BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
July 7, 2015
GD50: FARE THEE WELL, NIGHT FIVE: ALL THE YEARS COMBINE
I should start this one off by correcting an inaccuracy from last night’s recap: the so-called "incongruous" footage of the Empire State Building shown last night during US Blues was actually live, real-time footage of the building being lit up in red, white and blue in time to the song. Unless I missed something they did not make that apparent to showgoers at the stadium, and I purposely avoided all websites and coverage of the shows while they are happening in case the set lists were leaked.
I met up with old summer camp buddy David Keck to take the final walk to Soldier Field, and we passed through several open-air nitrous oxide markets in Grant Park before reaching the waves of ticketless one-finger shufflers. By the time we got to the south side of the Field Museum we saw that the “Shakedown Street” informal vending scene had extended onto its front lawn, with the usual t-shirts, jewelry and tickets for sale. My sister Laura and I have had a running inside joke about the sale of “kind veggie burritos” dating back to the time we went on summer tour together in 1989, but somewhat disappointingly I did not hear those magic words uttered once during these five shows.
Dave and I headed in early once again, got a couple photos and then parted way as my seat was on the far side of the stadium in the front row of the 100 level. For the second time in three nights the GDTS folks seated me next to a trauma surgeon from Miami Beach. He made for an excellent neighbor and conversation partner once again as we covered a wide range of topics, both Dead-related and otherwise, as a steady stream of people pushed by us to climb over the rail and make the 10-foot jump to the field. This became a dangerous thing after a family with a little girl set up a blanket right below us, and one bright spark who did not look before he leaped nearly landed on them.
The band came out just after 7:30, and instead of heading right for their respective instruments they walked out to the front of the stage to raise their arms and acknowledge the cheering crowd, and after turning and acknowledging the behind-the-stage crowd as well they moved in and gave each other a pretty intense group hug that was not just for show.
Ok. One last time. Let’s do this.
CHINA CAT SUNFLOWER: They’re not messing around. China Cat was one of the few remaining heavy-hitters in the catalog that had not yet received an airing, and it was surprising to see them lead off with it. The original, choppy version of the Garcia-Hunter song on the Aoxomoxoa album only hinted at what it would later become, and it wasn’t until the Europe ’72 tour a full three years later when the song truly discovered its own wingspan and matched the grandeur of Hunter’s lyrics, which were written in Mexico while under the influence of LSD. Trey sang the first and third verses while Bruce took the second, the band handled the sideways-moving mid-song break nicely, and the outro jam was good but did not hit the sort of peak that might have happened if it had been played later in the show. But it was certainly a great opener, and as expected and it led into its long-standing companion song after 8 minutes.
I KNOW YOU RIDER: The Grateful Dead’s arrangement of this traditional lament was so upbeat and joyous that it’s easy to overlook the pain of the person or people who wrote it, and over time the “I wish I was a headlight” verse also became one of Jerry Garcia’s signature vocal lines when he’d belt it out and lay down some power chords beneath it. Tonight the band teamed up to sing those lines together, there was an extra trip to two around the block during the closing solos, and it was a solid version all around. It was a rare for China>Rider to appear outside the second set after 1974, so this is a good omen. If tonight is another “era” show, the early 70s is still a possibility.
ESTIMATED PROPHET: Another heavy-hitter coming up early. The band knew this Weir-Barlow epic paean to delusions of grandeur in 14/4 time was a classic right away, and from its introduction in 1977 it was almost always prominently placed early in the second set. And then for old time’s sake, Bob forgot the lyrics during the first verse and all you could do was grin. I’m not sure if he was using a teleprompter or not, but even if he was his dyslexia might have caught up with him for a second. But that was soon forgotten by the time the peak of the mid-song jam came around. During the Grateful Dead era this was an opportunity for Bob to make his way out to center stage and play some power chords and throw some rock-star shapes, and it was always fun to watch because Garcia or Lesh never did anything like that, ever. And as Bob did it here the crowd roared while Phil and Trey turned towards him and ramped up their own playing, and he kept at it for a lot longer than he used to before waving the band into the final verse. The outro jam was also excellent; it was thick and focused and kept moving at a good pace throughout, with Trey and Phil’s interplay leading the way. The outro section was actually stronger than most of the Grateful Dead’s versions, which tended to noodle along a little more gently much of the time. Eventually after 15 minutes it wound down to a full stop so the band could regroup a bit. This was one of the highlights of the show.
