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July 4, 2015
GD50: FARE THEE WELL, NIGHT THREE: THE SLAMMIN’ LATE SEVENTIES
One of the many nice things about the great city of Chicago is that it’s fully equipped to handle the onslaught of people who are coming to town this weekend for the three final shows of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. I gave myself a couple days of downtime here to just relax and do as little as possible and actually get some rest, and it was nice to see the city just continue to go about its business despite the influx of of visitors and the booked-to-capacity hotels.
But the relative inactivity couldn’t last. I got restless in the morning and hit Equinox in the loop for what turned out to be a full workout, and after checking into a new hotel for the three show days I met up for a late lunch with David Keck, an old friend from summer camp and from Pittsburgh who I hadn’t seen since the early 1990s. We covered an awful lot of ground over three hours of meeting up, eating up and walking a couple miles to the stadium.
Aside from the old Soldier Field facade (which was deftly preserved and incorporated), the new Soldier Field looks like a big, aggressive, asymmetrical flying saucer that made a pit stop on the shore of Lake Michigan. Once you’re inside the four levels of dark blue seats extend steeply skyward and create what has to be a very intimidating atmosphere during football games, and that’s even before adding Chicago’s winter weather. But there’s none of that today, and unlike most Bears games there were no incomplete passes today either.
One big logistical difference from the Santa Clara shows became apparent very quickly. Aside from monitoring the multiple staircases heading from the 100 level to the floor, there were no ushers checking tickets anywhere, which made for a crowded and occasionally claustrophobic time. I was towards the back and 5 rows up on the 100 level, and by the time the band came onstage just after 7:20 there was serious human congestion in our area, much of it coming from people whose actual seats were clearly elsewhere.
BOX OF RAIN: I thought they were going to save this for the encore on the final night, but it made for a good, solid opener here. This was always Phil’s signature song and he handled the vocals the way he always did. It gave everyone a chance to get their in-ear monitor levels just right, and gave the crowd a chance to have an “Oh my Gawd, this is finally happening!” moment. My seats were just behind one of the towers of delay speakers, and while they were synched perfectly with the main PA, the volume on the latter was slightly lower to start the show, so the sound we were getting was a bit more trebly at this point. Another very noticeable difference right out of the gate was how much louder and more boisterous this crowd is compared to the Santa Clara. The classic East Coast / West Coast crowd differences are still there, and nowhere was this more apparent than from the guy behind me who howled like a gibbon at full volume for several minutes while the band tuned up and during the songs’s opening.
JACK STRAW: The band started a jam out of thin air for a couple minutes as an intro to this one, which was high on the list if songs I was waiting to see, not least because it’s going to kick things up a notch quickly. Phil sung the lines Garcia used to sing and Bob handled his verses as usual. The main PA volume was still down, and that’s currently a factor, because the crowd is singing along, loudly. They’re on key, but they’re drowning the band out (I could barely hear the band sing the “…fourth day of July” line), but at this point all you can do is just shrug your shoulders, laugh and watch 80,000 people in various states of euphoria. Clouds of smoke are coming from every direction, and people are hugging and toasting each other and yelling and screaming and having one glorious time. The second and final jam of the song, always a highlight of any show where it appears, hit a couple of great peaks, but they were hard to fully hear because of the crowd’s cheering. The Grateful Dead were always great at using the crowd as a sort of accentuating instrument like this, but at their loudest they’d drown the band out, and they can still do it now. Dang.
BERTHA: Before the momentum could subside they charged right into this one, one of the most straightforward in the Garcia-Hunter catalog and always an early-show energy-raiser. And at once there was a difference from Santa Clara, and a welcome one: Trey was handling the lead vocals instead of Bob or Phil. Good, good, good. Everything bopped along nicely, Trey’s mid-song solo was strong, but the band didn’t go for the strong accentuations on the downbeats like the Grateful Dead did for much of the latter half of the song’s history. The crowd sing-along on the closing “Any More!” refrain was predictably loud, and by now the total lack of crowd control in the 100 level means the end of our aisle is now completely clogged with people, and on top of that a beer vendor has somehow fought his way through all these people to peddle his wares.
