a look back at the look back - Grateful Dead 50th anniversary celebration

*** Update June  - below

The wifey and I went to all three Chicago Grateful Dead farewell shows.  Since we got back... in fact during... I got a lot of 'you got to tell me all about it'.  Agreed.  Here it is.  This piece is long.  Too long, in fact.  But, I put a lot of work into it. 

This is a discussion which will be wildly sweeping.  It won’t have fluffy intro pieces like “the Grateful Dead are an iconic American institution that dates back to blab la bla."  You won't find sentences like "in 1965, on a cool summer evening in Palo Alto, five young castaways found their fate..."  Reading this assumes you know very well who the Dead are.  It assumes you are a big fan, and have seen the band many times… with, and without, Jerry.  It is ok if you haven't seen them, though.  I am just saying much of this is inside baseball and won't make much sense.  I won’t even go into the background of the participants.  You can do that with Wikipedia. There will be a LOT of short hand. It won’t be ‘Bob Weir did a great Estimated Prophet’.  It will be ‘Bobby just slayed ‘Prophet’, once again.  The shows were amazing.  It was a great investment, and a great experience.

We went to all 3 Chicago shows.  We also cheated and watched the first show from California on pay per view.  I’ll pepper in observations from that show, as well… since it was very much in sync with the Chicago shows. I am a Deadhead.  My first live show was back 1989, and my first experience following them on tour was the next summer.  I have seen the Dead a lot.  Well, a lot for any other band.  Many Deadheads have seen hundreds of shows.  A loose guess on my count would be about 20 shows with Jerry, and at least that many shows since Jerry passed.  Since Jerry passed in 1995, the band broke into a thousand little bands:  Other ones, Furthur, Scaring the Children, the Dead, Phil and Friends, Bob and Rob… and too many more to mention.

The incarnation as 'the Dead' is important to single out, though.  It was the first reunion of the band since Jerry died.  It had all the principles that this reunion had.  However, in the 'Jerry' spot was the great Warren Haynes.  I think it is important to note this tour as it was the first time the others started singing Jerry songs.  Up to then, the guys just sang their own songs when they toured.  Like, Bobby has PLENTY of songs he can do.  He shared the vocal duties with Jerry for 30 years.  Once they toured as 'the Dead', and thereafter... they started also singing Jerry songs.  I do not approve of Bobby singing Jerry songs.  Their voices are so very different.  Warren Haynes doing Jerry songs, though, is fine with me.  He also has a super throaty and smokey voice.

This is Vegas '95.  I am about 80% sure I was at this show.  Stop tittering, I say I am not positive because the shows were multi day.  It's m favorite pic of Jerry
­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Ticket Prices
Stop bitching about ticket prices.  Face value for our seats was $60, before fees.  I am looking at my ticket.  You aren't pissed about ticket prices.  You are pissed you couldn't get a ticket, as it was nearly impossible. Fair point. I was lucky enough to get one official through the onsale.  Now, if you paid $500 through a scalper, that has nothing on the band.  $59.50 face value is almost criminally cheap.  Know why?  Last Grateful Dead ticket I have in front of me is from 1990, when Jerry was alive.  They were playing football stadiums, and ticket prices were $50.   

Don’t tell me "Jerry would never let this price gouging go on. man!"  25 years ago, the Dead were charging more than  any band on Earth… and Jerry was alive.  Plus, it was a football stadium… so their haul at $50 times 70,000 seats in every city.  Know how much that is?  A bunch.  Yeah, the band made a LOT of money last weekend.  They deserve to.  No matter how much they will make (and after merch, ticket sales, cd sales, PPV sales, and DVD sales, it may be a billion.  Seriously.  I don’t feel it was a cash grab because they are rich.  Really rich.  50 years of gigging.  Remember, no one in the band ever retired, not for 5 minutes.  They just stopped using the name ‘Grateful Dead’.
For four hours of music, $60 is a steal.  Admittedly, it was an epic pain to get tickets, but we got through with 8 computers running.  These days, though, its nearly impossible to get tickets to anything good.  I wrote about this recently.  To many shows, less than 10% of available tickets ever go on sale to the general public.
Are they making a fortune one these shows?  Holy shit, yes.  I think after ticket sales, merch, pay per view, audio and dvd sales, this will be a billion dollar weekend.  Good for them.  50 years of working 5 days a week.  They deserve it.  They are the definition of the American Dream.  It's kinda funny, since that it also what Garcia spent his life fighting.