BUILT TO LAST: I didn’t see this one coming at all, as this snappy little Garcia-Hunter ditty and title track from the band’s 1989 album reappears with Bruce handling vocals. It’s a solid song, but I was surprised at its inclusion tonight as it was not regularly played by the Grateful Dead’s repertoire after the Built To Last “touring cycle” ended with keyboardist Brent Mydland’s death in 1990.
SAMSON & DELILAH: This Weir-arranged revamp of the Reverend Gary Davis classic was widely expected at today’s show as 1.) the Grateful Dead usually played it on Sundays because of the biblical storytelling and 2.) it didn’t come up last week and it’s one of Bob’s signature songs. As always, the percussive arrangement gave the drummers a chance to pound away in unison, and the first instrumental break hit a nice Trey-led peak. After Samson killed the beast Jeff got a chance to burn on the Hammond B3 and he did not disappoint, channeling Brent Mydland at his best and generating another monstrous crowd roar that nearly drowned out the band. We had an unpleasant moment during this one, though: a guy pushed past the couple in the aisle next to me with the intention of jumping 10 feet down to the floor. The guy told him there was a family with a little girl directly below him and he should probably jump from domewhere else, but he waved off the warning, jumped anyway, and came within inches of landing on them. What a jagoff. The little girl nearly jumped out of her skin and her parents were furious, and up in our area we all agreed that no one else jumps from here tonight.
MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON: It took a minute to figure out what this one was, and it was a welcome return as the Grateful Dead retired this one from the repertoire in 1969. It’s a shame it had been gone so long too, as once Phil led the way through the verses the song begat a long, spaced out jam along the lines of those found in Bird Song, Dark Star or Playing In The Band. There were smiles all around, both onstage and off, as the band meshed together and blissfully drifted along. It was an excellent complement to all of the upbeat material that had comprised the set so far, and it turned out to be one of the night’s highlights and the next-to-last last open-ended jam of the five-show run.
THROWING STONES: Yet another Weir/Barlow second-set signature song held back until the final night, and its unusually political lyrics (for these guys, anyway) are still on point 30 years later. The first few verses played out as they normally did, and in the Grateful Dead era this song’s middle jam section was one of Bob’s three regular spots (along with Estimated Prophet and Sugar Magnolia) to rock out and play some power chords at center stage. And for the final time, the man who was once the band’s young lion stepped forward and claimed his place as the grizzled, battle-weary king of the jungle while the rest of the band stampeded behind him. The crowd hit its cue perfectly, and its roar would have drowned out the band if the PA hadn’t been turned up. Then as the crowd noise subsided a bit Bob stepped forward a second time and drove the band to a second peak, which generated a second deafening, delirious roar from the crowd. Dang. Twice in one song, and going out in style. Along with Wharf Rat last Sunday this was one of my two favorite Bob performance of these five shows, and without exaggeration, this was one of the crowning moments of his career. Wisely, they ended the set here as there was little chance of topping it.
Well, then. Aside from one very welcome out-of-era song (Mountains Of The Moon), what we just got was a late-80s second set, minus drums and space. It ran 76 minutes, from 7:32 to 8:48, and that’s pretty lengthy for seven songs, but there was no wasted time and it was one of the two best first sets of the run along with the first night of the Chicago run.
The set list’s heavy emphasis on second-set material also did something that I’d been hoping would happen: it cleared the decks for an early 70s-era psychedelic blowout of a second set. That’s the one identifiable era that’s left to cover. Fingers crossed.
