BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
July 5th, 2015
GD50: FARE THEE WELL, NIGHT FOUR: THE NINETIES, AND A 239th BIRTHDAY
After the first of these five shows featured only material from 1970 or earlier, there was speculation that each show’s set list would be based on a specific era of the band. Maybe that information was leaked by someone who did know, because that’s how it’s playing out after all. Naturally, people were very excited about a “seventies” show, and naturally there was sour-mouthing about a potential “nineties” show.
On one level I get it, because the Grateful Dead’s performances during their last three years as a band were generally not memorable, but that was more down to the band than the material. And tonight turned out to be yet another great show with an another excellent playlist - and with two exceptions, tonight’s set list could only have happened during the years 1993 through 1995.
Tonight I arrived at the venue a little closer to showtime, making my way through an open-air nitrous oxide market outside the north end of the Field Museum and a steady stream of ticket-seekers (about half offering cash, and half seeking free “miracles”). There were the occasional vendors too, hawking stickers and t-shirts, and last there were the locals just staring at all of this and wondering just exactly how crazy some of these people are.
For the second straight night there was virtually no policing by venue staff and people went anywhere they wanted whether they belonged in that section or not. A lot of people seemed to have figured out how to get onto the floor without having a floor ticket, too - it was absolutely packed from front to back from the beginning of the show.
SHAKEDOWN STREET: Heads had widely predicted this Garcia-Hunter disco-funk epic would open one of the shows, and they were right. It first arrived in 1978 and stayed in the Grateful Dead’s active playlist until the end in 1995, and it did what it’s always done - get everything moving right away. Bob handled the vocals and the band were seemingly already warmed up, and unlike last night the main PA’s volume was thankfully a lot louder at the beginning. The mid-song solo contained the song’s high point when they allowed Bruce to take a piano solo for a full verse, with Jeff backing him up on the Hammond B3 and Bob adding some nice riffing. The use of a grand piano made it feel like a version from the Keith Godchaux era; those are rare as he was kicked out of the band only a few months after the song was introduced.
LIBERTY: Aha, the nineties show it is. This was the best of the last batch of Hunter/Garcia Grateful Dead songs, and it’s an strolling, upbeat summation of the mutual laissez-faire that Garcia and Grateful Dead sought but usually never quite attained. Most frequently used as an encore after its introduction in 1993, today its lyrics have a gently patriotic touch and Bob did a nice job with the delivery. Afterwards Phil came over and gave Bob a quick hug.
STANDING ON THE MOON: While the specter of Jerry Garcia is hanging over these shows, this Garcia-Hunter ballad essentially served as his from-beyond visit and blessing. The song is written from the standpoint of a person who has died and is watching the world from above, and the band graciously allowing Trey to sing it is something Garcia probably would have loved. The line “Such a lovely view from heaven, but I’d rather be with you” might never have been as poignant as it was here, and after Trey nailed the closing solo Phil came over to give him a hug too. People were complaining about a nineties show?
ME & MY UNCLE: One one level this was not a surprise as this cowboy tune written by Papa John Phillips was actually the most-played song in the Grateful Dead’s repertoire over 30 years. On another level, it was a surprise as Bob passed over a number of his own songs in favor of this one, but there’s no question he’s always loved it. And it is a good song that flies by quickly, and this time it came to a full stop and was not paired with one of the other three traditional Bob “cowboy” tunes (Big River, Mexicali Blues, Mama Tried).
TENNESSEE JED: Back to the Garcia-Hunter catalog, and the band stuck to the playbook by using this one in the middle of the first set. This one effortlessly straddles the line between country and California rock, and if it didn’t run so long some Nashville star could probably have made a top 40 hit out of it. Bob and Bruce split the lead vocals, but Bruce’s mike went out for a few lines, and later the crowd’s singing hit full volume on the choruses and drowned out the band. The closing jam had the first really big musical peak of the night, with Trey, Phil and Bob facing each other and rocking out while Bruce smiled approvingly. After the final chords Billy raised both of his arms and held his drumsticks aloft in an impromptu “victory” pose. They nailed it and he knew it.
CUMBERLAND BLUES: Aha, we have our first repeated song from last weekend’s Santa Clara shows, and it’s another Garcia-Hunter song. The set has taken a bit of a down-home turn, which somehow jibes with the July 4th theme. This version was fast and tight and zipped right along, with Phil singing the handful of lines that were once Jerry’s lead vocals.