PASSENGER: This Phil Lesh/Ned Monk one-off is one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs that’s not widely considered to be a classic, probably because it’s one of their hardest-rocking and a pretty unique one structurally, even for these guys. It’s taken the momentum and upped it to the next level, and you can already tell this is going to be the tightest of the three shows by a wide margin. However, this is somewhat lost on me during the first half of the song as two guys halfway down the aisle order two beers each from the vendor in the aisle, and I end up being the relay guy for the beers and the money. They get the amount wrong, so I’m reduced to holding up fingers to let them know they owe $42 instead of whatever it was that they already gave. A couple more bills change hands, and the song is half over. I’m able to lock back in, and they nail it. Trey was all over his fretboard for the first solo section while Bruce backed him up, an the PA volume is slowly rising to the point where I can hear but not fully feel Phil’s thump. A raging beast indeed, and Jeff takes a great Hammond Bs solo on the second jam. I was hoping Trey would get another go-round after that on guitar but instead they brought it home. This, along with Jack Straw, were the highlights of the first set.
THE WHEEL: It was a standing start for this one, and I’ll take it out-of-position as it was most frequently heard in the second set coming out of space. Everyone teamed up for the vocals, and the jams within the song were longer and more relaxed. It was a definite breather after the slam-bang of the previous three songs, and it was nice to see 80,000 people swaying like seaweeds as the band made their way through this Garcia-Hunter chestnut.
CRAZY FINGERS: The tail end of the jam after The Wheel hinted at this pretty strongly, we get our first slow song of the night, and it’s Garcia/Hunter songs back-to-back. This one trickles along like a slow-moving brook, and for years I had no idea that the verses to this song are all actually verses of haiku. To this day I’m still not sure what the song is actually about, but it’s still nice to wander around inside it and wonder. The closing jam remains my favorite part of the song though, as it gives the musicians a chance to wander in a semi-controlled setting and set up whatever is coming next. We’ve now had a good, solid 20 minutes of more chilled-out material, and methinks something upbeat is coming.
THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED: Yep. This Bob Weir barnburner was a lock to appear at some point during these shows, and when it does it takes its traditional position as the first-set closer. The dancing amps back up to frenetic levels during the first half of the song, and as Bob belted out the final lyrics I detached from everything on the planet and settled in to lose myself in the jazzy 6/8 time mid-section, which became my favorite section of the song as a result obtaining a soundboard bootleg of the legendary, all-time-best “Hershey 1985” version. (Right, Jon Shackett?) Things moved along very nicely and began to build over the space of a good minute and a half and there was no place else on the planet I’d rather be. Then there’s a tap on my shoulder from behind me to my right, but I’m in my own seat and not doing anything to annoy anyone, so I have no idea what this is about. I open my eyes and turn around. This had better be good. It’s not. The wife of the guy who was howling like a gibbon earlier wants me to get the attention of the beer vendor who is fighting his way up the aisle. Sigh. I do, but he’s out of beer and the band hits their peak and jumps from the jazz jam to the closing refrain. Nice work, lady. The song does build up to a nice climax and the crowd once again nearly drowns out the band when the waves of cheers arrive during the jam’s peak, and the set comes to a strong, satisfying close.
The first set ran from 7:26 to 8:28; they did seven songs in just over an hour and there was no wasted time. There no major musical miscues to speak of, either, so whatever rehearsal happened this week is paying off. Aside from Box Of Rain, everything played so far was in the Grateful Dead repertoire in 1976 and 1977, so it seems tonight has a late-70s theme.
The crowd’s energy level was extremely high, and the band met it from the beginning, and at this point I should mention that my friends Tim and Becky Randall were reporting that the upper levels of the stadium were bouncing and shaking throughout the show from all the dancing.
