By Michael Benson
As I was putting the finishing touches on my new book, Why the Grateful Dead Matter, to be published this winter by ForeEdge, reflecting upon cosmic events a half-century old, the last thing I was expecting was breaking news about the Grateful Dead. But on January 16, 2015, at 10:00 A.M., I received an email from the Dead announcing that Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby, with guests Trey Anastasio (uh oh, of Phish) and Jeff Chimenti (of RatDog, Further, and The Other Ones), would be playing three shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 3, 4 and 5, 2015. The event was to be called “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead.” The announcement came with a couple of quotes.
Drummer Mickey Hart said, “ I have a feeling this will come out just right. Can’t wait to find out…Here we go!” Drummer Bill Kreutzmann added, “The Grateful Dead lived an incredible musical story and now we get to write a whole new chapter. By celebrating our 50th, we get to cheer our past, but this isn’t just about history. The Grateful Dead always played improvisational music that was born in the moment and we plan on doing the same this round.”
Well, the announcement was only minutes old when social media began to explode with outrage. How dare they? Trey? The Treyful Dead? It was capitalism at its worst. Just wait. Ticket prices were going to explode. Only millionaires would be able to go.
|Every Dead show is different, but the vibe is always exactly the same. (Photo by Dennis Duffy)|
By the time summer rolled around, the big stadium Dead tour had expanded, adding two shows in the San Francisco 49ers football stadium in Santa Clara, where there would be accommodations for the tie-dyed Deadheads who couldn’t get close to a ticket in Chicago.
The most ecstatic and controversial moment in Santa Clara came during the first show, in the middle of “Viola Lee Blues” when a rainbow formed over the stadium. The event was largely believed to be a manifestation of the vibes in the stadium and/or Jerry smiling down on the event from heaven, a freaky good feeling that threatened to be dampened, but only somewhat, the next day by a Billboard magazine report that the rainbow was not real, and that the promoters had spent $50,000 for some fantastic projector capable of creating artificial rainbows. As it turned out, the report was based on a tweet hoax. The rainbow was natural—and therefore, in the mind of Grateful Nation, possibly Jerry’s work.
Here are three contrasting first-person accounts of the Santa Clara shows, held in the San Francisco 49ers football stadium in Santa Clara:
Jen Fountain (a.k.a. Chinacat Sunflower):
The shows were amazing. The stadium was so big though I didn't get to see all my friends which is a bummer. I arrived without a ticket, needing a miracle, as they say, but it didn’t turn out to be a problem. There were many tickets just being handed out. I ended up with an abundance of them. Haha.
The first night we had no trouble getting to the floor. We just jumped in and got down all night. The people I hang with at shows are the crazy spinners, so where I was was groovy.
I never heard anything about the rainbow being fake until the next day on Facebook. I don't think it was fake. All the ingredients were there: an epic sunset, a slight rain. Everyone lost their shit when the rainbow appeared. The awe and joy written on people’s faces at that moment was fantastic. We were blessed.
|Spinner Jen Fountain (a.k.a. Chinacat Sunflower) danced both Santa Clara shows, resulting in dirty and sparkly feet. (Photo courtesy Jen Fountain)|
When it was first announced that Trey Anastasio of Phish was to be the lead guitarist at the show, some folks—including me—bellyached a bit. Deadheads are generally dismissive of all things Phish. But during the show, all of that was forgotten. It turned out all the talk was beside the point. The real Heads were just stoked to have the boys all together.
The second night we found a path to walk right to the floor, and got to spend the first set there with our friends. The only bummer was that they had beefed up security for the floor. Whereas the first night, during the set break, we went to pee and then walked right back, on the second night security stopped us. We tried just slipping in, at which point I was manhandled. My shirt was ripped and destroyed by an overly aggressive security guard. People with floor tickets were given rubber bracelets to wear, so even after someone was nice enough to give me a ticket, I didn’t have a bracelet and was again turned away, this time by cops. So we had shitty luck. It would have been way better if I had just stayed on the floor and finished out the night where I was meant to be. Overall it was a great weekend, the only issues were my personal ones with security. I am lucky they didn't kick me out! I have a hard time being told what to do—especially when people are trying to get in the way of me dancing with my friends.
I saw the Grateful Dead about 100 times before Jerry died, and I have seen post-Jerry Dead configurations about that many times, too. I was shut out on mail order and Ticketmaster for Chicago like many others, so when I saw that they still had CID packages for Santa Clara I hopped on a three-night package that included a room at the Hotel W San Francisco, two floor seats for each night, our own entrance, and free food and beverage in a lounge.
There was much more stylin’ than any previous Dead show I’d attended, with the possible exception of Furthur’s last shows at Riviera Maya (Paradise Waits) where waiters came by and served drinks while you danced. It was far cry from the Dead shows of the ’70s where I never knew where I was going to sleep. Come to think of it, I didn’t really sleep then anyway.