Why Trey?
Why not Warren Haynes, or John Kadlecik, Jackie Greene, or any of those others guys?  I have read two reasons for this, and they both make sense.  The first reason is this, for a ticket draw.  The producers needed some mojo to sell tickets.  They figured there was no way they could fill a football stadium for 3 days.  U2 can’t do it, and neither can the Stones.  3 days, in 1 city, and 70,000 seats… how do you fill that? Better yet; how do you sell 300,000 tickets (figure the stadium is 70,000 seated, another 30,000 on the floor x 3 days) for a band that broke up 20 years ago?  Oh, and a band that never really had a hit.  Oh, and the lead singer is dead.
Bringing in Trey was a wise chess move to kick up the demand.  Now, we now know we didn’t need Trey.  Deadheads are nuts!  Yes, we will easily travel across the country on very expensive plane tickets to very expensive shows for a band with no singer who broke up long ago who never had a hit.
There was a second, strategic, reason, why Trey was invited.  There was never a question they would bring in another singer/guitarist.  There were many internal battles in the band over the years.  This is extremely common human nature.  It’s a marriage that lasted 50 years, with 6 to 10 partners.  They needed a neutral party.  Warren Haynes was tied to one camp, an Kadlecik another.  Also, neither had the star power to fill a football stadium.
Most importantly, Trey is great.  Not just a likeable and agreeable guy, but an amazing musical talent.  I like Phish, and have seen them plenty.  I was excited to see Trey play with the band.  Well, he fucking killed it.  Home run on every level.  Another interesting note about Trey, I have been watching the concerts back on HD.  

There is an great program right now where for $50, you have unlimited access to all 5 shows streaming in hi def.  These are very good productions.  Incredible audio, and incredible video. Plus, if one were so inclined, they might use a audio capture program and make my own bootleg recordings to listen to in my truck. In watching them back, I noticed the only one who doesn’t use an iPad is Trey.  Bobby has long used them for lyrics reminders and such.  I find it funny that the only guy who doesn’t need a lyric cheat sheet is the guy who hasn’t played these songs for 50 years.
Let’s talk about the guys, each and every one of them.  Well, Trey we covered above.  Plus... as for 'Why Trey'... just look at that photo above.  PLUS - I have met him, he was very nice.  I consider us close.

Bobby was pouty through most of the run.  Unless he was singing one of his songs, he seemed to be bothered by everything.  He was also big on wrapping up endless jams, which I can appreciate. A few times, he even waved the band off as if to get them to stop altogether.  Wisely, though, no one heeded him.  When he did do one of his songs, though, he killed it.  Trey and Phil kept trying to engage him in the fun, and to see the energy they were creating.  Bobby could not be bothered.   Here is my theory; Bobby played second fiddle for a goddamn long time.  30 years.  When Jerry was alive, Bobby was invisible.  Since then, Bobby has gotten to be the star.  Bobby called the shots, and ran the shows.  Now, he is back to a democracy, and that sucks. 

tangent alarm:

I can tell you the show was reasonably short on 23 minute songs.  Thank god!  I love Dark Star (they played it the first night, I think.  It was great).  What I don't love, though, is hearing the first verse and chorus of Dark Star (or any song) then a goddamn fucking 23 minutes of nonsense in the middle that goes nowhere, and then the last verse.

