Fare Thee Well

There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.

That was true 20 years ago tonight, the last time Jerry Garcia ever played with the band, and it was true last weekend when the core four surviving members came together for a final three shows. I was there July 8, 1995, the night before the final show, and I returned for all three of the Fare Thee Well farewell concerts, as the band dubbed them.

07gratefuldead-tmagArticle

Twenty years is a long time to go without a Dead show. A lot can, and did, happen to me and everyone else in the intervening years. That’s especially true when, in my case, you were just 23 years old in 1995. All the life milestones came in the next two decades: births, deaths, new jobs, new homes, new friends, less hair, more weight, settling down, being unsettled, all of that.

Many of us lucky enough to catch a Dead show with Jerry could never recapture that feeling of bliss, both musical and spiritual, that came with seeing the band after he died. All the various post-Jerry incarnations, under a variety of names that steered clear of the Grateful Dead, felt wrong. He left too large of a void to fill or ignore or even honor. It just didn’t work for me.

That’s why there was hesitation, despite all the buzz, when the final shows under the Grateful Dead name were announced. Sure, it was exciting to see Bruce Hornsby and Trey Anastasio added to the band. But there would not be, and never could be, a replacement for Jerry.

But for some reason these shows just felt right.

IMG_3878

It was time to go back.

Twenty years is a long time, and maybe it took that long to be ready to say goodbye, finally. Maybe more than the band, all of us fans needed the closure. The band was getting back together, and so were all of us. Anyone who had ever seen the Dead had a reason to talk about old times, shoot emails about whether they were going to Chicago, dig up old tapes, check out live music again, just engage.

Facebook profile pictures were laced with Dead iconography. Friends emailed around “this day in Dead history” concerts to stream. Pools were set up to guess which songs they would play. Books, dolls, posters and paraphernalia were hauled out of storage and put back on display.

The circus was coming back to town.

IMG_3891

Soldier Field, where the last show was in 1995, was picked for the final three concerts. Tickets were available through old-school mail order, a fun albeit frustrating exercise for most given the demand. But waiting and hoping, only to be ultimately denied, only increased the anticipation.

IMG_3860

By hook or crook, and mainly by knowing the right people, I and everyone I know who wanted and was able to attend the shows got tickets for at least one night. I was fortunate enough to be at all three with my brother, who was with me 20 years ago for the July 8 show and went back the next night, a Sunday, for what turned out to be the last Jerry show.

Oddly, to me the music didn’t matter as much to me as the reunion. Warm-up shows the weekend before in California were OK, but not great. I was going for the vibe and the memories, not for the music.

But just like always, the Dead took a left turn and surprised us all.

They killed it.

IMG_3987

Starting their first of the final three shows with “Box of Rain,” the last song they played at Soldier Field in 1995, was a genius and emotional move. “Such a long, long time to be gone,” bassist Phil Lesh croaked. “And a short time to be there.”

It was written about his dying father. It can be about our lost loved ones. It can be about Jerry. It can be about the Dead.

It moved me, man. What a moment. Seventy thousand people all in harmony with those guys on stage, hearts beating as one. I didn’t ever think I would see another Grateful Dead concert after Jerry died in 1995. But I did last weekend. And it was glorious.

They rocked. They rolled. The crowd could sense it that first night. They were not going to mail this one in. Trey had practiced! He played Jerry’s parts without making it sound fake. He leaned forward, egging on Bob Weir. Phil smiled. They hugged. We pumped our fists in the air and sang along.

It was electric. It was right.

Every song took on new meaning knowing this would be the last time we’d hear it from the original four all together. “We will get by.” “I can’t figure out. Is it the end or beginning?” “The music never stopped.” “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” And, ultimately, “You know our love will not fade away.”

I don’t expect or even want anyone to understand what a Grateful Dead concert is all about. Some get it, some don’t. It matters not to me whether you do or don’t.

But ask anyone who was there last weekend how those concerts made them feel. Ask what it means to them. It’s real. It’s important.

And now it’s over.

There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. Goddamn right, there’s not.

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR THE GRATEFUL DEAD - Bruce Hornsby, from left, Jeff Chimenti, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Trey Anastasio, Bill Kreutzmann of The Grateful Dead perform at Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well Show at Soldier Field on Sunday, July 5, 2015, in Chicago, Ill. (Photo by Jay Blakesberg/Invision for the Grateful Dead/AP Images)

Advertisements

Summertime done come and gone, my oh my

Twenty years ago this July, my brother and I and a gang of like-minded misfits gathered to catch the musical circus as it rolled into town, like it did every summer.

Two decades on, I can’t remember who exactly was with us that hot night at Soldier Field. There was a rotating gaggle of usual suspects who hit as many shows as they could afford and as their schedules would allow. We were all in our 20s. We knew the ride would end at some point, but we didn’t know when.

Turns out, Saturday, July 8, 1995, would be my last Grateful Dead show. The next night, July 9, would be the last Grateful Dead show for everyone else, ever. Jerry Garcia died a month later, and while the band reformed in various incarnations over the next 20 years, it’s never been close to the same.

