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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.