MASON’S CHILDREN: The “late 70s” theme hypothesis was blown out of the water for one song with this unexpected opener and deep cut, which the Grateful Dead did not play after 1970. It’s upbeat and bouncy, and it gets everyone moving, but it was never recorded and released on a Grateful Deal album from its era, and you can tell it’s not universally known by the crowd based on the relative lack of singing along and the slightly mellower dancing. But it’s great to see them pull this kind of stuff out now, as this was one of a dozen or more worthwhile early-days songs that Garcia refused to revisit in later days. And as the jam winds down and changes keys, Bob counts in the next one.
SCARLET BEGONIAS: The roar of the crowd is absolutely deafening as one of the songs in just about every head’s “top 5” swaggers through the door. But by now the PA’s volume is up to where it should be, and the delay speakers are now merely the augmentation and not the primary source of sound. Bob plays that neat little riff, one of the best he’s got, and then Trey steps up to the mike to handle the lead vocals. They’ve handed him the reins on a big one, and it generated my favorite visual of the night. As be belted out that first line about walking in Grosvenor Square, the sheer enormity of the situation hit him, and for this instant he had this look on his face where he realized he was living a moment that he and millions of people have dreamed about: standing in Jerry Garcia’s shoes and leading this band through Scarlet Begonias. Nice one, dude. The version matched the crowd’s energy, Trey’s mid-song solo was bolstered by some genuine rolling thunder from the drummers and more fat chords from Bruce, and the outro jam got moving quickly and stayed moving throughout, and it was a long-ish version, clocking in at over 12 minutes.
FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN: The expected transition into Fire was a relatively quick change, and then Bruce started singing the first verse almost immediately. Nice to see him get the nod for this one. As one might expect by this point, the crowd sing-along on the chorus was loud, and Bruce took a nice piano solo after the second verse but did not cut loose completely, which I’m still waiting to see him do during these shows because he can bring the house down with his fingers when he decides to do so. Then a surprising thing happened immediately after the third and final chorus: everyone except the drummers walked off; there wasn’t even even an outro jam. It was a little jarring, and all told Fire only ran 7 minutes. They definitely did not make full use of the song, but I always liked Scarlet better anyway, and this relatively short (26 minutes) pre-drums must mean they’ve got a bunch of heavy-hitters lined up for afterwards.
DRUMS: I sat down to relax and enjoy the drum duet like normal, but unfortunately I could not see the stage because the aisle in front of me was still crammed with people who are packed too tightly to sit down, leaving vendors and other passersby to fight their way through them. Fortunately, for the drums they turned on the video screens at the rear of the stadium while the made use of the day towers to generated some swirling, echoing quadraphonic effects. Tonight’s segment was a little closer in style and pacing to the first show on Saturday, with a mix of traditional African instruments standing interspersed with the larger bass drums and Mickey’s beam, which was played by hand and with a bow tonight. After 12 minutes Billy walked offstage as the guitarists and keyboardists returned, but Mickey stayed put.
SPACE: Billy was back within a couple minutes, and it seemed for a minute like they were about to head right into the next song, but instead we got several minutes of a full, rich space jam where everyone contributed to a formless mass of sound. The drummers added occasional cymbals and a beat here and there, which was not usually done in the Grateful Dead era. Soon enough they were ready to head back to song-land.
NEW POTATO CABOOSE: Another out-of-era detour, but this time they go even further back to 1968’s New Potato Caboose, which trippily drifts along and brings everyone back into dancing mode. This one was slightly better known song due to its inclusion on the Anthem Of The Sun album, and it serves the same purpose that Mason’s Children did earlier: it got everyone primed and ready for the “hits” that followed.