IMG_2103

Now, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the forming of the Grateful Dead, the four surviving original members — along with some very special guests — are reuniting for three shows at the same venue where it all ended in 1995. So much has changed over the interceding years it’s almost pointless to list all the differences. For one, tickets to the 1995 shows were $33.50, as my stub above shows. The best seats this time around are more than six times as much.

Bob Weir, one of the lead singers of the Dead, was 47 years old in 1995 — an old man to the 23-year-old me. But now, as I face 43 and my brother is staring down the barrel of 50, it seems like Bobby was just a young pup when he and Jerry opened that second-to-last show with “Jack Straw.”

 

There’s no denying that Jerry was in rough shape that night, and had been for years. While we couldn’t have guessed that he would be playing his final shows, all of us who had been watching him decline knew enough to treat every 1990s-era show as a gift.

The biggest gift of all that night, and the moment that stands out for me above all the others, was Jerry’s lead vocal on the Dylan classic “Visions of Johanna.” One vocal inflection and a raised arm, at just the right moment — “Mona Lisa must have had them highway blues, you can TELL by the way she SMILED!” (minute 5:39) — was all it took to send me and the crowd of more than 50,000 into a frenzy. Jerry, and many in the crowd, knew all too well what the highway blues were all about.

 

They ended that show, triumphantly, with “U.S. Blues,” which contains the bittersweet line: “Summertime done come and gone, my oh my.” They were the last words I ever heard Jerry sing.

 

Summertime will come again to Soldier Field this July. Joining the original Dead members will be Trey Anastasio from Phish along with frequent Dead collaborator Bruce Hornsby. Thousands of people who make one or more of these shows will have never seen Jerry with the Dead. For them, for all of us, it will be a joyous occasion.

You can’t ever go back, nor should you. Like Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Middle/old age is gaining, or already caught, most who were at the final 1995 shows. Even so, many of us, hopefully my brother and I included, will gather, once again, when the circus rolls back into Chicago.

We will cheer. We will sing. Will will laugh. We will dance, poorly. We may even cry.

It’s the power of music and memories, friends. It’s what it’s all about.

See you in Chicago.

grateful-dead-fare-the-well-bb2-2015-billboard-510

 

Beneath the Waves: Jeff Tweedy, Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads and Vampire Weekend

As the weekend rapidly approaches, it seems only appropriate that we kick off this news update with an item about, wait for it, Vampire Weekend.

I was fortunate enough to catch their show this week in Milwaukee along with three avid “tailgates and substitutes” followers and about 8,000 other people. They put on a solid, 80-minute show, tearing through their songs with little stage banter, something I appreciate. Of course, the obligatory “Hey Milwaukee!” shout outs got the crowd excited.

Speaking of the crowd, it was nice to actually be on the lower end of the age demographic at a concert for once. This one definitely skewed younger, with the average age appearing to be somewhere in the mid-20s, not unlike the band itself.

Things will be back to normal next week when I head to see Bob Weir and Ratdog. Although, while Bobby is 66, his shows do still attract youngsters who never got a chance to see the Grateful Dead before Jerry died in 1995. So, good for them. We’ll see what kind of show he puts on.

Vampire Weekend, however, are young and hungry and that shows. They have the feeling of a band that are leaning forward. By that I mean, when they play you can feel the energy, the strength and enthusiasm coming from them. It’s almost as if while they are playing they are bent over, looking ahead, pushing the music forward. It’s great to be a part of a concert like that and I look forward to more great music from them in the years ahead.

I highly recommend checking them out if you get the chance. The opener, Cults, seemed to be a little out of their element at the large outdoor venue. The lead singer even mentioned a couple times it was the largest place they had ever played. Still, they showed potential and would also be worth seeing, but preferably in a smaller club.

For anyone unfamiliar with Vampire Weekend, who we’ve written about before, check out this clip of their Austin City Limits Festival performance, which greatly mirrors their Milwaukee show.

 

In other news:

Jeff Tweedy of Wilco released a new song online this week called “I’ll Sing It.” He also announced that he will be releasing his first solo record “Sukierae,” pronounced sue-key-ray on Sept. 16. It will feature 20 new songs written by Tweedy and performed by Tweedy and his 18-year-old son and drummer Spencer under the band name TWEEDY.

This is getting into some perilous territory, as offspring of rock stars have a checkered history. The good news is, the first song released is killer. Listen to it here:

http://wilcoworld.net/splash-wilco-page/

Led Zeppelin re-released their first three albums this week, including a boatload of outtakes. There are six different versions of the re-releases to choose from. To promote that, they also released a new video for the rough mix of “Whole Lotta Love.” Gotta love the archival footage:

 

Talking Heads announced that their seminal concert show, “Stop Making Sense,” would be released digitally for the first time on July 15 and in conjunction with that, it would be shown in theaters across the country as part of a limited engagement. The shows started in May and run into the fall. Check it out if it’s coming anywhere near you! Here is a montage from the film:

 

Where do the odd movements come from, the promo asks? One good guess could be cocaine.

That’s it for now. Look for more news next week, including a report from that Bob Weir and Ratdog show!