In the week leading up to the Grateful Dead “Fare Thee Well” 50th anniversary run in Chicago, Jerry Garcia’s daughter Trixie publicly shared some advice to Trey Anastasio. “He’s a conscientious guy and I hope by the 4th, he starts being a little pushier.” Well, Anastasio must have heard her, because he certainly didn’t hold back during the first night of the three-night stand at Soldier Field. All seven members of the band were playing at the top of their game.
Despite the sheer volume of the crowd, with tens of thousands in attendance, the crowd miraculously felt like one big family. With all of the debates over guitarists and ticket strategies, by the time Phil Lesh started singing “Box of Rain”, the Deadheads were in full-on celebration mode. It was a moving opener that had the crowd singing along from the getgo.
Next up was the fan favorite, “Jack Straw”, with Bob Weir and Lesh alternating vocals throughout the tune. The two felt right at home throughout the remorseful song, Weir’s voice stronger than ever. Afterwards, the band let Anastasio take the reins on “Bertha”, and the upbeat number allowed him to start digging in on the guitar. Anastasio hit all the right notes, following Jerry Garcia’s leads but adding his own flare to the music.
The hits just kept coming. Weir took the lead on “Passenger” next, which gave way into a spacey jam that ultimately broke into a joyous “The Wheel”. That one, in turn, bled into the epic “Crazy Fingers”, featuring some of the best improvisational work within the first frame.
By the time the “Fare Thee Well” group hit “The Music Never Stopped”, the groove was electric. All seven members of the band were firing on all cylinders. Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti were locked in on the piano and keyboards, respectively, and Kreutzmann and Hart were bringing the oomph behind their drum kits. An extended version of the funky rocker closed out the first set in Chicago.
The energy never faltered during the hourlong set-break; in fact, it continued to grow. As the moon settled over Soldier Field, fans fervently embraced the return of the Grateful Dead for what proved to be an incredible second set.
With “Mason’s Children” recently performed during soundcheck, the band broke into the song with a powerful resolve. The song began what ultimately became a constantly-flowing, energy-packed second set. “Scarlet Begonias” was next, with Anastasio taking the lead in every sense of the word. His vocals were on point, and his guitar playing brought the house down. There wasn’t a person in that building who wasn’t singing along to “Begonias”. Leading in and out of verses and soloing, Anastasio helped to deliver a dynamic highlight from a constantly remarkable performance.
The band segued smoothly into “Fire on the Mountain”, which saw Bruce Hornsby take his first and only turn behind the microphone. The reggae-infused rhythm kept the crowds dancing gleefully, and the band roared through the song. After playing the notes of the song’s ending, the music abruptly stopped – and the “Drums” segment began.
In his book, drummer Bill Kreutzmann talks about the sheer delight he gets from his “Drums” experimentation on stage. There’s no question that Kreutzmann and Hart have improved their drum kit over the years, especially with Hart’s continued work with astrophysicists and neuroscientists in the realm of sonic exploration. While certainly not for everyone, the “Drums” and “Space” sections allow for unbridled exploration, a hallmark of the Grateful Dead experience. It’s a journey into the weird, with the drummers waving that freak flag high.
Eventually the “Space” gave way into “New Potato Caboose”, a lesser-known song from the Anthem of the Sun (1968) album. It is nice to see the band digging into the Grateful Dead canon, and they certainly delivered on this gem.
Of course, the crowd erupted as a floating jam out of “Caboose” led into “Playin’ In The Band”. Led by Weir, the crowd erupted at the first lyrics and never faltered. True to form, the song’s powerful lyrics gave way into some deep improvisation. The Dead proved, once again, that they could be out there, even in front of the massive crowds assembled. With the way all seven members of the band were playing, they could do no wrong.
The lofty “Band” jam broke into “Let It Grow”, another tune fronted by Bob Weir. Again, the band brought the song to life, with Weir’s vocal pleas engaging the crowd and band alike. The eloquent song was pure emotion as the second set continued to flow from one great moment to the next.
With ease, the group slid right into “Help On The Way”, with Anastasio taking the lead vocals one last time. What followed was certainly one of the most impressive “Help On The Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower” that has ever been performed. Anastasio’s guitarwork here was simply perfect, living up to the challenging melodies of the song trio. “Slipknot!” featured some great, loose jamming, but it was “Franklin’s Tower” that stole the show. When upwards of 65,000 people sing “roll away the dew” together, it’s nothing short of a beautiful, moving experience. Roll away!
The show concluded with an encore performance of “Ripple”, with Weir donning an acoustic guitar and singing lead on the beloved American Beauty classic. It was sing-a-long time in Soldier Field, leaving every hippie with a beaming smile.
The best part: they’ll be back for more tonight! Happy birthday America! Watch the entire first set below.
Setlist: Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well @ Soldier Field, Chicago, IL – 7/3/15
Box Of Rain (pl)
Jack Straw (bw,pl,all)
The Wheel (pl/all) >
Crazy Fingers (ta)
The Music Never Stopped (bw)
Mason’s Children (pl)
Scarlet Begonias (ta) >
Fire On The Mountain (bh) >
Drums > Space >
New Potato Caboose (pl) >
Playing In The Band (bw) >
Let It Grow (bw) >
Help On The Way (ta) >
Franklin’s Tower (pl)