Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and Bob Weir first shared the stage together at San Francisco’s Straight Theatre on September 29, 1967; when Kreutzmann invited Hart to sit-in for the Grateful Dead’s second set. By the end of the night Hart had become the newest member of the band and performed with Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart over a thousand times over the course of five decades. On Sunday night the Grateful Dead’s “core four” performed together for what’s been billed as the final time at Soldier Field in Chicago, where they teamed with keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti as well as Phish frontman Trey Anastasio to bring Fare Thee Well – Celebrating 50 Years Of Grateful Dead to a close.
After a show focused on the ’70s and a performance that leaned on the Dead’s later years, the Fare Thee Well septet pulled from nearly every era of the Grateful Dead’s touring career on Sunday.
The energy at the sold-out football stadium was through the roof as the band took the stage and assembled for a deep bow. They then huddled at the middle of the stage for a group hug. Each member took their spots and “China Cat Sunflower” began. Bruce Hornsby and Trey Anastasio shared lead vocals on “China Cat,” which the Grateful Dead played over 500 times between 1968 and 1995. A few of Robert Hunter’s lyrics tripped up Anastasio, but he had no problems instrumentally as the guitarist added his own signature flourishes to the iconic transition that leads into “I Know You Rider.” All four main vocalists shared the “I wish I was a headlight” verse which Garcia always sang so powerfully at Grateful Dead performances. Hornsby provided a perky, upbeat piano solo in “Rider” as a crowd including celebrities Bill Murray, Perry Farrell, George R.R. Martin and Bill Walton roared its approval.
Following “China”/”Rider,” Bob Weir stepped to the mic to deliver his first Sunday sermon of the evening in the form of “Estimated Prophet.” Anastasio utilized a Mu- Tron envelope filter to nail the tone Garcia favored during the composed sections of the song, but changed to a more aggressive tone for the course of the meaty improvisation that came out of “Estimated.” Next, the band called upon the title track from their final studio album, 1989’s Built To Last. The vocals are right in Hornsby’s wheelhouse, so thankfully he was tasked with singing the song. Weir then took attendees back to church as he spit “Samson & Delilah” with passion and fire.
Phil Lesh had his first turn of the night fronting the band on “Mountains Of The Moon,” which the Grateful Dead only performed live a handful of times in 1969. The septet’s sparce arrangement of the Hunter/Garcia Aoxomoxoa track gave Anastasio plenty of space to maneuver and he took the jam to a territory frequently explored by his main band. It was then back to Bobby preaching as Weir growled the lyrics to one of the Dead’s last protest songs, “Throwing Stones.” The guitarist was full of emotion as he yelled, “You can buy the whole goddamn government today!” towards the end of the song. The tempo, as with much of the first set, was decidedly slow-paced. The laidback tempo made for a shock to the system when Anastasio shredded a strong peak to bring the set its conclusion.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood/Hard Working Americans guitarist Neal Casal composed five hours of music to be played during setbreak of the five Fare Thee Well concerts. All of Casal’s music was necessary to cover the hour-long intermissions the band took each night including on Sunday. Another Fare Thee Well setbreak tradition was the use of the narrow, digital scoreboards that lined the full lengths of Levi’s Stadium and Soldier Field. The scoreboards were illuminated with deep blue light which made the venues glow. Show organizers had one more setbreak surprise in store on Sunday as a full fireworks display was fired above Soldier Field.
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