The Grateful Dead Shine In Santa Clara, Roll On To Chicago
Fifty years after The Grateful Dead was born in Palo Alto, California, “The Core Four” (Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann) returned to Santa Clara County to bid farewell to a sold out Levi’s Stadium on Saturday and Sunday night. Joining the core four members of The Dead for the 50th Anniversary “Fare Thee Well” run are Phish front man Trey Anastasio (lead guitar/vocals), Bruce Hornsby (piano/vocals), and Jeff Chimenti (organ/keys). The two Santa Clara shows were added shortly after the initial announcement of this coming weekend’s three-night run at Soldier Field Chicago (July 3rd – July 5th). For those unable to attend these final five shows, live hi-definition webcasts have been offered ($20-$30 per night), making it entirely too easy to watch the star-studded lineup from the comfort of your own couch. While the anticipation and reality of attending in Chicago sets in, I couldn’t resist tuning in for both nights in Santa Clara.
Due to conflicting plans, I was unable to tune in live for Saturday night’s show, but fortunately each show has been made available for 30 days once purchased. This meant a Sunday afternoon Dead show on the couch, only to be followed by a live Sunday evening Dead show…on the couch. While I couldn’t resist checking Saturday’s set list, sitting and watching it in its entirety was still the top priority. The celebration began with “Truckin’” and “Uncle John’s Band,” two of the band’s biggest hits. Phil Lesh then took over lead vocals as the band dug even deeper into the Dead archive with “Alligator.” The folksy sound of The Dead shined in “Cumberland Blues,” making way for “Born Cross Eyed.” Anastasio took on his first round of lead vocals with “Cream Puff War,” one which always seems to pump some adrenaline into the band and crowd alike. The set rounded out with “Viola Lee Blues,” originally a country/blues tune that was transformed into a psychedelic powerhouse in their earliest days. A spectacular rainbow stretched over the stadium, sparking the notion from many that Jerry was smiling down on Levi’s Stadium.
The old-school, early Dead theme continued immediately in set two with “Cryptical Envelopment,” the first of four sections of the “That’s It For The Other One” suite on Anthem Of The Sun (1968). The “Dark Star” that would follow will undoubtedly serve as one of the more special moments of the Fare Thee Well run. “Dark Star” was the first lyric that Robert Hunter wrote with the Dead and was first performed, without lyrics, by the Grateful Dead in September 1967. The first version with lyrics was in the December of that year. The song was a major focus for improvisation and was played regularly through the 1960's and up to 1973. “St. Stephen” made way for “The Eleven,” which led directly into “Turn On Your Love Light.” Kreutzmann and Hart took over on “Drums,” only to be followed by “What’s Become Of The Baby,” a tune off of Aoxomoxoa (1969) which wasn’t actually played live until being busted out by Furthur in 2010. The set’s early hints made “The Other One” no surprise, beautifully placed late into the night. Weir’s vocal delivery on “Morning Dew” was as powerful as expected and gave an emphatic ending to the second set. The band didn’t take long to return to the stage for “Casey Jones,” ending the night with the entire stadium singing along.
Night two kicked off in ferocious style, as “Feel Like A Stranger” set the tone and left no doubt that the guys had shaken any cobwebs loose. Weir roared through “New Minglewood Blues” and opened things up for an amazing delivery from Hornsby on “Brown Eyed Women.” The bluesier rendition of “Loose Lucy” came next, giving the band and crowd a chance to say “Thank you, for a real good time.” “Loser” and “Row Jimmy” slowed the pace a bit, just before Anastasio really seemed to find his groove on “Alabama Getaway,” one of his few lead vocal rolls thus far. “Black Peter” and “Hell In A Bucket” would round out set one of night two. Anastasio took “Hell In A Bucket” to another level, letting it rip, much to Lesh’s pleasure.
One of my favorites, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo,” kicked off what developed into my favorite set of the weekend. So many Dead tunes send that fuzzy feeling through you as you sing along, and this one is up there with the best. There’s something about the line “Farewell to you old Southern skies, I’m on my way” that has always hit home for me. Next came “Wharf Rat,” the self told saga of a down and out dockside wino, another gem from Hunter and Garcia made famous in the early 70’s. They led beautifully into “Eyes of the World,” one which Lesh took lead vocals on, rather than Anastasio or Hornsby, both of which could have been a perfect fit.
It’s to be expected that there will be a few rusty moments over these final five shows, and that seemed to be the case with “He’s Gone.” Weir had some difficulty with the lyrics in multiple verses, which Anastasio and Hornsby attempted to help with. The chorus even seemed off rhythm, especially when it came time for “Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile.” No one lost their composure, and the tune was still finished in respectful fashion. Round two with “Drums” seemed to go even longer, with Hart and Kreutzmann taking us all into another realm. I can relate with those who just don’t care for “Drums” every night, but they had me locked in and blown away with it on Sunday night. The stadium lit up as the opening notes of “I Need A Miracle” hit, and Weir stepped up, ready to redeem himself. This one has always given one of the most notable, resounding vocal performances from Weir, and I was immediately reminded why.
Things slowed down once more for “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” first played by The Dead in 1966, and often credited to Rev. Gary Davis. Anastasio stepped up to the plate yet again on “Sugar Magnolia,” which sounded as on-point as any song throughout the weekend. The “Sunshine Daydream” medley seemed entirely too perfect for the second set closer, and those watching in Santa Clara, as well as around the world, had every reason to rejoice. “Brokedown Palace,” which includes the line of words “fare thee well”, for which this entire run of shows is named, brought the two-night run in Santa Clara to a close.
There was an expected progression seen from the entire band over the weekend, and Anastasio was no exception. Being an enthusiastic fan of both The Dead and Phish, it’s been interesting to watch the progression of Trey in this highly scrutinized role. He was apparently given 90 songs to master and has spent at least five hours each day doing so. He has shown the ultimate composure and poise, focusing on hitting every note just as Jerry would. Some might say that he is holding back, or that the guys need to cut him loose, but let’s be honest, he knows his role in this band. His selection for these shows has been a hot topic, and he is proving the doubters and naysayers wrong. Bobby, Phil, Mickey, and Billy knew that this was his role to play, and he’s validating their notions with every tune. Will there be moments where Trey is delegated to play rhythm and might have made more sense on lead vocals? Of course. “Eyes of the World” was a perfect example. No one should expect to see the same demeanor from Trey as they are accustomed to with Phish. This role is about paying homage to Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, not being the front man of one of the greatest bands since Jerry paved the path. He is clearly ecstatic to be on stage, as that big smile we have seen suggests.
The question remains: Will there be repeats in Chicago? The Grateful Dead would certainly repeat a few songs over the course of five nights in the past, but the final five shows, broadcast live across the world, are a little different. There is no doubt that they have enough material to roll through Chicago with three red-hot shows, whether anything is repeated or not. Many of the classic segues, like “Scarlet Begonias > Fire On The Mountain,” “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider,” and “Help On The Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower” have yet to be touched. One would have to expect a lengthy “Terrapin Station” and the contagious Buddy Holly sing-a-long “Not Fade Away.” The Fourth of July seems perfect for “U.S. Blues,” and I can’t help but think that Sunday night will come to a close with “We Bid You Goodnight”. We can speculate all we want, but thankfully this weekend becomes a reality in just a matter of hours. If we learned anything from Santa Clara, it’s that those of us heading to Chicago are in for the concert experience of a lifetime, and we should be forever Grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this epic celebration.