Grateful Dead 50

 “All The Years Combine, They Melt Into a Dream” Pt. 2

Night 1 in Chicago


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Photos by Phil Clarkin

The Eyes of the World lay on the Dead as they hit the stage for the first of their five “Fare Thee Well” run of shows, kicking off in Santa Clara. With all due respect to arguably the best band in rock n roll history, in the grand scheme of the five night run, this would primarily serve as a live rehearsal for the final three concerts over the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago.

There were certainly some strong points and deep jams from Santa Clara. However, over 5 night run it became clear that Chicago was where the Dead really rose to the levels that solidified them as one of the best in the game, even after 50 years. Did they sound like they did during the peak years with Jerry? I think we all know the answer to that. However, did they reach the best possible musical peak they could, given Jerry’s absence? Yes. Choosing Trey to fill those lofty shoes ended up being a decision everyone in attendance and streaming the shows at home would fully understand as the shows played out. He rose to the occasion and beyond.

Coming in hot off the energy of Thievery Corporation’s show at the Aragon in Chicago, I thought I was ready for what would ensue. However, I quickly realized I wasn’t. I’d not seen the Grateful Dead before. Sure, I’ve seen Dead projects a-plenty as I’m sure any old to new heads have seen. However, this was it. Fare Thee Well. The end of the core four; Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann. The energy surrounding Chicago was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. You literally couldn’t go anywhere within miles of the venue without every bar, restaurant or shop filled with excited fans ready to get down. In a city like Chicago, many folks leave town for the weekend to enjoy a nice vacation. This time, the city wasn’t as empty as most years, the circus came to town.

The city of Chicago was more than accommodating to the fans. For the most part, all of the visitors were kind and hospitable and things ran very smoothly. Especially when you consider 210,000 tickets were sold over the course of the three-night run.

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The first night things kicked off with “Box of Rain”. They’d run out of wristbands for the floor, I could hear it, but wasn’t quite there yet. Great song, very appropriate opener, and nice to get things started, but a heater, nope. The “Jack Straw” was when we saw that this was no Santa Clara Trey. Big Red was here to stay as he peaked that “Straw” jam. Prior to that, of note was the comradery amongst the crowd as the band hit that opening lyric, “We can share the women, we can share the wine.” As Bobby finished up the verses, Trey was there. The Big Kahuna knew that Chicago was time to step it up and bring that signature Languadoc onstage and his signature “Trey” face and engage crush mode. That was it right there. I’ll be honest; my biggest concern was that Trey would be how he was in Santa Clara. Head down, trying to play well and get though this without being criticized that he wasn’t Jerry. In spite of his reserved styles in Santa Clara, Big Red decided to set the gearshift to the high gear in Chicago. It appeared that Bobby was really stepping up to the plate as well with his vocal work in ways not previously seen so consistently in Santa Clara.

Many of you may recall the “Bertha” Trey played with Phil Lesh and Friends at Warfield 1999 including Page McConnell of Phish on keys. That was one of the highlights of the night for certain. Well that same chemistry from good ole Phil and Trey once again emerged for the third song of the night. It even included Trey singing many lyrics that could be appropriately applied to some of his experiences in life. “Bertha don’t ya come around here anymore,” howled all 70,000 of us in the crowd as the band rocked the number to an end.

I kept thinking what was it that made this all so special? I looked overheard; a plane circling the stadium bore the banner with lyrics to Stella Blue “All the years combine, they melt into a dream.” I pointed up to my friend John. We just gave each other a smile of approval and a pat on the back. This was a culmination of all things Grateful coming to fruition one last final time with the core four.

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What came next could arguably have been at the time, the highlight of the Fare Thee Well run thus far. “Passenger” isn’t one of the easy Dead songs to just set up and nail. This one could be a dumpster-fire if not performed with great precision. Jeff Chementi, who was playing Brent Mydland’s old organ, deserves some sort of trophy. Do you understand how much he held this whole ship down throughout the run? He was the least talked about, yet remained one of the most important. After Jeff and Bruce went back and forth a bit, Trey came in hot with some hard sustains then it was back into “Passenger , don’t you hear me?” Things got passed back off to Jeff for a bit to tickle the drawbars on Brent’s ole beauty. They nailed “Passenger”. It was clear they were here in Chicago to close this down properly. The best part was we were only a few songs into the 3-day adventure. Oh, and I do need to note the Rhythm Devils were crushing it. They really do sound good together. There is a chemistry to what they do that is built by playing so many countless hours together. Hardwork and an understanding of each others playing helped define their sound, aside from the obvious fact that most bands don’t have two drummers.