I am going to teach you a secret.  Well, it is just a theory, but I am quite serious about it.  When you hear one of those 18 minute songs (Cassidy & Birdsong is another song notorious for that); when the band comes out of the extended jam at about 16 minutes in, you will always hear the crowd go nuts.  The reason for this is not because the last 16 minutes were so tasty.  The crowd goes nuts because they are all 'oh yeah, I remember where we are now.  This is Cassidy.  I love this song.  I totally forgot where we were."  That isn't drug related.  It will happen anytime you praddle on like that.  Yes, even I get bored to tears by the Dead.

Until, that is, the last night.  The very last night, he had fun.  He had a LOT of fun.  I even saw him engage Trey and Phil and throw down some tasty gumbo.  I learned after the fact, a day or so later, he was wearing a ‘let Trey sing’ shirt.  I can only imagine the band told him to cut the shit or don’t even come out on stage.
I am a big Bobby fan, and have written glowingly about him.  This was not his best work.  If you want to see his better work, and there is much of it, go to his studio website. Tri Studios.  Here, he performs all kinds of Dead classics with all kinds of friends.  Then, he streams it in hi-def - free.

Like Bobby, I have seen Phil a LOT over the years.  Probably about 10 to 15 shows just since Jerry passed, and all the shows I saw him with the full band.  Phil was crazy energized.  I have never ever seen him so happy or engaged.  You would think he had come out of a 20 year retirement just to play these shows to see how happy he was.  He didn’t, though.  Like the others, Phil never stopped.  Phil has been playing bass on stage probably 3 nights a week for the last 50 years.  Even when he isn’t touring, he has a house band he plays with at his bar in San Francisco.  Terrapin Crossing, I think it’s called.  Phil’s bass work is beautiful and unique and wonderful as always.  His singing, however, remains fucking horrible.
Billy wasn’t much of a musical force in these shows, in my estimation.  I think if he wasn’t there, it would have no impact.  He was just playing a simple small kit, keeping the beat.  There is much to be said for that.  However, the Dead are incredible musicians.  So, just holding down the beat doesn’t seem enough for me.

Jeff Chimenti
Don’t know a lot about him.  He is obviously a generation or two behind the others.  He has long been in the Dead family, and played in many of the various Bobby and Phil incarnations over the years.  We had two full time keyboardists for these shows, which was weird.  That is not something the Dead have ever done.  There was a separation of duties, though.  Chimenti played keyboards, while Bruce Hornsby played piano.  Chimenti was a beast, and a bad ass.  He added  a ton, musically, and he was right to be there.  I would be happy to see him at any show with any band after watching him all weekend.  He was amazing.  Bonus side note, Melissa (a gal in our traveling party) ran into him outside his hotel as she was walking to meet us for breakfast.  With her permission, here is her, Jeff, and a couple others (Hubby and friend)

Can you tell which guy above is newcomer Jeff Chimenti?  Hint, it's the one about to make 2 million bucks for 3 days work.


Mickey is, of course, the other drummer.  Mickey was a beast!  Mickey drove the shows on every level.  Where Billy played with drumsticks, Mickey was using mallets and hammers and everything else he could find.  I am sure a drummer would tell me they were both critical, and play off each other.  I am sure a super old school Deadhead would say you can’t have one without the other.  I disagree.  All I needed was Mickey.  Btw, this is not a personal bias.  I am not on team Mickey.  He has always come off to me as a dick, and none of the books about the band have done him any favors, either.  Whereas, I just read Billy’s book, and he could not be a more likeable guy.  Phil’s book is also a great read.  I believe those are the only members who have written official bios.  I guess Mickey just needs to write a book.  Wait, he probably has.  It would mostly be about the history of drumming I would bet.  No thanks, buster.  Nice try!

which one above is Hornsby?  Hint, he is the one above who is about to make 2 million bucks for 3 days work.  Jerry, though Dead, will actually make about ten million.  Here is a photo of his widow, Koons-Garcia, upon hearing about the reunion, or that a puppy was kicked somewhere.