I went for one last “stroll” through the shoulder-to-shoulder traffic in the hallways before returning to my seat to gaze out across the stadium and watch the crowd. At this point I’d like to extend a public thank you to the weather gods for providing 5 days of excellent weather during the show days.
At 9:37 the lights went down after 50 minutes, and they set off the leftover fireworks from last night for 2 or 3 minutes to get everyone primed to go one last time.
TRUCKIN’: After a quick tune-up the band started up with a jam that clearly teased I Need A Miracle for a solid minute, which would have been an odd choice to start the final set. But soon enough the tone changed and they dropped into Truckin’, which made total sense as this rare one-off collaboration (Garcia/Weir/Lesh/Hunter) is still their signature song. This was only the second song that was repeated from the two Santa Clara shows, and it turned out to be the last. This version felt pretty similar to the Santa Clara version, though it was tighter and louder. Then it was crowd sing-along time, and after the outro the jam moved along for several minutes before slowing down. I’m hoping for a repeat of The Other One now, circa 1972-74, but instead we get the band’s other song about Neil Cassady.
CASSIDY: One of the last remaining Weir/Barlow classics that hadn’t yet been aired, this cycle-of-life song mourns the death of Merry Prankster Neal Cassady and celebrates the birth of Cassidy Law, the daughter of Grateful Dead family members Rex Jackson and Eileen Law. (Now that Cassidy is in her mid-40s, I wonder how much attention, good and otherwise, she’s received over the years as a result of this song: “So, um, like, are you, like, the REAL Cassidy?”) Anyway, the choice was a strong one, but it was not a full-throttle version. The structured jam was extended out for several extra minutes, but it did not truly catch fire in the way that the best versions did. Like so many of Bob’s songs, it’s complicated at times and that made it a slightly taller order in these circumstances, and it was also a little strange to hear it outside its usual late-first-set position.
ALTHEA: As much as I love this song, and as much as I loved seeing Trey sing this 1980 Garcia/Hunter classic about an uneasy man with an uneasy life, it’s historically been a first-set song and I was very surprised the band gave it such a prominent slot in the final set. After they put a lot of “second set” songs into tonight’s first set, they now seem to be doing the reverse and it's altered the momentum, at least for me. It’s a nice version, and it sounds beautiful, but I thought we’d be deep into an improvisational blowout by now. Instead, the final set seems to be more of a career retrospective and victory-lap, so it’s time to adjust expectations.
TERRAPIN STATION: The majestic Terrapin Station arrives, right in its usual spot with Phil singing the “Lady With A Fan” verses and Bob singing the “Terrapin Station” verses. During most of my junior year in high school this was my favorite Grateful Dead song, and as the band moved through those dramatic closing chord progressions, visions of St. Paul’s School danced in my head. The 17-year old version of me would be really happy to know I’m here seeing this, I think to myself, and then I laugh as it also occurs to me that he’d be mortified to know my hair is so short now.
DRUMS: The band opted out of any post-Terrapin improvisation, and tonight’s final drum duet was punctuated by consistent loops of electronics throughout while Billy and Mickey did their thing one last time. Billy pounded on the biggest drums and Mickey spent a lot of time on the beam, and then fairly late into it a tech strapped what looked like a horn for a train engine onto Mickey’s chest. It was so loud that I wonder if they can hear that in Indiana.
SPACE: Billy left the stage while Mickey stayed out with the guitarists and keyboard players, and this time Jeff’s synth noises paired nicely with Mickey’s beam. At this point I was just relaxing and gazing around the stadium.
UNBROKEN CHAIN: Ahhhh, nice. I did not see this one coming, even though I should have. This Phil Lesh prog-rock epic originally appeared on the 1974 album From The Mars Hotel, but owing to its complexity it was never actually played live by the Grateful Dead until 1995, in the final months of their existence. It has since become a staple of the various iterations in which Phil has played, and it definitely fits the theme of the set. The last open ended jam of the night took its time and bubbled along, and by the time the final verse and the outro had passed, 12 minutes had whooshed by. Ok, one last chance for a Dark Star or an Other One right here.