PLAYING IN THE BAND: Niiiiiice. This might be my favorite Weir/Barlow song, as it has it all: a unique 10/4 time signature paces a wonderfully structured song, which leads to what one of their best jam launching points. This song can and did go anywhere (only “Dark Star” was more open-ended) and could last upwards of 20 minutes on a good, hot night. Tonight’s version ran for almost 14 minutes and Phil seemed to lead the way for most of it, with assists from Trey and Bruce. It was a wonderfully thick version, and after it wound down to near silence the band meandered along for another 4 or 5 minute while hinting heavily at West L.A. Fadeaway. But eventually some Devo/Numan-flavored dissonance led by Jeff’s synthesizer ushered in another kind of Weir/Barlow epic.
LET IT GROW: Bob’s longest and most involved songs could almost be classified as mini-symphonies, and Let It Grow was the best of them. Originally the final (and best) segment of the 20-minute “Weather Report Suite” from 1973, in 1976 the Grateful Dead broke it loose and it became its own standalone epic, running 10 to 15 minutes at pop. After three long verses and a solo, the song’s midsection featured three consecutive structured but open-ended jams, each with their own character, and that would eventually led back to a reprise of the bridge and chorus. It was most frequently a first-set closer for the Grateful Dead, but tonight they placed it deep in the second set where it could have easily lived all along. It churned along for 12 glorious minutes (marred only by the gibbon-noise guy singing along to a few lines at the top of his lungs and drastically out of key; enough people glared in his direction that his wife actually shushed him), and while it hit no spectacular peaks it was a very strong version, and as it winds down it gives no clue as to what might come next. Perhaps a segue back into the reprise of Playing In The Band to close it out? Nope.
HELP ON THE WAY / SLIPKNOT: Rather than save this one for one of the remaining two nights, the band reach back into the the Garcia Hunter catalog to pile on another one of their best segments of songs to close this set. Help On The Way was one of the trickier songs that Garcia ever wrote, with some nice twists and turns, and an unusually complex intro and outro for the improvisational “Slipknot”. However, everyone is on and the band negotiate everything almost flawlessly. Trey flubbed one line of vocals and Trey a note or so of one transition, but at this point it really doesn’t matter. This is thick and immense.
FRANKLIN’S TOWER: The one original Grateful Dead song with a 1-4-5 chord progression closes out the set in rocking form, with the crowd back up to full volume on the Roll-Aways, and the balconies were probably bouncing like crazy again. Phil handled the vocals, and thing is able to accommodate his lower range more easily than others. Trey rose to the occasion two more times during the solos after the “Listen to the music play” and “You’re gonna harvest wind” verses, and at 11:18 they circled back to the Slipknot theme to close the song and the set, giving us a nonstop second set that ran almost an hour and 45 minutes.
Aside from Mason’s Children and New Potato Caboose, everything in the set was in the Grateful Dead’s rotation in 1977, so cross the “late 70s” show off the list. The show was tight and strong, and even if it didn’t have a brain-melting peak it was easily the best of the three shows so far on a objective level. Subjectively though, the first show on Saturday is still my favorite so far.
RIPPLE: 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), and then Bob makes his way out with an acoustic guitar and says something I couldn’t quite make out. It’s obvious from the tuning that’s it’s going to be Ripple, and I smile. This Garcia-Hunter song that took me longer than most to appreciate because I was simply not attuned to its brilliance and subtleties as a mostly-angry teenager, even after seeing its dramatic use in the film “Mask”, and even after a terminally ill head played his Make-A-Wish Foundation card and got the Grateful Dead to play it once in 1988. Of all things, it was actually Jane’s Addiction’s heavier but transcendent interpretation of the song on the “Deadicated” covers album from 1991 that cracked its mysteries open and made it one of their most emotionally resonant songs.
And when the band sang the “If your cup is full / may it be again” line, my eyes broke open and tears started rolling as a lifetime’s worth of gratitude and good fortune surged through me during the second half of the song and the sing-along closing. I just let them roll and kept dancing, and as the song ended I wiped my cheeks. The guy directly behind me that I hadn’t talked with at all grabbed my shoulders and gave them a reassuring squeeze before quickly walking away. No words were spoken; none were needed.