I had just turned 15 when Jerry passed. Thanks to an enlightened older brother, that meant I was already old enough to be both fully obsessed with the band, and utterly devastated to know I would never see the fat man rock out live. But to say I’ve been chasing the dragon for the past twenty years would be a misnomer; for even then, in the prime of my naivety, I knew that I had missed it. Even when The Other Ones played a “Bird Song” in 1998 that brought me to tears, I knew I had missed it. Even when my friends and I started selling out thousand-person venues playing GD covers, I knew I had missed it. Furthur festivals? Countless Phil and Friends shows? Ratdog? Any and every possible offshoot bands? All just faint echoes of a destiny that so narrowly passed me by. But then came Chicago…
Growing up as a New England hippie in the mid-90’s, Trey was always my guy. And admittedly, part of my initial infatuation with Phish had a lot to do with the fact that I sure as hell wasn’t going to let another magical band come and go without me riding the bus. Sure, there was always a clear distinction between the inherent emotions drawn out of me by both bands, but in my heart and soul the two have co-existed in a psychedelic ballet that has helped me find myself as a human being. Thus, since 1995, Mr. Anastasio has always been the only man in my mind that could channel the depths of the universe deeply enough to deserve standing on stage with the core four. Essentially, I’ve been waiting my whole life for these gigs.
So I know there’s a fair amount of disagreement here, but that first night of Santa Clara had me worried. Trey seemed more uncertain than I had ever seen him before, the tunes sounded dangerously unrehearsed, Bobby looked angry, and the mojo just wasn’t clicking. The massive “Mississippi Half-Step > Wharf Rat” the next night squandered my fears greatly, yet still did little to prepare me for what was to come in the Windy City. It was almost like the Deadheads of the world united in the week between shows to collectively will the magic of yesteryear out from its cave. To say the vibe in Chicago was palpable is the understatement of the century. Hell, I felt it as soon as I boarded my plane in Portland Thursday night. Quite simply, the city was percolating. The whole weekend felt like stepping into a parallel dimension of joy and splendor, and the truth in Phil’s opening line of “it was all a dream we dreamed one afternoon” resonated minute by minute. When I wasn’t in shock contemplating the fabric of my reality, here’s the moments that hit hardest with me.
- “Box of Rain” opens and immediately creates a unified circle to the past as it was the last song the Dead played in this very spot 20 years prior.
- “The Wheel” into “Crazy Fingers” in the first set? We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore folks. Having two of the loftiest songs in the catalog back to back was the first moment of the weekend where I thought to myself that I’d be fully satisfied if the band stopped right then and there. The revelation that they were finally going to let Trey sing some of the heavy-hitters was massively emotional for me, and his lead on the outro-jam was heart-wrenching.
- “The Music Never Stopped” was friggin’ huge, and as it ended the first set I had three thoughts. 1) Trey if fucking killing it. 2) The band sounds so good. 3) Oh, so this is what the Grateful Dead actually feels like.
- “Scarlet Begonias” – maybe my favorite moment of the whole weekend. Not only enormous, but experimental and evolving within itself on every turn.
- “Drums/Space” – A whole other beast than anybody expected. If Mickey Hart played solo gigs where it was just him on “The Beam,” I’d probably do his whole tour.
- “New Potato Caboose” – They could have gone down such more traditional paths, but to have this band surprising me with these kinds of calls, was utterly glorious.
- “Playin’ In The Band” launches us right back into triumphant weirdness, and nobody does weird better than Trey.
- As psyched as I was to hear “Let It Grow,” its onset was one of the only times all weekend I let out a little moan – only because I was really hoping to get a full “Weather Report Suite.”
- Now comes the “Help>Slip>Frank’s”?!? The place erupted and I again had to reassure myself that I was awake and in reality. The timing on “Franklin’s” was off, but it somehow managed to bring a new driving life to the song, and I remember being floored by the notion that somehow this band could be reinventing themselves at the close.
- Greatest “Ripple” of all time? Quite possibly. I never sing along at shows, but this was irresistible – one of those moments where you feel so proud to be a deadhead.
- I was so stoked that Trey wasn’t afraid to use the envelope filter on “Shakedown Street,” and the slow-funk groove they locked in on was perfect in my book. Just like in Furthur, I could do without Bobby quoting “Brick House” at the end, but at the same time I got off on him being his normal ridiculous self.
- This was more of a straight-song night with less >s on the setlist, but it felt great to hear the tunes that stand alone strong. Case in point, “Liberty” crushed.
- I was pretty sure we were gonna get Hornsby singing lead on “Standing On The Moon” as he did in Berkeley years back, but Trey handled it majestically. Seeing him look into the back row as he sang it only added to the other-worldy nature.
- “Deal” – My wife and I missed the first set closer as we needed a breather from the throngs, but being in the hall with the woman I love while the most amazing band in the universe if playing for 70,000 people behind us was a moment of divine peace that I will never forget. The kind of feeling you can only get at a Grateful Dead concert, even when you’re not watching the band.