Bruce Hornsby
Yeah, that guy from the Range, and ‘the Way it Is’.  Seems like a strange fit, doesn’t it?  Well, it is.  BUT… they all go back about 25 years.  In 1991, one of their many keyboardists died.  This guy was the best, and most talented, though.  We are talking about Brent Mydland.  I was very partial to him as he was the keyboardist when I was following the band.  Because the Dead were a MAMMOTH organization touring football stadiums, they can’t quite just take off a year or two to mourn and find a new guy.  Hornsby stepped in immediately… like a few weeks later.  He spent a couple years with the band while they found a full time replacement (in Vince Welnick… also dead).  I got to see the band play many times with Hornsby, and it was always great.  He is just so damn likeable.
Bruce sang several songs, and did excellent with each one.  Problem is, you couldn’t hear him.  He was lower in the mix than Bobby.  * adjustment – as I am watching the shows now, I can hear Bruce fine.  In person, though, I couldn’t hear him at all… and I was working at it.  I love what he adds.  I think they went in after the fact and beefed him up in the mix (something no one has ever done for Bobby).  You may think ‘well, maybe piano sound doesn’t travel well in football stadiums’.  No.  This is because when Bruce sang songs, they goosed up his piano to be heard fine.  Now, watching online… it is a more consistent mix.

now onto other things

took this pic myself with cell phone.  Just wanted to make sure I wasn't the only one seeing it, y'know?

Setlist – was there one?
The Dead were notorious for not having setlists.  They just winged it, song by song, every time, every night.  That was not the case here, for the obvious reasons of having so many new guys.  There were some improv and setlist surprises.  I could tell by watching this unfold, often.  Bobby starts a song.  Phil and Trey don’t know what it is, they are watching and talking.  They were very tight every night.  Shortly after, Phil figures it out, and tells Trey.  Then, Trey is on board.  The shows were prototypical in classic Dead style and length.  First set is an hour.  Then, you get an hour set break.  Then, they come back with better, heavier, and deeper songs in the second set.  Except, halfway through every second set is always a drum space.  Always.  :(
Setlists – how were the song choices?
Excellent!  I went in with two requests hopes – Jackstraw, and Terrapin Station.  They played them both, and both in Chicago!  Other stand outs that are not so obvious – Built to Last.  Awesome song from their last album which is WAY under-rated.  ‘Days Between’, if I am correct, is a song that never fully graduated.  It was something they were working on since ’93 (Jerry died in ’95) and it has never done anything for me.  So, I thought that was an odd choice.  ‘Birdsong’ closed one of the evenings, and it was Bobby on acoustic.  It was a real nice touch.  Bobby has done tons of acoustic over the years, but never once with the Dead.  Well, once in Oct 1980

the clip above is a true heart-breaker.  It is Jerry's last performance, right before he died.  It was in this exact stadium.  Even more sad, this song seems to be a perfectly sad bookend in retrospect.  So Many Roads.  This song never made it to a studio album, either.  It saddens me, as it may have been great.  Live, I find the dragging and lacking in fire.  Perhaps a studio cut would have punched it up.  Perhaps.  So Many Roads.

They did a ‘Lost Sailor>Saint’, which is a combo that got forever tabled in the 80s for some reason.  They did ‘Foolish Heart’, which is one of my favorite songs.  It is also from the underrated album mentioned above ‘Built to Last’.  Geesh, go buy it, already.  I would have been happy to embed a video here, but the video is SO bad, I simply can't allow it.

Ok, this song is too good not to include.  I can't find a single live version that is passable.  This is a super rare sentence to come from a Deadhead, but you really have to dig the studio version.  Please turn your screen off and just listen.  This video is just dogshit.

