The Grateful Dead Say Farewell: The View From the Balcony
In 1968, only three years into their long, strange trip, the Grateful Dead came up with a radical idea for sharing their already singular, performing alchemy. Instead of taking their live experience to America city by city, they would bring the multitudes to the mountain. “We used to fantasize about the rock & roll satellite,” bassist Phil Lesh told me in an interview last year “We had a tech guy whose father was involved in the nascent communications-satellite industry. Bob’s dad would build us a satellite, put it in orbit, and we would sit in one place and beam the music up, to the world at large.”
That fantasy came to Earth, for me, at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York on July 3rd, the first night of Fare Thee Well, the Dead’s sayonara run at Soldier Field in Chicago. Previously scheduled travel plans meant that I couldn’t be on the ground, so I attended in the same way many of those shut out of the action – by circumstance, price or the record-breaking demand for tickets – did: via the satellite broadcast to movie theaters, concert venues and living rooms across the country.
I was luckier than most of those outside that stadium: I had a front-row balcony seat at the Capitol, an iconic hall in the live-Dead story. The band made legendary stops there in the Seventies, including an especially fabled six-night stand in February 1971 during which the Dead debuted important new material: Seventies gig pillars such as “Bertha” and “Playing in the Band,” both present and still vigorous at Fare Thee Well, in the opening-night set list. It didn’t take a great stretch of imagination to think of that massive screen perched over the Capitol stage, flanked by a full-show-strength PA, as a portal into something longer and richer than just fond, formal goodbye.
The Wheel Goes ‘Round Again
You know the running order by now: the way the Dead’s surviving members – Lesh, guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, fortified with Nineties alumnus Bruce Hornsby on piano, organist Jeff Chimenti and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio – addressed the massive absence in the air by opening with “Box of Rain,” the last song they performed with founding guitarist Jerry Garcia, at Soldier Field two months before his death in 1995; the high-times focus on material from the early and mid-Seventies, including nearly all of 1975′s Blues for Allah; the unexpected drop of sweet, melodic acid, “New Potato Caboose” from 1968′s Anthem of the Sun, in a long, playful “Space”; an unusually trippy passage through “Playing in the Band”.
For those who still doubt the viability of any Dead without Garcia, here is a vital statistic: So far, over three nights including the two “warm-up” stadium shows in Santa Clara, California, this band has played 55 songs and no repeats. Even on glory-road tours like Europe in 1972 and the great spring of 1977, the Dead rarely went 72 hours without a replay. As for the online grumbling about slower tempos and uneven vocal blends in Santa Clara, I found no evidence of a diminished return in Chicago. This Dead sounded rehearsed and determined to leave with their legend not just intact, but enhanced. When Anastasio stepped on the gas, harder each time, in his solo choruses during “Scarlet Begonias,” the rest of the band jumped in rhythmic temper with him. It’s a familiar ascension – Anastasio does it all the time with Phish. But punching out of that Capitol PA, spiced on the screen with close-up shots of the eye contact between the guitarist, Lesh and Weir, that kick upstairs looked and felt like new life, a freshly cut road to a reassuring peak.
A Trip Through “Space”
Going to Chicago without leaving New York state was, inevitably, like watching a movie – albeit in a high multi-perspective definition that no one had at Soldier Field. The Capitol balcony and floor were both about two-thirds full, a respectable showing for a concert actually taking place half a continent away. Upstairs, most of the crowd spent the night as I did: seated and attentive. There was more dancing downstairs, naturally, and the whooping that greeted favorite songs (“Jack Straw”, “Passenger”) and unexpected treats – the Workingman’s Dead-era orphan “Mason’s Children,” which opened the second set – easily cut through the running crowd static from Soldier Field.
But I enjoyed an intimacy that shocked me even before the first set – a shot of Lesh and Anastasio on stage, double-checking their gear, laughing and slapping each other on the back, then slipping back to the wings. It was a bit of a tease; the whole band wouldn’t be out for another five minutes. It was also a private, spontaneous excitement – theirs and mine. For a moment, it was as if I was passing them on stage, close enough to tap them both on the shoulder and wish them godspeed.
I walked out of the Capitol three-and-a-half hours later with a rich catalog of mental reels running in my head, in jump-cut sequence: the passionate strain in Lesh’s face as he sang “Box of Rain”; the lingering focus on Anastasio’s left hand as he explored the echoes of Garcia’s old guitar paths through “Jack Straw” with his own ringing-treble grace and certainty; the view across Hornsby’s piano keys as he hammered and glided with the jazzy facility that brightened Dead shows during his early-Nineties tenure; the close-up shots of Chimenti bent over his Hammond organ, coloring the turmoil with strafing flourishes and curdled sustain; the poignant combination of extreme weathering and eternal teen devil in Weir’s features, ringed with a light-gray pirate’s beard, as he belted “The Music Never Stopped,” to the limit of his range.
The greatest surprise, from my catbird’s seat, was Kreutzmann and Hart’s obligatory percussion ceremony. “Drums” and its free-improvising sequel “Space” were, for me, by the end of the Dead’s original lifetime, experimental routine – a predictable component of every second set, often undone by enormo-dome ambience, blurred sonic detail and, to be frank, length. At the Capitol, I got the Chicago “Drums” from a perch – right behind and over Kreutzmann and Hart’s armory – that dropped me inside their empathy and coloring reach. As Kreutzmann soloed furiously coming out of “Fire on the Mountain,” Hart flicked at an electronically treated mbira, then stepped over to a rack of huge, mounted toms, detonating a thundering assault across Kreutzmann’s snare-and-cymbals storm.
Eventually, that hard rain eased into a spectacular group-mind “Space”: Weir, Anastasio and Lesh dancing around the drummers’ tempered restlessness; everyone slowly resolving into a rhythmic comfort that became “New Potato Caboose”; a second round of dissolving that gradually cohered into “Playing in the Band,” itself a kind of organized “Space” as the guitars and bass improvised freely inside the song’s offbeat, signature motif. As the cameras cut between band members, all looking down at their tools and work as their suggestions and responses became sense and glow, I also saw their fierce, close listening in their faces – an intuitive phenomenon that Weir, Hart and Lesh repeatedly described to me in interviews over the years. Finally, I know what that brotherhood looks like, from the center of that galaxy – and what it can still produce.
Everyone who saw the first Chicago round of Fare Thee Well – wherever they were – have taken their own pieces of the night away with them. The one thing still missing: closure. But I hope to get that on Sunday night, in front of the screen at Brooklyn Bowl.