- “Lost Sailor>Saint of Circumstance” was as precise as it ever was. Trey really showed off his devotion to practice on this one, and once again Weir’s classic mantra line took on a whole new meaning in a new age.
- “West L.A. Fadeaway” had the biggest ohhhhh shiiitt reaction from the crowd, and feeling the masses sway in the pocket was the kind of thing that made everybody think we need at least another four or five of these shows. It also had one of Hornsby’s greatest solos of the whole weekend.
- “Foolish Heart” – Love the song, loved Trey’s lead vocals, loved the solo. This was actually one of my most hopeful calls for the weekend, and it didn’t disappoint.
- “Drums/Space” – again, completely out of this world. At one point during Drums, Mickey whispered something in Billy’s ear that made the two both laugh and smile like there had never been a 20 year hiatus in-between these giant moments on stage.
- “Stella Blue” – I really wanted Trey to sing this one, and having Bobby add the extra couple bars to the end of each line while he tried to read the words was a tad frustrating. However, the eruptive intro to the solo that Trey birthed from the realms of all that is sacred was single-handedly the peak moment of the whole experience for me. You could literally see the wave pass over the crowd as everyone’s heads leaned back during it.
- I think everybody was waiting on the “China>Rider” opener and it was even bigger than I was prepared for. The transition jam was able to form itself yet once again in a seemingly brand new fashion. I dug the all-for-one vocals on the Jerry-headlight verse of Rider too. It was these little nods to Jerry throughout the weekend that dug their way deepest into my emotional core.
- “Estimated Prophet” – Another one I was waiting for all weekend, and again I loved Trey’s use of the Q-Tron to emulate that Jerry tone.
- “Built To Last” – After Saturday’s “Foolish Heart,” I was pretty sure we had a good chance of hearing this one on Sunday, and I loved hearing Bruce sing it.
- “Mountains of The Moon” was another one that caught me off guard, but the swinging spacey jam that came out of it was a highlight of the weekend.
- “Throwing Stones” – This was the big Bobby moment a lot of us were waiting for, and he nailed it in the way only Weir could. Another triumphant Trey solo out of this one.
- I thought the “Truckin’” repeat call was a good one, as the Santa Clara version was less than exemplary. They nailed the big hit in this one and the bass shook my innards.
- “Cassidy” was just downright beautiful – from the poignant lyrical outro, to a brilliant full-band jam. By this point, my head was a blank sheet of bliss.
- “Althea” – maybe the most perfect version of any tune the whole run. It was one of several tunes that Phil gave Trey a hug afterwards – I’d give anything to hear what he was whispering to him.
- “Terrapin” was a little rough, but who gives a fuck?
- “Drums/Space” – Sweet mercy one more time. The first two nights, a fair amount of people used this segment as a second set break, but on Sunday nobody stopped dancing.
- You know the “Unbroken Chain” was due, and I actually enjoyed hearing Phil stumble on some lyrics here – if only because, just like during his Friday donor rap, you could hear the emotion completely overwhelming him.
- “Days Between” is a heavy song, and it was definitely not designed with Bob Weir in mind. He brought a Wiazrd of Oz type over-the-topness to it that had me wonderfully laughing both with and at him.
- One last big-ass “Not Fade Away” for the road did not disappoint.
- Loved the call on the “Touch of Grey” encore, and Bobby wearing the Let Trey Sing t-shirt was yet another spiraling moment of infinite connectedness that had me smiling like a pig at a mud store.
- “Attics of My Life” – I knew we were getting a second encore, but I wasn’t ready for this. The vocals were perfect – simply beautiful. I did a pretty good job of not crying too much during this run, but the Attics destroyed me. From the harmonies, to the fact that it was the end, to the deep-cutting nature of the lyrics – it was ultimately perfect. They showed pictures of every band member living and dead during the tune, and when Trey’s pic came up the crowd erupted like no other. It was a collective thank you, mixed with wonder, mixed with agreement that he was the only man for the job, and for a lot of us, mixed with profound pride for our guy.
It’s been said time and time again – there’s nothing like a Grateful Dead show. And despite my lifetime of history with the band and the music, I never really understood that til Chicago. Sure, Phish holds a special kind of magic for me, but it still pales in comparison to the power that is the Dead. It was a degree of collective bliss that I most likely will never experience again. From the endless cavalcade of celebrities surrounding us on the floor every night, the look on Phil’s face after every song, the pictures of Jerry surrounding the venue, the roses handed out on Friday night – it was all too much, and just enough at the same time. The Grateful Dead left in 1995 without saying goodbye, and it was the honor of a lifetime to be able to express my love for them in this manner. I never, ever thought something like this would occur, and because of that there was a collective sense of celebration rather than loss and sadness. It was beyond beautiful – a once in a lifetime experience where we once again proved that humans are capable of some unfathomably incredible things, and that the manifestation of our collective reality is something we all must experience and form together. “When there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me” – can the will of love be worded any better? Fare thee well everyone – it has been and will continue to be an honor and a pleasure to share this world and this music with you all.
All photos by The Jeff Kravitz