Here is another weird one; Passenger.  Passenger is a terrible and best forgotten song from the otherwise amazing ‘Terrapin Station’ album.  As you suspected, it is true.  They had a LOT of terrible songs.  In their live repertoire was over a thousand songs they could pull from... so expect a few stinkers.  Bobby, I am mostly looking in your direction on this.  It was never a staple live, because it is dumb.  Strangely, though, the performance was really great.  Does that make any sense?  Like ‘the Wheel’ – generally an amazing song (even the original studio cut), but the performance at these shows was lackluster and phoned in.  Maybe not the performance… but the version.  I guess only a fool who spends 30 years following the same guys singing the same songs would understand a stupid obtuse sentence like "the song is bad ass, the performance was impressive, but the version was half hearted at best."  How can you play a great song that poorly, but still technically proficient?

When they did it with Jerry, it was a tougher, and tighter jam.  Wife was surprised they didn't play 'Brokedown Palace', because that is where the line 'Fare Thee Well' comes from.  I was sad Bobby didn't play 'Looks like Rain'.  Man, I love that song.  Here is a great acoustic version from his Tri studio.

Here is something else interesting about the song selection that I bet no one else has pointed out yet; there were no covers.  That is a big deal.  Dead shows used to be about 40% covers.  Mostly Dylan songs   In fact, you can basically say the average Grateful Dead show was 40% Dylan songs and 60% Grateful Dead songs.  As you can imagine, this always suited me nicely.

this would have actually been safer to get to downtown than whatever Chicago had planned for us


You would think Chicago and Soldier Field had never hosted 80,000 people before.   Except... they do it every Sunday half the year (I mean... don't they?).  Getting out of the stadium was slow, painful, and dangerous.  They ushered out 80,000 people through 1 exit.  This was into a dark park, with no clearly marked anything. The crowds were so thick as we walked that we could not see the ground.  People would call out "Grass.  I think this is grass you guys". or "curb coming up, spread the word back".  There was also no mass transportation.  The stadium is about 5 miles from downtown, where likely most were staying. 

Also, they didn't have a path laid out or well lit to get downtown if you opted to walk (and we all had no choice).  People were mowing down fences to get out, and vegetation, too. There was no other choice.  I can only imagine tons of property damage was done, and I don't blame a single concert fan for a penny of it.  I figured they would have miles of buses and cabs ready to get people out quickly and safely.  No such chance.  They just left it for 80,000 to walk home.  Figure it out, hippies.  It's late and dark, you are drunk and high, and have never been here before.  You are all miles from your hotel room. We aren't even going to mark the path... or even give you a path. Bad idea, because in the path of these 80,000 people were very industrious... and very ballsy, nitrous sellers.

Chicago is a bad ass town, and that stadium is beautiful.  It was my first time there (to the stadium, not the town).  I was disappointed, though, with how there appeared to be no transportation plan of any kind.  This is an audience known for getting fucked up in as many different ways as possible.  It's not nice to leave them to their own devices.  Also keep in mind that most, if not nearly all, were from out of town.  Maybe that is the promoters fault, and not the city's.  Not sure. I imagine the promoter netted at least a cool five million.  He can pay for the damage to the landscaping and fences and bushes that we all mowed down.
Big surprise guest stars
John Mayer?  Warren Haynes?  John Kadlecik?  Tom Constanten (the only living Grateful Dead keyboardist… ironically also the first).  Guests on stage were common at Dead shows, because of the high level of musicianship… even during all the drug years .   meaning… during all the years.  There were no special guests, and no covers.  I think that was classy.  Just a family celebration of 50 years of Grateful Dead music.

Closing Thoughts
awesome town, awesome show, great song selection, and terrific performances.  I miss you, Jerry.  We all do. You big fat magnificent dead bastard.    I leave you with this song.  This song is Warren Haynes tribute to Jerry.  It's beautiful and perfect amazing.

