When the Grateful Dead announced they were planning three final, once-and-forever farewell shows in Chicago over July 4 weekend, with Trey Anastasio on guitar, I knew I had to be there. Except I couldn’t: I’d made July 4 weekend plans with my family and going back on that wasn’t an option.
When the Dead announced a few months later that they were adding two shows to the start of the run, dubbed Fare Thee Well, at the 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara, CA, I had a second chance. And so it was that, fresh off a plane from France, I hopped one to the Bay Area and rendezvoused with Meredith, Daryl, and Company for two nights of music. Observations, in no particular order:
1) Went into the shows with no particular expectations around the music, which is always useful and a good trick for having a great time. The shows proved much stronger than whatever it was I didn’t expect.
2) The lot scene around the stadium — Shakedown, in Dead parlance — was weak by any standard. The Levis Stadium staff relegated any fun to the outer outer lots, which we found on both nights and enjoyed a chill stroll through. Festival atmosphere absent, however.
3) Vibe inside the shows, by contrast, was incredible. There’s something about stadium shows and 70,000 people all overjoyed to be in the same place for the same purpose. I saw three Dead shows in the Jerry Garcia era, the last two in the summer of 1994 at Shoreline Amphitheater, when I lived in Berkeley for the summer and interned at the late great Mondo 2000. The energy at Shoreline was similar to that at Levis; the second night at Shoreline, wandering the venue’s massive lawn, I came up with the idea to write a book about Phish. A year later, with the help of my friend Andy Bernstein and his besties Larry Chasnoff and Brian Celentano, that idea became The Pharmer’s Almanac. (Bringing it all full circle, on Sunday at Fare Thee Well I spent setbreak with Andy, who was there overseeing a giant charity auction on behalf of Headcount, the voter’s rights/advocacy organization he runs. Amazing.)
4) Everyone thought Trey’s addition to the Dead’s lineup would divide the fans, but everyone ended up with the same take: that Trey had done his homework and knew the Dead’s catalog inside and out. Saturday night’s show, a clear tribute to the Bay Area where the Dead made their bones, featured only songs written before 1970 and markedly restrained playing from Trey. The second night, with a setlist far less interesting on paper, proved the better show, with Trey stepping forward and the band sounding like a band that had played together for years. Surprise highlight: Trey’s jam in Hell in a Bucket, and Bobby Weir’s failed attempts to cut it short. High comedy.
5) Yet all anyone really wanted to talk about was The Rainbow. It bloomed over the stadium during the first set on Saturday night, spawning references to Jerry’s magic and the Supreme Court gay marriage ruling the day before. Until the next day, when Billboard earnestly reported that the rainbow was a $50,000 special effect paid for by the band. It wasn’t, of course, but we got a delightful Snopes debunking out of it, plus many Lols. As one member of our group observed, “If the rainbow cost $50 grand, how much extra did they spend on the sunset?”
Thank you for a real good time.