LITTLE RED ROOSTER: This one started without Bob’s traditional slide guitar intro and was played at a much slower tempo, so it took until Bob started singing to figure out it was Little Red Rooster, a Grateful Dead first-set Bob staple from 1980 to 1995. At first I thought it was “The Same Thing” since it’s the nineties show, but in any event it was a disappointing choice and prompted a noticeable crowd exodus into the hallways for restroom breaks and whatever else. I found myself wishing that Bob had chosen one of his own songs - Picasso Moon, Eternity or Victim Or The Crime would have all been great. And yes, unlike many heads I do like Victim and its dissonance, and I’d have loved to see it here, if only to see the crowd reaction.
FRIEND OF THE DEVIL: This was an unusual version in that it was an electric version in original faster “acoustic” bluegrass arrangement; normally electric versions were slowed down to ballad speed. It was a nice change and this one cruised right along, even if they flubbed the “Got two reasons…” vocal line both times. Phil sang the lead, but the faster version might have suited Trey’s style better. Still, lots of fun during the solos.
DEAL: The set’s vaguely country & western / outlaw theme continues with another Garcia-Hunter gambling song, in its traditional slot as the first-set closer. Trey and Bruce split the vocals, and the closing jam was predictably a burner. Trey took the baton and sprinted with it, building up to a quick peak and just fanning away while Bruce truly let loose for the first time in four shows and hammered away at his Steinway. The crowd’s roar drowned the very end of it out, but it was one of those truly electric moments that people travelled far and wide to see. Beautiful.
The first set ran 1 hour and 22 minutes, from 7:34 to 8:56, significantly longer (and better) than any Grateful Dead first set from 1993-95.
One consistent nice touch with the Soldier Field production is that the band got access to the movable above-the-field camera that the NFL uses. It’s suspended by a series of cables ad moves my remote control, and they’ve been using it to show the band playing from above, which is a fresh new perspective. Up until now you’d have to have been a member of their lighting crew to view the band from this perspective.
The intermission lasted an hour for the fourth straight show, so I guess that’s the new normal, up from the customary 40 minutes. And with this many people in the house, it’s not a bad thing.
BIRD SONG: I was ready for Foolish Heart or China Cat Sunflower, but Bird Song was a welcome surprise to ease everyone into the second set. This Garcia-Hunter tribute and memorial to Janis Joplin is slower, but features one of Garcia’s best and most memorable guitar hooks, while Hunter’s lyrics speak volumes with just a few lines. On top of that, from its beginning it was also a launching point for a free-form jam that was essentially served as the substitute for Dark Star while that song was dormant. Phil handled the vocals, and then the jam progressed slowly and dreamily along. There were no massive peaks to speak of (see Hartford 3/26/87 for the best one I know of, if you’re into that sort of thing) and Trey did not use the staccato riffing that Garcia employed at the closing of most of the post-coma Bird Song jams, but a very nice vibe was set as the song wound down to a full stop after 12 minutes.
THE GOLDEN ROAD (TO UNLIMITED DEVOTION): Ohhhhhh, yeah. The very first song from the very first Grateful Dead album rears its idealistic, multicolored head as the place goes nuts. The Grateful Dead did not actually play this song live after 1967, probably because Garcia (and maybe the rest of them, too) quickly grew to hate the hippy-dippy lyrics, and that’s a shame because it’s one of the catchiest songs the band ever wrote. Lasting just over two minutes in its original form, the song is credited to the Grateful Dead so it’s not technically a Garcia tune even though he did sing it on the album. Tonight Trey sang the first and third verses while Bruce took the second. The show hit its peak after the second verse as Trey got out in front of everyone and drove the song to a huge peak, fanning his guitar while everyone else ramped it up behind them. That unexplainable liquid sound that only the Grateful Dead’s PA seems to know how to provide flooded forth, and the crowd roared once again. After the final verse and chorus there was a short jam that sounded as it was a transition to the next song, but instead they circled back to the Golden Road’s chords and slowed down to let Bob start the next one.
LOST SAILOR: And finally, we get our first Weir/Barlow original of the night. Originally released on 1980’s Go To Heaven and written as a companion to Saint Of Circumstance, it was retired in 1986 after remaining in heavy rotation for six years. Slower and more contemplative, I always loved it and waited in vain for it to come back, but interviews from then and now reveal Bob had tired of the song while other band members never quite took to it in the first place. It later gained cult status because it was never revived, and as a result it was very well-received tonight. Oh, and look at this: security guards are actually clearing the aisles now by shining flashlights at people until they move. I’m now wondering what prompted this policy change halfway through the three shows; I hope it’s not because something really bad has happened.