THE DAYS BETWEEN: The lyrics of this 1993 Garcia-Hunter ballad about the passage of time absolutely fit the retrospective and reflective nature of the set, but it brought the crowd’s energy level down. It’s long and slow, and at this point people were probably hoping for something else. As Bob sang the opening lines the cheering was minimal, and it was the only time during the five shows where the crowd was listless. Having said that, this is also probably down to fatigue – I’d be interested to know what percentage of the people in here attended all three Chicago shows; I bet it was a high percentage and I bet a lot of them are wiped out. For the first time during these shows, I feel tired too.
NOT FADE AWAY: During drums my sister Laura texted me and asked me for my wish list for the home stretch. I didn’t get Dark Star or The Other One, but I did get the other two high-probability songs that I (and many others) wanted. Of all the cover songs that the Grateful Dead incorporated into their repertoire over the years, Not Fade Away may have been the best one. It simultaneously allowed them to both rock their hardest and to improvise and go where no band had gone before. I wish Buddy Holly could have seen what the Grateful Dead was able to do with his lil’ ol’ song – he’d have been astounded. People sang and danced like it was the last song of the final set, and as the band faded out the crowd started its traditional 5-beat clap with the “You know our love will not fade away!” chant and maintained it until the band returned for the encore.
TOUCH OF GREY: Phil comes out alone and does his organ donor rap (summary: tell someone you love you’d like to become one if something happens to you; Phil’s here’s here now because a guy named Cody did just that) before Trey strums the opening chords to the Grateful Dead’s one and only hit single. Originally introduced in 1982, it got to #9 on the pop charts when it was released on 1987’s “In The Dark” album and ushered in a second generation of heads and an irrevocable explosion of new demand for the band. As a result the song came to be resented a bit by the previously initiated, but 28 years later it’s surely water under the bridge for even the crankiest old-timers now – along with “Truckin’” it’s their “other” signature song. As a montage of the band photos over the years plays out on the video screens, everyone makes one last collective declaration of survival. The band don’t take a bow when it’s over, so it looks like there’ll be one more.
ATTICS OF MY LIFE: Just about everyone figured that the band would close the final show with the a cappella “And We Bid You Goodnight”, and it looked like that was happening as Phil and Trey walked out without instruments while Bob held an acoustic guitar. But then Bob strummed the opening to the short, delicate 1970 chestnut Attics Of My Life, a deep cut from American Beauty that was shelved after the album’s release but later revived occasionally in Grateful Dead shows from 1989 onwards. Unless you had inside knowledge it’s unlikely you predicted this one, and I smile as the band’s final curve ball crosses the plate.
It’s actually a perfect choice. The lyrics fit the moment, and then a beautiful thing starts happening about halfway through the song: a large black and white photo of a young, smiling Jerry Garcia goes up on the screen, and people cheer. I look up around at the crowds in the upper decks above me, and I miss what I presume were photos of Robert Hunter and Tom Constanten, but I turn back towards the stage to see a black and white photo of a young, happy Keith and Donna Godchaux, and that’s followed by a black and white photo of Brent Mydland. At that moment I (and most everyone else) realize we’re watching a valediction montage of all the band members, and a huge cheer goes up for him. Vince Welnick comes next, and he gets a cheer that’s just as loud. Then it’s on to current, beautifully shot black and white photos of the seven men onstage in the following order: Phil, Billy, Bruce, Jeff, Mickey, Trey and Bob. It’s a good thing they had in-ear monitors, because otherwise they might not have been able to hear themselves. It was a moving finish, and I smiled.
The final set ended up being the only one that didn’t come across as representative of to a specific era of the band; it felt like more of a career retrospective, and maybe that’s how they wanted to go out. And that’s fine by me.
After 5 months of anticipation, I’d gotten everything I could have ever hoped from these shows, and then some.
Then it was one last bow, one last group hug, and one last request from Mickey.