So, what would they do to polish off this first of 6 sets they’d perform at Soldier Field? “The Wheel” was pretty strong, but the “Crazy Fingers” they transitioned into was right up there with the highlights from night 1. While this wasn’t Trey’s best vocal performance of the weekend, the improv section shined. You honestly just need to set aside some time and watch the video below captured by LazyLightning55a.

Well. Here we were, they wouldn’t end the first set on such a mellow note. They would get a bit spacier in the second set; we knew this, as with many Dead shows. In a nod to 50 years of carrying on their legacy in various formats, both directly as The Grateful Dead and their other endeavors, they fittingly lifted our spirits with “The Music Never Stopped.” The grin on Phil’s face, Bobby belting out the lyrics. Now that was memorable. The Devils locking in sync once the jam began, this was when I saw two things, 1. Why the Dead are so good and 2. That Trey was the right choice. The chemistry slowly began with Bill, Mickey, and Phil paving a road for Jeff and Bruce to run over. Weir is one of the best rhythm guitar players out there, and this most certainly shined. As the rest of the band locked in, Trey slowly began to layer over the group, then the Rhythm Devils began to pick it up.  Phil was setting the pace, and Trey started some really intricate phrasing. It didn’t quite peak yet, but as “Well, the Music Never Stopped, now,” I thought, maybe we can get to that place. Then everyone locked in for those last two minutes. Standing on that floor I got goosebumps as they charged this thing all the way home, 50 years of a legacy, taking things, albeit not for the longest time, to a moment that defined the Dead’s legacy. This is the payoff with improvisation. When a band creates something right in front of you and stirs up feelings of excitement that you just can’t get when playing songs in a rigid, structured format.

That was it. A great way to end the first set of July 3rd. But we still had 5 sets of music left ladies and gentlemen.

“Mason’s Children” was a fine, yet not highly notable set 2 opener. Nonetheless, the Hunter/Jerry song got folks back moving on their feet. Call me a rookie, but it seems as though we can all agree what came next overwhelmingly overshadowed “Mason’s Children”.

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There are some segues in music, particularly for the Dead that just go together. “Scarlet”>”Fire” is one of them. This Scarlet was pretty out of control, the venue erupted. We were seeing the third to last show with the core four at Soldier Field, the last “Scarlet” they’ll play together. That in of itself was special, but the energy from the band matched that notion. Indeed, this was the case. Jeff and Bruce, and more notably, Bob Weir, held down the instrumental segue into the song. The Rhythm Devils were very strong, emphasizing their parts with great ease and perfection. Jerry wasn’t there, but “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” This just pure musical bliss. The audience knew it and so did the band.

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The expected transition into “Fire on the Mountain” certainly did not make the beginning of Fire any less special. The audience was up to the occasion to get down for part 2 of one of the Dead’s most notable segues. Phil was smiling most of his time on stage in Chicago that is for sure, and as he went straight into the key of B on his bass it was game-on. They had Bruce on stage, and at this point he was long overdue to sing. Most certainly everyone there was “Dead to the core” and Bruce kept plugging this away as Jeff’s sat next to him, hair blowing out in the wind, with that shit eating grin as he commanded Brent’s Hammond with ease. The jam on Fire was pretty strong. Trey chose not to really dig too deep into the Mutron on this one, though it was applied at times.