Because I had been to the last two Dead incarnations (2004 and 2009)—plus a number of Furthur Shows, Phil and Friends, and Rat Dog—I knew more or less what the sound palette would be, but Trey was the unknown factor. I’ve seen Phish about 20 times, and though I’m not crazy about their songs, I have appreciated Trey’s solid professionalism, technical prowess, and ability to emote with his axe, so I wasn’t worried. I knew he wouldn’t be the weak link. He played with finesse and fun, and rocked it strong when it was needed. In fact, everybody up on stage was having fun. There were probably a half dozen missteps each night, maybe two or three significant ones where the band had to regroup, but that added to the live-ness for me, and, to be honest, was also quite Grateful Dead–ish. When they flubbed, they just laughed it off and kept on truckin’.
|Longtime Deadhead Nick Newlin (in the blue shirt) found the Chicago shows to be like one humongous family reunion. (Photo courtesy Nick Newlin)|
The Saturday and Sunday shows were very different. Saturday night featured deep Dead material that I love: “Dark Star”, “St Stephen”, “The Eleven”. I like when the band goes into deep space. Nobody else luxuriates in it like that. So I liked Saturday’s second set the best. I watched the first set from the field, then joined friends in the stands for the second set.
Sunday was more of a dance party and I stayed on the field the whole show, dug “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”, “Sugar Magnolia”, and particularly dancey versions of “Alabama Getaway” and “Hell in a Bucket”. Overall I could have used more of Trey in the mix and less Phil singing! I loved seeing Mickey and Billy back together; they fell into it like sailing on a bloodstream. Chimenti is a fine keyboard player, more than fine. He is the stuff. I have seen him play solos on “Eyes” with Furthur that made Hornsby look like a lounge player. Hornsby was good with this ensemble, fit in nicely. I actually liked him better with this GD50 configuration than with the Grateful Dead because he is a good listener and was not overplaying.
Bobby looked fine and when the meltdowns occurred he made funny facial expressions as he tried to wave the band back into shape, sometimes being ignored! Phil was solid, loved his bass playing, hated his singing, but what are you going to do? The harmonies were shaky at times, but mostly pretty strong.
Bottom line: I had a blast and was as happy as a pig in mud. I believe that shows are what you make them. I was with dear friends from all over the country and from all periods of my life; what more could one want? I saw my college freshman roommate at intermission; had never met his wife, it was so special. During “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”, one of the deepest songs ever, I was weeping gently and thinking about my friends and family members gone on to the great beyond when I saw Blue Loincloth Guy dancing merrily in a circle grinning ear to ear. There I was in deep contemplation of mortality and he was spinning and grinning. I pointed it out to my friend Annie and we started laughing uncontrollably, as if “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” was the funniest song ever. That song is now forever changed for me and I will laugh until I cry. That is what the Grateful Dead is about for me. During Sugar Mag, Blue Loincloth Guy revved up, his little chest puffed out, and his smile got impossibly bigger. He whipped off the loincloth and started waving it above his head, stark naked and spinning to Sugar Magnolia on a perfect night in California. Annie and I agreed that whenever life got too serious for us, we would picture this in our minds. There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.
Santa Clara, weird, driving so far south of San Francisco into Silicon Valley. You get off the 101 and you are in a vast corporate office park, Citrix, Google, etc. We whip into the parking lot and the guy taking the money says $60 please. I was like, “What?” He was serious. Unbelievable! We get out of the car, he mentions "The stadium is about a mile away..." We walk through several parking lots and finally get to the stadium, which looks like a big box in the middle of a sea of office buildings. On our way in, we run into Bill Walton, who already has his backstage pass, but cannot find the VIP entrance. He lets us snap a picture with him, very cool guy. Once inside, we grab a $10 hot dog and a $10.25 beer, and head to our seats. The stage takes up about 1/3 of the field although they sold all the seats behind it. The Dead have their full tent set-up around the back of the stage, which surprised me, because it blocked so much of the view from the side and rear of the stage. The Dead come on, and they seem pretty tight right away.
Overall I think the crowd was very receptive of Trey...but the setlist was not what anyone was expecting. After “Trucking” and “Uncle John’s Band”, the rest of the set was obscure. Phil was smiling profusely the whole show, but Bobby seemed irritated. The drummers both hardly smiled at all, and seemed to be very mechanical (but tight) in their approach, and did not pull any of their legendary stunts: it was all by the book. But they seemed like they were just doing as they were told to do, presumably by Bobby and Phil. That was the vibe I got from them. Bruce was good, but was not afforded much of a chance to shine, the rainbow at the end of the second set was the emotional highlight of the show. The entire crowd got lost in it, and the band just kind of finished off the “Viola Lee Blues” and slipped off stage. Next time: The Golden Road to Soldiers Field!