After 50 long, strange years, The Grateful Dead celebrated all things grateful with one final, stellar performance at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL.
With over 71,000 people in attendance, the final show broke the record for most people at the Chicago stadium (previously held by U2). And while there was certainly a share of internet-based negativity leading up to the historic event, the only feeling amongst fans inside was that of camaraderie.
It’s no surprise, really, when you consider this band’s music. On one level, the songs are eloquently and rigorously composed in an incredibly unique way. But, perhaps more importantly, those compositions allow these Grateful Dead classics to embody distinct emotions. We use words like ‘happy’ or ‘angry’ to describe how we feel, but those are just arbitrary words. Is it not possible to feel ‘Box of Rain’ or ‘Ripple’ or ‘China Cat Sunflower’ or any one of the Grateful Dead’s wonderful songs?
Each show is simply a collection of emotions, a roller coaster of sensibilities, and last night’s final performance was one amazing ride. It’s worth mentioning that all seven musicians, that is Trey Anastasio, Jeff Chimenti, Mickey Hart, Bruce Hornsby, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir, performed with such acumen and energy for all five nights of “Fare Thee Well.”
From the “China Cat Sunflower” opener, it was clear that this was no ordinary concert. The Grateful Dead’s final show was in a league of its own. While Hornsby and Anastasio shared vocal duties on “China Cat”, the whole band alternated verses for its counterpart, “I Know You Rider”, and they all sang together for the “I wish I was a headlight” verse. Of course, they were joined by a chorus of 71,000 as well.
The folky tones of “Rider” gave way to the funky opening riff of “Estimated Prophet”, giving Weir his first chance to bring the house down in Chicago. The unusual time signature of the song (7/4) led the crowd into a trance, featuring some excellent work on the organs from Chimenti. “Built To Last” followed, with the satisfying number led by Bruce Hornsby on vocals.
Bob Weir brought some blues into the set with a howlin’ version of “Samson & Delilah”, before the band slowed things down with a “Mountains Of The Moon” > “Throwing Stones” ending to the first set. The band explored deep improvisational territory on the final numbers, bringing the crowd along for the journey.
As the sun set for one last Grateful Dead concert, the second half of the show began with a dazzling fireworks display. Unlike the previous night, these fireworks weren’t part of a celebration of America – the Deadheads were celebrating their favorite band. The energy in Soldier Field was palpable, and the visual display gave fans an excuse to let off some steam.
Then it was down to business, as the band dove in to their second repeat of the five-night run, “Truckin'”. The American Beauty track was a perfect opener for the set, bringing fans on one more “long, strange trip.” Next up was “Cassidy”, a song that began traditionally enough but quickly crept into the uncharted jam waters. Weir brought the energy on vocals, but it was Anastasio who led the band into parts unknown.
Anastasio remained in the spotlight, singing the lead vocals on the next song, “Althea”. The beloved track was executed to perfection, everyone singing along gleefully. The real highlight of the second set came next, however, as the band broke into “Terrapin Station”. Phil Lesh sang the “Lady With A Fan” intro section, building up to Bob Weir’s vocals on the grand finale of the song. It’s such a powerful composition that, whenever talented musicians tackle it, the song always comes out beautifully.
Afterwards, the band retreated for one final cosmic adventure with Kreutzmann and Hart. While the two drummers experimented away on their seemingly infinite collection of percussion, the visuals in the stadium were simply mesmerizing. Between the lights and displays on the screens, the crowd was captured during the “Drums” and “Space” segments of the show. The latter was particularly shorter than the previous show, and the jam bled into the ever-soulful “Unbroken Chain”.
Interestingly enough, the final Grateful Dead concert featured the same “Space” > “Unbroken Chain” segue. Phil Lesh led the vocals on “Chain”, losing himself to the magnanimous emotion of the occasion throughout the song. Afterwards, it was Weir’s turn to lose himself to the emotion, as he sang a powerful rendition of “Days Between”. The two heartfelt numbers slowed down the pace of this final show, but one more song picked up the end of the second set – “Not Fade Away”.
The Buddy Holly cover was the icing on the cake. With everyone singing – and I do mean everyone – the band was smiling ear to ear throughout the whole song. Chants of “you know our love, not fade away” resonated through the crowd during the break, and continued to echo with fans as they later left the venue. Somewhere between catchy and sentimental, the message empowered the fans’ love for the Grateful Dead.
The band returned for an encore performance of their only Top Ten hit, “Touch of Grey”. With the whole band trading vocals, Weir offered up some humor by sporting a “Let Trey Sing” t-shirt for the final tunes. After “Grey”, the band retreated once more, only to return for an especially moving version of “Attics Of My Life”. Weir brought out his acoustic guitar, and Lesh and Anastasio only contributed vocals to this final number. The slow ballad captured the emotion of the Dead’s final moments brilliantly.
After one final bow, Mickey Hart took the microphone for the first time, delivering a message for us to “be kind.” With five shows and 94 songs in the books (with only two repeats over five days), the Grateful Dead celebrated their 50th anniversary in extraordinary fashion. The band was as perfect as a band can be, with a grateful sentiment emanating from fans and musicians alike.
Thank you to everyone who performed and contributed to such an outstanding weekend. Here’s to 50 years of being Grateful!
Setlist: Grateful Dead at Soldier Field, Chicago, IL – 7/5/15
Set One: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Estimated Prophet, Built To Last, Samson & Delilah, Mountains Of The Moon > Throwing Stones
Set Two: Truckin’, Cassidy, Althea, Terrapin Station > Drums > Space > Unbroken Chain, Days Between > Not Fade Away
Encore: Touch Of Grey
Encore 2: Attics Of My Life