Grateful Dead final farewell

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The chant of “You know our love will not fade away” echoed into the night from 71,000 fans inside Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday, as the four surviving members of the Grateful Dead bid them goodbye during their fifth and final Fare Thee Well concert.

The chant, taken from a line in the song Not Fade Away, was a running theme for the three shows over the Fourth of July weekend, as Deadheads from across the country gathered one more time to rekindle old friendships from past tours and pay homage to the music that binds them in positivism. The first two were the previous week at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

The  legendary Bob Weir. (All photos by Jon Gallo)
The legendary Bob Weir. (All photos by Jon Gallo)

Drummer Mickey Hart may have said it best with the last words from the stage: “be kind.” The sentiment was best reflected in the fans’ patience and courtesy moving en mass through the long lines to and from the venue, and outside the stadium in areas known in Deadhead circles as Shakedown Street, named in honor of one of the jam band’s classics. Fans and sellers haggled over a motley of tie-dyed goods, from baby clothes to socks; from T-shirts to jewelry; and from custom posters to marijuana bowls.

The controlled chaos – from the band’s sporadic style to the wheeling and dealing that goes on outside the stadium – “it’s all just exactly perfect,” guitarist Bob Weir has long said tongue-and-cheek about the Grateful Dead experience.

Sunday’s finale started around 7:30, about a half-hour after the scheduled 7 p.m. start to make sure nobody in the Soldier Field-record crowd missed a single note of the first song, China Cat Sunflower, sung by guest guitarist Trey Anastasio (Phish) and keyboardist Bruce Hornsby. It flowed into its traditional pairing of I Know You Rider, with bassist Phil Lesh and Weir joining in on vocals.

Drummer Mickey Hart was at his best during his trademark solo Bill Kreutzmann during the second set on Sunday.
Drummer Mickey Hart was at his best during his trademark solo Bill Kreutzmann during the second set on Sunday.

Many bands with a preconceived swan song performance turn it out as a greatest hits live set list, but not so with the Dead.  The band scattered the cream of their decades of treasured favorites over the five performances of the Fare Thee Well shows, only repeating two songs, Cumberland Blues (June 27 in Santa Clara, California; July 4 in Chicago) and Truckin’ (June 27, July 5).

Sunday’s show featured many crowd favorites and Dead staples, including Cassidy, Sampson and Delilah, and Not Fade Away, but certainly wasn’t the “all the biggies, all together” show that  marked last month’s “Dear Jerry” tribute at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

This was a Dead show after all – and you’re never going to get exactly what you expect, unless the only thing you expect is a musical journey that wanders down different paths.  But the fans certainly didn’t leaved unsatisfied, as they were treated to Unbroken Chain – a song largely known by the band’s longtime fans  – and Touch of Grey, which was its only hit to become mainstream.

The Grateful Dead's stage enhanced the audience's experience.
The Grateful Dead’s stage enhanced the audience’s experience.

The Dead also gave an epic performance of Terrapin Station to cement the second set’s greatness into Dead lore. If you’re not a fan of Terrapin, then you probably pick another band.

“We’re like licorice, not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice,” the late Jerry Garcia, who founded the band, once said.

The visuals for all the performances were outstanding.  The stage was flanked by two large projection screens, flowing a stream of images that included old photographs and video of the band, hand-decorated envelopes from fans requesting mail order tickets and Grateful Dead icons, like Stealies (skulls), roses and lightning bolts. Live close-ups of the band were inserted over the graphics to give a those seated in the upper deck a good look of the performance.

Combined with one of the best light shows I’ve ever seen the Dead utilize, the screens helped provide an immersive experience for everyone in the stadium, from those crammed in the front pit to the fans seated behind the stage who were just happy to make it in to the party.

Fireworks lit up the sky in between the two sets on Sunday.
Fireworks lit up the sky in between the two sets on Sunday.

However, the one notable exception was the band put the show to bed with a sweet and mellow encore of Attics of My Life, which got a bit cluttered by a crowd cheering wildly over the song in response to a final run of photos of band members past and present.

Still, the more than 210,000 who filled Soldier Field – the last venue Garcia played with the band before dying 20 years ago – went home spent.

Some fans wept, knowing the Dead’s long, strange 50-year journey had made its last stop.

Some fans smiled, delighted by having seen their band turn back the clock and produce one more night of acoustic magic.

Some older fans embraced, having heard the band that had given them the soundtrack of their lives play it for a final time.

As fans streamed out of the stadium and wandered toward Michigan Avenue, they chanted in unison, “No our love will not fade away,” followed by rhythmic claps before repeating the chorus again.

For a band that has performed thousands of shows and touched millions, the manner in which the fans fared their band farewell was indeed, just exactly perfect.