A Reflection on Grateful Dead 50
“All the Years Combine They Melt into a Dream” • Part 1
Photos by Phil Clarkin
Out of respect for the Grateful Dead I’d like to break up my reflection into a series that examines Fare Thee Well from an angle less visited. Our focus has always been on curation, and I’d like to expound upon that concept in this series. This is merely the beginning of a much longer look at the Grateful Dead and Fare Thee Well. Let this serve as an initial thought introduction to the community’s energy and love.
This weekend was incredibly special, probably one of the most special in my lifetime. Soldier Field, the location where the band performed their final shows with Jerry Garcia in 1995, came to life again 20 years later with over 70,000 attendees for three nights of bliss and musical brilliance.
By this time everyone has seen the setlists, watched both professional and amateur video, and read some basic show updates that only skim the surface of what Fare Thee Well was all about. The legacy of the Dead is endless and difficult to summarize – their vast reach through generations, their influence on countless bands, and being one of the most iconic bands in history… These only begin to describe the GD legacy.
As I stood on the floor on July 3rd I knew something special was going to happen. Yet at the same time, we had no clue what we were in store for. Oddly enough, earlier that day there was a great deal of talk about the Dead, what they’d play, and talks of how much we’d enjoy Chicago. Once inside Soldier Field there was a degree of magical uncertainty looming about in the air.
I would say if I had to sum up the energy of that crowd into one word it would be mystical. I’ve been to a lot of shows, I’ve been in a lot of crowds but never before have I been so moved by a universal energy felt in one place. I felt it the hardest during those frequencies During “Space” and “Not Fade Away”. The crowd stole the show man. They have for the last fifty years and they ended it with a bang Sunday. I think the boys are forever in debt to us as we are to them. – Acul Paolini
I’d like to point out one obvious fact I observed the second I walked out of the tunnel onto the floor. This may be the last show I ever see in my life of a live jam improvisational talent in an arena/stadium. Sure, it has never been about highly acclaimed stardom, I’d honestly prefer to see bands in an intimate setting rather than a large one in most cases. Nonetheless, it was nice to know that a lot of folks could be accommodated in this large venue. Chicago was a commencement of people who love this band so much they’ve come from all over the world to see them. Whether you were from Dubai, Chicago, Montgomery, the UK, San Fran, NYC, Japan or anywhere in between, you were there for one thing and one thing only— To see the Grateful Dead give one last final farewell to the most loyal fan base in Rock N Roll history.
It all began with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. This entire phenomenon has transcended age, gender, race, and sexual orientation unlike any band in history. We are everywhere. We are your carpenters, your investment banker, your small business owners, your landscaper, your lawyer, your bartender, we are your family. It doesn’t matter. We are all different. We come together, unified to see a cause greater than ones self. The self-glorification is out the window and community slips into the picture. No matter if one is celebrating the best summer of their life, or perhaps mourning the loss of a loved one, or both at the same time, this band is one that both celebrates and heals. The Shakedown lot was a great communal appreciation of all things Grateful. Everyone, for the most part, was friendly with each other. I can’t even tell you the number of conversations everyone was having with their newly found best friends sitting next to them drinking beers or waiting in line to use the restroom.
So why is all of this important? It is important because the legacy of “jambands” or festival scenes are merely a product of this beautiful phenomena started by none other than this group of nerds, rockers, and hippies that comprised the Grateful Dead. In the era where radio was king, live concerts were not the main means of financial stability for many acts. Oddly enough, even with more digitization and a strongly structured (and often cruel) music business realm, we arrive to find ourselves at a point in which 80% of revenues earned by radio Top 40 artists are earned by touring. The trend and increase in festivals is on what seems, at least for the moment, to be on an exponential curve.
When the band came out on Night 2 as I stood on the floor with my new best friend, Russ Smith, and the band dropped into “Shakedown Street”. I realized I’d never experienced anything more beautiful at a concert in my life. Epic… That is an insufficient word. Where else on July 4th could one better celebrate freedom? Where else did 70,000 people decide to place every difference aside and enjoy themselves on the intangible? As someone whose first guitar solo ever to learn on guitar was “Turn on Your Lovelight”, the Dead will always remain of the most influential bands in my life. For those who were lucky enough to actually see the Grateful Dead (yes, with Jerry), then you’ve been privileged to see the band over the years. For some non-early 70s heads they got exposed to see The Dead during the Brent years (B-3 was so on point) and others not until the early 90s. There’s also a large segment of the crowd there this weekend like myself who have seen a plethora of Dead projects featuring the original members. However, seeing the jamband of a later generation, Phish, have their lead guitarist perform with the core four was beyond mind-blowing – and signified a true “passing of the torch”. Regardless of how you feel about the group’s selection I think most would agree the shows in Chicago went over fairly smoothly after working out the kinks from the Santa Clara run.
“Without the fans there would be no us.” – Mickey Hart (July 3, 2015)
This is certainly true. The Dead’s career and legacy is centered around people who understand the most beautiful facets of music. For one, I love jambands, but have increasingly found myself drawn back to the songs of the past from the greats that actually initiated my obsession with music in the first place — The Stones, Zeppelin, Hendrix, etc. Similarly, this nostalgia I have isn’t something I’m alone on. Bands like the Alabama Shakes and St. Paul & the Broken Bones are making their mark on music. Sure, they are awesome and talented. But on the same token, half of their appeal is that they are bringing back feelings reminiscent of the best era in music history. The Dead were one of the most defining bands of the era everyone wants to hear of. Perhaps the emphasis on live music is a positive thing because concerts are important now more than ever (though bad music still exists and is prevalent). I guess what I’m getting at here is that hope for fans who appreciate music for the right reasons (not because they’re simply consumers of pop culture itself), still do exist. This weekend I hung out with over 70,000 of my new best friends.
Now I can seriously believe that regardless of the exact form, the music will never stop.
More on this coming soon.