Essay

Alex Bleeker Reviews The Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well Shows

Last weekend at Soldier Field in Chicago, the Grateful Dead played a series of farewell shows with Phish frontman Trey Anastasio standing in for the late Jerry Garcia. Alex Bleeker, who has covered the Dead with his bands Real Estate and the Freaks, was in attendance all three nights. We asked him to share his experience in words and photos below. Bleeker also led a Dead tribute show at Chicago’s City Winery on 7/4, with guests including Jenny Lewis, Ira Kaplan, Lee Ranaldo, Dave Harrington, and Ryley Walker. You can watch some performance clips at the bottom of the article.

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At some point during the weekend, everybody started calling the band “the Grateful Dead.” I never saw Jerry Garcia in the flesh, but I’ve been attending Dead-related concerts for roughly 16 years. At each of these shows there was an underlying element of caution or trepidation — “the Other Ones,” “Phil And Friends,” “the Dead,” “Further,” even “the Dark Star Orchestra” — the prevailing energy was something of a rough sketch or outline of what had come before, a loving tribute or a memory. Sure, it was great, even transcendent, to get together with old friends and sing along, but we all knew this wasn’t the real thing. The musicians knew this too, and labeled each band accordingly. Without Garcia, there could be no Grateful Dead. Last weekend at Soldier Field, that all melted away.

It’s not possible for me to write an objective “review” of what I experienced in Chicago. There are too many outside elements and emotions coloring my memory, and I think that’s OK. I watched the live stream of some of the Santa Clara shows, and was frankly unimpressed by the band’s performance. This was my critical mind at work — and also partially due to the poor quality of the mix for the stream. I walked into the stadium on Friday night in the middle of “Box Of Rain,” the song that drew me to the band so many years ago. Musically, my expectations were low, but I had no intention of standing in judgement of my favorite band. I knew that the ever-elusive intangible element so many Deadheads refer to as “vibe” would carry me through. Walking through the gate to my section, the expansive bowl of the stadium opened up before me, and I found “vibe” in spades. There were roses everywhere, a stranger kissed me on the mouth, and I leaned in to the “Jack Straw” sing-along (“Fourth day of July!”) with all my heart.

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I was stunned by how tight the band sounded. The mix inside the stadium proved itself to be infinitely better than what I’d heard on the live stream. Like any legendary Grateful Dead performance, the band hit soaring peaks, and a few pretty rocky valleys. As they wrestled with a difficult rendition of “Terrapin Station” on Sunday night, I couldn’t help but smile. What other band of this stature, this late in its career, on this big of a stage, would dare to attempt something so difficult? Who else in the Dead’s musical sphere could dare, so boldly, to fail? This, I think, is a key element to the appeal of the Grateful Dead — their vulnerability.??   

It’s difficult to describe the full scope of experiences and emotions I had attending the three shows in Chicago, so I’ll just list some highlights:??

  • I met a woman in a coffee shop who had seen every Bay Area show since 1977. After Jerry died, she moved to Granada to teach violin. She was beaming with positive energy and told me that these shows were the closest she’d felt to the band since Garcia’s passing in ’95.
  • After Saturday night’s show, some friends and I were surging with energy; we were having too much fun to sleep. We roamed the parking lot for hours and met many interesting characters along the way. Among them were the owner of Millie the goat, and a group of new friends who insisted on calling me “bush guy.”
  • I took a few morning jogs through the parking lot. On one occasion, I saw a man dressed in full Navy Whites, with “Steal Your Face” insignias sewn into it. I felt a strange rush of joy when he tipped his hat to me as I greeted him, “Morning, Captain.”??
  • I spotted two members of Phish in the crowd, taking in their bandmate’s performance with unmistakeable pride.
  • A young proprietor of a cold-pressed juice and crystal shop in Chicago doused me in lavender water during night one’s set break??.
  • Saturday night’s fireworks display accompanied by the music of John Philip Sousa had me howling with joy.
  • On Friday night, my band the Freaks mounted an after-show tribute to the Dead. The lineup featured many of my musical heroes and collaborators.
  • Discussing Friday’s setlist with Ira Kaplan and Lee Ranaldo was a rare treat — not to mention playing “Dark Star” with them a few hours later.??

As the band emerged for the encore on Sunday night, their final curtain call, I felt a rush of thought and powerful emotion. During the “Attics Of My Life” closer, the oversized video screens showed portraits of band members past and present. To me, having come up firmly in the “Phish generation,” Anastasio’s participation was particularly powerful. The crowd roared as one final portrait emerged — a group shot of the seven guys who’d supplied the music for us all weekend.

The Grateful Dead have always been philosophically opposed to stagnation. Musically and spiritually, they are committed to the ever-changing nature of life. As the crowd of 71,000, and many others watching from around the world, cheered for the seven men on stage, one thing became abundantly clear: Nothing ever stays the same. Here before me was the newly formed and final incarnation of the Grateful Dead. Many fans will surely call this blasphemy, but I believe that it’s true.

I shed tears during “Attics Of My Life,” as did many, if not most, of the fans around me. The outpouring of emotion was overwhelming. I have never had any affinity for any kind of organized religion, and felt conflicted as I wondered, “Do I belong to some kind of church? Is this our most sacred hymn?” While waxing poetic about this idea, a close friend put everything in perspective for me: ??”The difference between us and the religious radicals is that we’ve got everything on tape.”