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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Houndmouth and other news

Greetings, faithful readers. It’s been a while since a proper news update, so let’s hop to it.

Most music fans are always on the lookout for something new. I stumbled upon Houndmouth recently, and was lucky enough to catch one of their shows last week. This band is on the rise and I recommend you checking them out. They are about to release their second record in March, so now is the perfect time to get on the bandwagon. They are a four-piece, with a female keyboardist. All four of them sing, and their songs fit generally into those well-trod categories of alt-country, Americana, roots rock, whatever. I just call it rock and roll.

Here is their latest song:

 

And here’s another one:

 

They are on tour currently and I would highly recommend making it to a show if you can.

In other news….

Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann will be releasing the book everyone’s been waiting decades for him to write: “Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead.” It comes out May 5, just before the Dead’s final run of three shows at Soldier Field.

If anyone’s wondering how the mail order ticketing process is going for those shows, this story gives you some insight:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/for-grateful-deads-final-shows-long-strange-trip-ends-in-sea-of-mail-1423873970

In the meantime, here’s  a funny clip of Jerry Garcia I recently stumbled upon:

 

I’m still waiting to hear back on my tickets, but most of my friends have been rejected. The regular on-sale date is this Saturday at 10 a.m.

As you know, Trey Anastasio from Phish is joining the remaining members of the Dead for the final shows. Here is a tiny desk concert he recently did for NPR:

 

Until next time, keep on truckin’ everyone!

 

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.

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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.

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