The five ‘Fare Thee Well’ shows in Santa Clara and Chicago were billed as the last stand for the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. That, of course, could be subjected to any number of interpretations, but the official line was that guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart would, after July 5, not be sharing a stage together for the sole purpose of playing Grateful Dead music. Not so fast. As I write this, Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart, joined by guitarist and singer John Mayer, Allman Brother Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, are on deck as Dead & Co. to play their last scheduled show of a Fall tour — New Years Eve 2015-16 at the Forum in Los Angeles. Thankfully, none of that precludes the significance of the ‘Fare Thee Well’ shows, especially the last three in Chicago, which were faithfully and meticulously filmed and recorded, and are now available from Rhino in various formats (CD, DVD and Blu-Ray Disc) under the banner Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years Of Grateful Dead.
Of course, the Grateful Dead as a band ceased to exist on August 9, 1995 — the day the band’s gracious figurehead Jerry Garcia passed away. For many, the impromptu reunions that developed into The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur — numerous other offshoots — could never measure up without Garcia. For likely many more, it didn’t matter as long as the music kept going. The jam band scene exploded in the late 90s, filling the void of the Grateful Dead, while retaining the band’s spirit, grass roots approach and timeless legacy. Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart kept at it, together, apart, with dozens of other musicians and millions of supporters who have continued to come to the shows to experience the closest thing to the Grateful Dead there is. World-class guitarists like Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, Robben Ford, Mark Karan, Steve Kimock and John Kadlecik have each stepped into the Garcia role without much fuss, and Deadheads continued to flock for the music, the scene and the heritage of the Grateful Dead.
Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio is no stranger to sharing the stage with Grateful Dead members. Both he and Phish bassist Mike Gordon joined Lesh for three Bay Area shows in 1999, he’s jammed with Weir at various festivals, and Phish themselves are well versed in several Dead songs that pop up on the setlist from time to time. Perhaps to boost numbers, it only made sense to bring Anastasio in to replicate the Garcia guitar parts and sing some of the songs at the ‘Fare Thee Well’ shows.
Having Bruce Hornsby, who played piano with the Dead off and on in 1980s and 1990s, brought credibility, and is arguably the best singer of the bunch. It’s unfortunate his vocals were a bit under-utilized; perhaps he could have sweetened up some of the Garcia tunes Lesh sang. Rounding out the lineup on keyboards was Jeff Chimenti, another solid choice considering he’s played with both Weir and Lesh over the years. Saxophonist Bradford Marsalis must have been busy because it would have been cool to have him down for a night. It might have even been appropriate to invite up Bob Dylan for a number or two, but that probably never came up and Dylan would have likely passed anyway. Neither Donna Jean Godchaux nor Tom Constanten, who can both claim legitimate short memberships with the Grateful Dead, were apparently invited, so that was a non-issue all along.
It was by sheer luck and circumstance that I was able to attend the two shows in Santa Clara. Having seen the Grateful Dead some 35 times, plus numerous post-Garcia incarnations with the surviving members, along with a dozen or so Phish shows under my belt, I felt the pull. I purchased tickets for both days below face value, adding a ‘Steel Your Face’ maxim to the exchange. We ‘trucked’ up north, got one of the last rooms in Palo Alto (the town where Garcia and Weir met), and joined the flow of veteran and neo Deadheads alike in communion for a round of sweet and timeless tuneage.
While I didn’t make it to Chicago, I did purchase a video stream of the July 5th show — the last one. It was well done for a live broadcast: however, watching and hearing it unfold with the proper edits, enhancements, backstage footage, cameos of Bill Murray and Bill Walton, and glimpses of fans inside and outside of Soldier Field on the Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years Of Grateful Dead Blu-rays pretty much bring the experience home. Seeing Trey Anastasio slide into the role of Jerry Garcia — albeit with some trepidation in Santa Clara, but apparently with more assurance in Chicago — he equally embedded his own singular head-bobbing style into each song. Be it angling the corners with just the right touches on the opening on “China Cat Sunflower,” easing into the lead vocal for “Althea,” or seeing the gaps filled in on “Terrapin Station,” Anastasio was the right choice for these shows.
Weir assumes the lion’s share of vocals on his own always riveting pieces “Estimated Prophet” and “Cassidy,” along with an emotive reading through one of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s final songs written for the Dead, the epic “Days Between.” Lesh also takes the lead vocals with decidedly mixed results on “Mountains On The Moon” and the ever beloved “Unbroken Chain.” To align with the complete Grateful Dead concert experience, Kreutzmann and Hart daze the senses during their “Drums > Space” sequence. Once “Touch Of Grey” and “Attics Of My Life” (accompanied by various still shots of the Grateful Dead over their 50 years together) roll through, that feeling of melancholy sets in and everyone in the audience and the band senses this really is the end — at least for now. With the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, you just never know. I’'ve elected to skip the Dead & Company shows that ended 2015 partly because for me, the five 2015 summer shows asserted a proper and profitable finale to the whole thing.
As for Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years Of Grateful Dead, you can have it a number of ways with regards to the Chicago run. For the hardcores and completists, Dead.net is offering the complete audio and video for all three shows, including 12 CD, seven Blu-ray Disc or DVD configurations, limited to 20,000 copies. At the usual outlets, you can pick up a triple CD, double Blu-ray Disc or DVD set of the July 5 show that includes a nifty book full of photos, song listings and a few words from Rolling Stone editor David Fricke. The Blu-ray Discs and DVDs are also sold separately, while a double CD ‘Best Of" version with highlights from all three shows is yet another way to experience the 50th anniversary and final communion of Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart playing the music of the Grateful Dead. What a long, strange trip it’s been!
~ Shawn Perry