SAINT OF CIRCUMSTANCE: Unlike Lost Sailor, this one never did leave the Grateful Dead repertoire after arriving in 1980, and it is the stronger and the more upbeat of the two songs. It does, however, have a complex arrangement, which always made it a ripe opportunity for the Grateful Dead to exercise their penchants for forgotten lyrics, blown transitions and the outright train wreck. Tonight they lyrics were on and there were no train wrecks, but there were a few stumbles around the corners. So what. It was as good as once could expect with the limited rehearsal time the band had, and like my 80,000 neighbors I was just happy to hear it.
WEST L.A. FADEAWAY: This is an odd choice, I thought, as opening riff to this Garcia-Hunter song started. Almost exclusively a first-set vehicle for Garcia from 1982 onwards, the song depicts a world-weary guy living a world-weary existence in Los Angeles. But then Bruce start singing, and lo and behold, his older and slightly grittier voice fit this song perfectly. He has absolutely got this. Wow. Meanwhile, the band became his backing band as the song became a piano-led version - a boozy, barroom, barrelhouse version that took on a different and richer flavor. This was an unexpected highlight of the show, and if Bruce hasn’t already thought about adding this one to his own headline shows, he should.
FOOLISH HEART: Another Garcia-Hunter song extends the pre-drums portion of the show to over an hour, with Trey taking the vocals. Light and upbeat, this song first turned up in 1988 and bubbled along like a modern-day Eyes Of The World. Trey did a nice job on both long solos and he made a rare vocal miscue when he missed the “Bite the hand” line. He laughed it off, and everyone else did too. Bob did a nice job leading everyone into a full stop at the end by coordinating a reprise of the staccato chords that close the song’s midsection.
DRUMS: The Billy and Mickey show was slightly more insistent tonight. Over the four shows so far the format of their duets and instruments they’ve used has largely remained the same, but every night they’ve been grinning at each and running around like a couple kids loose in a candy store. Okay, actually, they’re running around like a couple of adults loose candy store, but those adults still love them some candy. The crowd was collectively talking pretty loudly during first few minutes of their segment, but they settled down to listen after Mickey started playing the beam. This was my favorite drum duet since the opening night last Saturday.
SPACE: Once again Billy left and Mickey stayed out with the musicians. Tonight was the closest thing to the “traditional” space segment that formalized its placement after a second-set drum duet at the beginning of Brent era in 1979, and it went on for a solid seven or eight minutes. It never lagged, either.
STELLA BLUE: This was another lock to be played over the space of the five nights, as it’s one of the two best Garcia-Hunter ballads along with “Wharf Rat” and a late-second-set Jerry staple from the time it was introduced in 1972. Bob sung this one, and his older, deeper voice was a great vehicle for the despondent but still-hopeful lyrics than one might expect at first. He did muff a couple of the big lines, but Trey played a powerful solo after the “blue light” verse and more than made up for it.
ONE MORE SATURDAY NIGHT: One of tonight’s two most-easily-predicted songs, this one was a lock after it did not make an appearance last Saturday in Santa Clara. From the time this Weir original appeared in 1971, it remained one of the band’s best second-set closers or encores, but it made fewer appearances over the years after the band only ever really played it at shows that occurred on a Saturday. (In comparison, see the Europe ’72 tour when every night was a Saturday night!) But this one rocked, and they did the wise thing and let Bruce dominate the closing jam with his piano. It its earlier days this was a great vehicle for Keith Godchaux, and Bruce channeled that vibe tonight. I do, however, wish that Bob had dropped Barack Obama’s name into the “President” verse to reflect the era. But, no big deal. Another great set.
US BLUES: After Phil extended a thank-you to Jerry Garcia he gave his customary organ donor rap (summary: tell someone you love you’d like to become one if something happens to you; Phil’s here now because a guy named Cody did just that) before the band charged into the second of tonight’s two most-easily-predicted songs, the loosely patriotic US Blues. Everything bopped along happily for five more minutes as everyone’s favorite dancing skeleton from the animated opening of The Grateful Dead Movie made an appearance on the big screens, along with slightly more incongruous shots of New York’s Empire State Building.
As the everyone waved that flag one more time during the song’s final chorus and the song came to a close, fireworks started going off above the stage. As the band made for the wings a recording of John Sousa’s “Stars And Stripes Forever” started playing as the fireworks continued for several minutes. Happy 219th birthday, United States of America.
The second set ran from 9:59 to 11:54, including the encore, so if you count the fireworks you can call it a two hour second set.
And as I mentioned at the top, there were only two “out-of era” songs (The Golden Road and Lost Sailor) tonight; otherwise every other song tonight was in the active rotation during the Vince Welnick era from 1993 until 1995.
See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?