Notes from Chicago
Grateful Dead says goodbye
Before this past weekend, my last Grateful Dead show was at Portland Meadows in Oregon, about six weeks before Jerry Garcia played his final show at Soldier Field.
It was the latest in a string of when-will-this-end concerts bordering on tragedies as Garcia, once a brilliant musician, deteriorated both physically and sonically, missing notes as he wheezed lyrics. He was dead not much more than two months later.
The memory I took away from that Portland show wasn’t anything that the Grateful Dead played, but rather seeing Garcia standing in the stage wings watching Chuck Berry, the opening act. He clearly had a love for music deep enough that he wasn’t going to squander a chance to see a legend like Berry, who wrote “Promised Land” and “Johnny B. Goode,” which the Dead covered countless times to great effect. He was paying attention and smiling and chatting between numbers with a woman whom the Deadheads around us identified as his wife, Deborah Koons. But seeing Garcia on stage left shouldn’t be the highlight of any Grateful Dead show.
At that point, I’d seen 40 or so Grateful Dead shows since 1979, at least half of them, if not bad, nothing to write home about. On many nights, performances were phoned in, with side musicians such as Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby brought in to bring energy that Garcia, the leader and provocateur-in-chief, lacked in his final years. Still, the Dead, even in their darkest days, could uncork something magnificent. And so you just had to go. That was part of the allure. You never knew what might happen.
With the exception of a show in St. Louis in 2011 that featured the surviving four original band members performing as Furthur, I didn’t attend any shows after Garcia’s death that included anyone who had been in the Grateful Dead. The St. Louis show confirmed my take. There simply was no reason to see these guys anymore. “Furthur Needs To Rehearse” was the apt title of a thread on a discussion board of a Deadhead website.
And then came Soldier Field this past weekend.
I went for a very simple reason: You never know what might happen. Plus, I’d gotten lucky and scored tickets via the old-school mail order method, where you send in a money order, decorate the outside of your envelope to draw attention and cross your fingers.
In Chicago, I stuck with tradition and paid no attention to where I was supposed to sit – I’d been to just one other Grateful Dead show with assigned seating, back in the mid-1980s, and no one paid attention then. On the first night in Chicago, we made it to the floor and planted ourselves about 30 feet from the stage. I’ve checked with other attendees, and, while tastes will vary, the general consensus is that Friday, the first night, was the best.
In contrast to the last two nights, there were no selections on Friday from the latter years, when the band was past its prime. They dug in hard and delivered a fine performance. “The Music Never Stopped” was a highlight, as was “Mason’s Children,” a song from the early days. “Help On The Way” seguing into “Slipknot” and then “Franklin’s Tower” was sublime. What really set this show apart, however, were the free-form psychedelic jazz jams that served as bridges between songs as well as the traditional “Space” that follows the extended drumming segment in the second set. On the other hand, “Fire On The Mountain” didn’t live up to the promise set on the front end by a tasty “Scarlet Begonias,” the lead-in song. Deal with it. No show is perfect.
The best way, really, to grade the Grateful Dead is by year. I would put Friday’s show on par with a good effort from 1978, not a peak year, but still an era when rabbits got pulled out of hats on a fairly regular basis. Way, way, way better than the typical phone-it-in from the late 1980s and 1990s.
Having never seen or heard Phish, I cannot intelligently discuss whether Trey Anastasio, the much talked-about head Phish guy who played lead guitar at Soldier Field, was too Phishy, as some critics have wondered. All I can say is that he sounded good, very good – better than Garcia did when the wheels fell off 20 years ago. Anastasio had clearly done his homework and wove himself into the fabric of a band that needs all cylinders and lifters functioning and synchronized to excel, or make any sense at all. There were no, thank goodness, overt Bruce Hornsby moments to rescue things, unlike two decades ago when the keyboardist would go into “That’s Just The Way It Is” style riffs when the rest of the band was running out of gas.
There had been some expectation or hope that Bob Dylan or Donna Godchaux, the band’s backing vocalist in the 1970s, would make appearances. Much as I appreciate both artists, it is a good thing that they did not. Bringing in blasts from the past to this blast from the past simply would have killed momentum. The band had rehearsed enough to keep it tight and still had plenty of chops to improvise. They were inventive in a way that the Grateful Dead had not been inventive in a very long time.
The second two nights were also fine, but not quite as nice as Friday. What happens on stage at a Grateful Dead show, however, is only part of the equation. What happens in the crowd is also worth noting.
On Friday, a bearded guy (think Osama bin Laden) in what looked like a Muslim cleric’s head gear and dressed in a loose-fitting Middle Eastern tunic was about 15 feet in front of us on the floor, not far from the stage, grinning and dancing his brains out throughout the second set. In a lot of other places, he would have been given wide berth, maybe even pulled out of the crowd and patted down for a suicide vest, given that authorities had warned everyone in America to be on the lookout for lone-wolf terrorists in the days leading up to the holiday weekend. Here, he was just another Deadhead. A lot of stuff about Deadheads being kind and open and non-judgmental can get to be tedious and clichéd, but it really does happen.
On the second night, I saw a man with one leg rise from his wheelchair and hop around it, arms in air, when the music moved him to a point that he could not adequately express his joy while sitting down. On the third night, I saw, from a perch above, someone juggling three red glow-in-the-dark balls amid the mass of people near the center of the floor. I cannot fathom how this was accomplished amid a Soldier Field record crowd of more than 70,000 – music playing full blast in the dark, tens of thousands of people dancing and writhing all around and still giving the juggler room to work.
I was also struck by how few people had cellphones out to capture every moment with pictures and video. Sure, there were more than a few, but given the number of people in the audience, there weren’t many. It is tough to dance and close your eyes and look skyward and smile while trying to take pictures. These shows may have ended a long, strange trip, but the audience was very much living in the now.
The final song on the third night, “Attics Of My Life,” was, quite simply, perfect, delivered acoustically, as it was meant to be played, with harmonizing that was eloquent while still making one wistful for Garcia. Emotions ran high. A stranger gave me a hug midway through and seemed to have tears in her eyes. Completely understandable.
Bruce Rushton is on vacation. Contact him at email@example.com.