update 7.14.15

*** astute reader  'Chris' reminds me that the Dead have had multiple keyboardists a couple times through history.

Dear 'Chris', good point.  Thanks for catching that.  However, like Hornsby, those were all transitional pieces to key the new guy up to speed.  It wasn't a standard matter of course for touring or recording, so I don't count it.  Also, how about you not tell me how to do my job, 'Chris'?  Do I come to your job and knock the dick out of your mouth?  Do you think MAYBE you could just put up with my singing because you know I am working on it? (author wipes years) and do you just maybe I know it's a LONG drive to practice and I moved out of the city because I am emotional detachment issues?  PERHAPS you could just once compliment my guitar playing instead of putting open mustard packets in all my clothes?  HUH?  How about THAT, Chris?  Did you ever think about that while you made your keyboardist argument?  I am not gonna let you make me cry in front of everyone again.  I should have changed my fucking lock, I should have made you leave your key, if I'd known for just one minute you'd be back to bother me.

update 7.30.15

 There is one thing I didn't mention, which I really should have.  This is perhaps the most important piece of the story and the review - it was just like a regular post Jerry dead Dead show.  Meaning, if you have seen Phil and Friends, or Further... or anything that had Bobby and Phil... this wasn't that much different.  Basically, it was the same show I saw as 'Furthur' at Red Rocks two years before.  This is a very good thing, but not that unique.  They have all been traveling and touring and playing with top flight musicians since Jerry passed.  To me, the show was not 20 years in the making (in that it was exactly 20 years since the last Grateful Dead show)... as they would have told you.  Really, it was simply a great continuation of the last 50 years.

*** Update June  2018

A book just came out last week, about all of this.  It's called Fare Thee Well, and it is the story of the Dead and everything that has happened since Jerry died.  That is where the story picks up, and the story finished at the Fare Thee Well concerts.  It is really compelling.  I had no idea what a mess the relationships were.  It became Phil vs everyone else, and Phil worked really hard to alienate and antagonize.  I wrote about the book here.  Just do a control F seach on the title or author (Joel Selvin).  It's a great book, and is the only book that tells the story post Garcia.


Remember driving down to Rocky point with you and all we listened to was bootlegs (cassettes) and drinking Negro Modelos. Some interesting things that I noticed and loved. First Jeff was playing one of Brent’s Organs. He deserved more due than he got but killed it when given the chance. I agree with you 100% on Bruce’s Vocals, its was like they lowered it by 50%.

I was lucky to go to all five shows and the vibe was completely different, both in a good way.

Best set for me was Friday night Set Two. It was where they truly let Trey loose. No matter all the Trey haters out there, guess what….They will be packing into Phish shows this summer.

I went in with no expectations. This could be absolutely a disaster or a home run and they knocked it out of the park. I can list some issues I had, but the positives heavily out weigh those negatives (except for allowing Phil to sing Ship of Fools).

Bobby wanted to be the “leader of the band” and it quickly became apparent that Trey did his homework and it didn’t make him to Happy at the beginning . But Trey was chosen for that reason. Actually I felt Bobby half the time was one step behind Trey. And if it wasn’t for those IPads, Trey and Bruce would have to sang all five shows

Songs that gave me chills were definitely the Mason’s Children, Let it Grow->Help/Slip/Franklins, Hornsby on the Loser was fantastic and I thought he deserved the Standing on the Moon (He performed it at the Greek in 06 with Trey on Guitar). Plus the Rainbow in Santa Clara was Jerry looking down to me. The Truckin and Cumberland the only repeats were both better the second time.

Drums/Space were always the time to empty the bladder and refill the $11.25 beers.

By the end of Sunday July 5th, I could not stand or walk. I was truly broken mentally and physically. It took me five days to truly get over two hangovers, the music and the other kind. Worth every bit of it.

People were giving Peter Shapiro shit for all the money grabbing, but he earned his due. For whatever anyone wants to say, it could not of been done any better. I sat in five different locations and the sound was always top notch. And I would pay $225 after fees in a second because they needed two or three more shows.

But the best part of the weekend besides the music was that I saw friends I have not seen in 20+ years and it was like we were together yesterday. Only wish I got to see you!!! Until next time
I was a little delirious last night and was listening to an old Nassau Show at the time. Phil Should not of sang Eyes.

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