The ambience of “Fire on the Mountain” faded out into a “Drums” > “Space” segment. I’m not the biggest Drums fan in the world, but these two guys were having a blast and as I stated in part 1, this part of the night got better and better as the run continued. The “Space” on Night 1 was extra psychedelic. Trey emerged and started using some mutron auto-wah, with Phil dancing around some interesting bass note selections, everyone else joined in on the fun. Pretty fun “Space” all in all. Nothing too crazy, but nothing too reserved either. “New Potato Caboose” was a pretty fun number with Phil on vocals. The rest of the band also accompanied on vocals for part of the song. Phil’s bass was pretty hefty on this one, as expected. Bob and Trey hit some subtle, yet very special moments, if you go listen carefully. Then Trey and Phil had some very excellent back and forth phrasing.

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In a serious, yet asinine way I told John before the show, “All I want tonight is a big, fat, juicy, heater of a “Playin’ in the Band.” Well I honestly didn’t know we would actually get this for night uno. But, this is the Grateful Dead. Busting out the unexpected is part of what helped define them, among other things, so once they dropped into this number I was overwhelmed with the amount of heavy hitters they’d dropped on us thus far. If someone had not been blessed to have heard The Dead before, the one song that’d serve as a noble exhibit to their many talents and cross genre specialties would be the complex animal that is “Playin’ in the Band.” The band exuded a confidence I’m not sure they’d had up until any point so far in the run. Nothing was rushed, yet nothing too calm. They were really listening to each other in ways they’d not done so before, with this particular line-up. Weir was listening so deeply to Trey. Phil began to phrase off their interplay and this was what would be the beginning of a special moment that would sweep in with the rest of the band and hit some very exploratory realms along the voyage of this “Playin”. This one went over 17 minutes long. The longest jam of the night.

The “Let It Grow” that followed was a well placed follow up to the mammoth jam of “Playin’ in the Band.” Weir stepped up to the mic as the lights shined over the crowd and the Chicago city skyscrapers lit up in the background. Jeff’s very discreet Hammond work nicely complimented the verses of “Let it Grow”. Jeff and Bob both pushed things along for Trey to keep the progression building. It should be noted that this song and the first night as a whole, Phil seems to play rather well with Trey. Trey sounds great with Gordo when with Phish, as well as Tony Markellis of Trey Anastasio Band. Seeing him with Phil was quite an experience. This “Let It Grow” reinforced that the Dead was pulling out all the stops to harp on the exploratory portion of their performance. They were willing to take risks, ones that were much greater than in Santa Clara, and they were paying off.

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Earlier I mentioned the “Scarlet”>”Fire” as one of the top Grateful Dead segues of all time. Well there is a tri-fecta that remains a top choice among Deadheads. “Help is on the Way” >”Slipknot” > “Franklin’s Tower”. Before everyone freaks out, yes Trey did slip up one part of the “Help” verse, but it did not make that much of a difference. Also, he wasn’t the only one in the band to have a little vocal slip-up over the GD50 5 night run. Phil commanded the dark bass lines of “Slipknot” as a phasy/octave/flanged infused Trey discreetly wove into spacy ambience. Though light in the mix at points, Bruce sounded great in this particular number. While the move from “Slipknot” into “Franklin’s” wasn’t the strongest I’ve ever heard they pulled thing together there to get the show on the golden road for a “Franklin’s”. The band got nearly silent; Phil’s bass led the way for the rest of the members. Weir’s phrasing was spot-on for the intro improvisational passage to the number. Nearly two minutes in Lesh initiated the first verse of the Dead staple. Lesh led the crowd on a vocal sing-along “Roll Away, the Dew”.

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Hands extended out in the air as one of the most epic, yet straightforward lyrics by Robert Hunter was belted out by all 70,000+ of us, “If you get confused just listen to the music play”.

To cap things off was a nice and slow “Ripple”. Pretty straight forward, but some extra emotion from the band and the crowd as Night 1 came to a close. Again, the song selection for Night 1 was pretty well done. Songs, for the most part were strategically placed in good locations. A few expected ones, some unexpected, fast numbers, ballads, and exploratory jams — they covered a tad bit of every base.

The take away was clear, Chicago was going to be a strong way for the Grateful Dead to bid their fans Fare Well and give the music justice. It was all smiles leaving Solider Field. Two more days of the Dead. This was just the beginning.

Stay tuned for “All the Years, They Melt Into a Dream” – Part 3, coming soon.

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