Enough tie-dye to coat the Earth; hordes of young, long-haired girls in flowing flowered dresses; thousands of T-shirts varying on the same theme and thus featuring bears, skulls, roses, and Jerry Garcia – sometimes all in one; and a stadium-size cloud of marijuana smoke. The first two shows of the Fare Thee Well tour, reportedly the last time the remaining members of the Grateful Dead – Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart – will perform together, happened not far from where the band began 50 years ago. This weekend, the circus travels to Chicago for a final three concerts at Soldier Field.
With lead guitarist Garcia 20 years deceased, Phish's Trey Anastasio filled in. Bay Area pianist Bruce Hornsby and organist Jeff Chimenti also augmented. A tribute to the earliest days of the Dead, the first night featured two sets totaling three and a half hours and no song written after 1970.
They opened with "Truckin'," joyfully emphasizing "What a long, strange trip it's been," before moving on to a sing-along for 80,000, "Uncle John's Band." Then things got woolly and willfully obscure with such Sixties chestnuts as "Alligator" and "Cream Puff War." Even with touchstones "Dark Star," "St. Stephen," and "The Other One" filling out the performance, the playing felt tentative, and the vocals on songs Garcia originally sang seemed mismatched. A colorful and imaginative "Drums/Space," usually time for a bathroom break, saved the show.
Day two held the same aroused atmosphere, but a more attuned band. The material, drawn from the Seventies and Eighties, played out infinitely more recognizable. From "Feel Like a Stranger" to "Sugar Magnolia," it was a roller-coaster ride filled with intuitive playing. Anastasio, in particular, appeared at ease and Hornsby's effortless vocals were welcome. The supple jams never overstayed their welcome.
Was it the Grateful Dead? Part nostalgia, mostly celebration, the shows' reality left an indelible truth when the last notes of the weekend rang: The music and the legions that seek it will not fade away.
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