluesy, slide guitar dual between Weir and Anastasio. Another early 70s sing-a-long was due before this set could end, and “Deal” provided just that. The crowd reaction when it came time for the line, “If I told you ‘bout all that went down, it would burn off both of your ears,” was one I have been waiting to hear for as long as I can remember. The sun had started to set, the lights were in full effect, and “Deal” most certainly left a fire burning at Soldier Field as we reached the set break.
A stellar version "Bird Song," a Garcia/Hunter tune born upon the death of Janis Joplin, kicked off the second set. Lesh handled lead vocals, while Hornsby seemed to truly drive the rhythm and keep the entire stadium's attention. "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)" turned into one hell of a party, as expected. Being the opening track on my first Dead album (Skeletons from the Closet), I'd been waiting for this one for an extremely long time, and hearing Anastasio and Hornsby trade off on vocals was an absolute treat.
There was no question as to how much fun the band was having at this point, each of them grinning from ear to ear. "Lost Sailor," a song that lost its place for many years in the Dead rotation, couldn't have been executed better, and the transition into "Saint of Circumstance" was beautiful. I have to say that this one truly caught me off guard. While I was very familiar with the In the Dark album at a young age, "Saint of Circumstance" somehow fell out of my personal rotation, and I had certainly never heard it performed live. I couldn't stop singing "Sure don't know what I'm goin' for, but I'm gonna go for it for sure" until well after I returned to Alabama on Monday. Hornsby was up next for vocals on "West L.A. Fadeaway," while Chimenti added a heavy dose of funk on the Hammond. The set jumped back to the late 80's with "Foolish Heart," just before the nightly dose of "Drums" > "Space."
While Weir couldn't seem to get everyone on the same page, he led the charge into "Stella Blue" and displayed some of the most powerful emotion of the weekend. There was no doubt this one was personal, and he was determined to make Jerry proud. While we all knew it was coming, the build up throughout the night that led into "One More Saturday Night" was a sight to see. Scanning across Soldier Field and seeing that many people dance so wildly to such a classic party tune created a memory that will never fade. As the band left the stage, it was a safe assumption that "U.S. Blues" would bring this party to an end. As the patriotic anthem reached its peak, a massive display of fireworks spread across the sky, leaving the entire stadium mesmerized.
The Grateful Dead – Setlist – 07.04.15
SET ONE: Shakedown Street, Liberty, Standing on the Moon, Me and My Uncle, Tennessee Jed, Cumberland Blues, Little Red Rooster, Friend of the Devil, Deal
SET TWO: Bird Song > The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion) > Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance > West L.A. Fadeaway, Foolish Heart > Drums > Space > Stella Blue > One More Saturday Night
ENCORE: U.S. Blues
The buzz was in full force Sunday afternoon, with someone "needing a miracle" to get into the show everywhere you looked, and no one in sight selling extras. As of about 3:00 PM, the cheapest ticket for the final Sunday show was listed at $530. With only one repeat over the previous four nights, there were a handful of classics that had to be played. "China Cat Sunflower" > "I Know You Rider" knocked two of those off the list immediately. While "Estimated Prophet" didn't spur quite the level of improvisation as it could have, it most definitely had the natural, empowering effect that I have always associated with it. "Built to Last," the title track from the Dead's final studio album, came as a major surprise, as it only made a handful of live appearances in 1989 and 1990.
The party turned up a notch with an aggressive, foot-stomping rendition of "Samson and Delilah." You could hear the echo of the entire stadium every time the chorus came around. "Mountains of the Moon" took us back to the earliest days of The Dead. Each night, the first set would end just as the sun had fully set, and the song selection was so strong for each these moments, as the lights would take full force. Sunday night it was "Throwing Stones," one of my favorites off of In the Dark, and a testament to the early 80's vibe of The Dead.
The final set of the Fare Thee Well run was now upon us, and with it came "Truckin'," just the second of two total repeats played over the course of five total shows. It wouldn't have been right had the band not sung, "What a long, strange trip it's been" at their final performance. Another swift, well-executed transition led into "Cassidy," which of course includes the words "fare thee well," adding a little extra nostalgia. Anastasio's attention to detail was proven yet again, as nailed the signature sound of "Althea" on every note. It was finally time to buckle up for "Terrapin Station," easily one of the most anticipated moments of the entire weekend. Lesh led the way on vocals, and while that tends to be a rocky ride, it was a powerful, resounding moment.
Video via LazyLightning55a
Billy and Mickey's final take on "Drums" > "Space" reached its peak when Mickey brought out a train horn and nearly deafened the entire stadium. "Unbroken Chain" came next and provided one last moment for Lesh to shine center stage. In a touching tribute to Garcia, the band kept the slow pace for "Days Between," which has served as an anthem for honoring Jerry's life, and is often referred to the days between his birthday (August 1st) and his day of passing (August 9th).
With just enough time to close out the second set, the all-too-familiar beat of "Not Fade Away" began. The positive nature and uplifting message of this song couldn't have been a more perfect way to close out the final set. "You know our love will not fade away," paired with the series of five claps, carried on for nearly three minutes amongst the stadium after the band had left the stage. Of all the truly special moments throughout the weekend, it is difficult to imagine being a part of such a powerful moment ever again. After Lesh's final speech, "Touch of Grey" brought that magic and energy back into the air. As they ended, the "Not Fade Away" chant/clap picked back up in full force, and the band returned one last time for "Attics of My Life," as a touching slideshow honored those like Jerry, Ron "Pig Pen" McKernon, Keith Godchaux, and Brent Mydland, who were unfortunately lost far too soon.
While this weekend garnered as much anticipation as any I can recall, I could not have possibly prepared myself for what was in store. The overall experience surrounding this music scene that we love so much goes so far beyond the music, and I can’t even imagine where the world of live music would be without the Grateful Dead. This is the band that took elements of country, folk, bluegrass, jazz, blues, reggae, and rock, and fused them into one. You look at the hype that has surrounded this event since January, the absurd ticket demand, and even the polarizing views on Trey sitting in Jerry’s seat, and it all speaks very clearly to the testament of this band’s impact on the world. I cannot do justice to the energy and vibe that was in the air in Chicago this weekend. Deadheads were everywhere, and I have never seen a bigger collection of open-minded, compassionate people. Anywhere you looked in Soldier Field, fans were thanking the security staff, vendors, and even the police for working so hard so that we could enjoy this experience. As we left the stadium Sunday night, thousands of fans continued to sing “you know our love will not fade away” as they walked through Grant Park. The impact of the Grateful Dead truly made this world a better place, and we should all be grateful for the music, love, and positive energy this band has created over the past fifty years.
The Grateful Dead - Setlist - 07.05.15
SET ONE: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Estimated Prophet , Built To Last, Samson and Delilah, Mountains of the Moon > Throwing Stones
SET TWO: Truckin' > Cassidy, Althea, Terrapin Station > Drums > Space > Unbroken Chain > Days Between > Not Fade Away
Encore One: Touch of Grey
Encore Two: Attics of my Life