Fare Thee Well, Fourth Day of July
Although I couldn’t be in Chicago last night to see the July 4th second show of the three-show 50th anniversary "Fare Thee Well" tour, I had front row seats, as did anyone who wanted them. The show was available worldwide, in theaters, nightclubs and on smartphones. I chose to watch the live feed in the comfort of a movie theater. The house was almost full. Although we lost the feed for a few minutes in the first set, I was impressed with how present the real-time feed made us feel. We applauded, danced, sang along, hooted, hollered and had a “real good time.”
Some of the camera angles gave us an up-close look at how the musicians interact with each other; nuances I wasn’t at a vantage point to notice back in the day.
There are certain things you expect from a Fourth of July Grateful Dead show. The boys didn’t disappoint, although I was surprised that “Jack Straw” wasn’t on the set list.
The show opened with an energetic “Shakedown Street.” They didn’t sound exactly like the Grateful Dead used to, and they weren’t trying to. That’s DSO’s job. Neither did they sound like RatDog, PL&F, 7 Walkers, Furthur or even Phish.
At moments, they sounded like bits of some of those projects, as if they we trying to find the right meld, the right balance. The Grateful Dead always played it loose. Even in killer shows, they had some off moments. There were off moments last night, more in the first set than in the second, and none that mattered.
In Shakedown, they did that “shake it down, shake it down, shake it down now” thing. I l thought that was great, and foreshadowed some of the great vocal interactions to come. I know many older heads prefer to keep it traditional, though.
Overall, the vocal quality varied greatly. Bobby was super-on when it really mattered, but seemed a bit pulled back otherwise. Trey and Bruce were spot on. Their voices blended beautifully, adding weight, in my mind, to the much-debated choice of Trey Anastasio over John Kadlecik.
I was thrilled with Trey in this line-up. I love John Kadlecik, too. Trey Anastasio has been around since the 1980s, though. I remember seeing Phish at Toad’s Place in New Haven when they were just this cool jam band out of Vermont.
I think a lot of the animosity some Deadheads hold toward Trey and Phish involves simply the pain of Jerry’s death. I remember a wry bumper sticker from the time that said, “Jerry’s dead, Phish sucks, cut your hair and get a job”. The rise of Phish in the vacuum left by Jerry felt hollow to a lot of us. Phish was, and continues to be, a great band. Their sound was different enough that, in a time of grief, Jerry’s absence felt even heavier.
Trey’s musical style has a bit of a schism to it that may be uncomfortable for some. Trey Anastasio is like the musical offspring of Frank Zappa and Jerry Garcia. That’s not a bad thing, but it can be a bit unsettling. Frank was a straight edge musician who demanded that every note and every beat be perfect. Jerry was a drug-addicted improvisational musical wizard.
Last night, Trey didn’t try to be Jerry, or Frank, and he didn’t bring that unique Phish flavor. What he did was a great job honoring Jerry, and still being himself.
The second song, predictably, was a heartfelt “Liberty”. Bob supplied competent vocals for both songs. The third song was “Standing on the Moon.” I think many people were surprised that Trey took lead vocals on this one, but, for me, it worked beautifully. Trey’s voice was sweet and reverent. As he sang the words, “I’d rather be with you”, it was clear to whom he was singing.
This song, even more than the predictable “U.S. Blues” encore, was the defining moment of patriotism in an Independence Day show honoring a uniquely American phenomenon.
After that deep, sweet interlude, the first set found its crimson, white and indigo Americana stride with a bouncy, happy rendition of “Me and My Uncle”, followed by an intricate “Cumberland Blues”, finally culminating in a rollicking “Tennessee Jed”.
There was no “Grateful Dylan” song this show; the first-set Bobby crooner was “Little Red Rooster.” Back in the day, that was my bathroom song. Last night, it was a nice bluesy tone-down after some serious dancing.
We were quickly back on our feet for a PL&F-up-tempo-style “Friend of the Devil”, sung by Phil. He added the extra Robert Hunter verse at the end, which made me happy.
The first set closed with a smokin’ hot “Deal”, with Trey and Bruce sharing lead vocals. You might say it was a “Deal of a lifetime.”
During intermission, we could see fireworks over the river. The stream included a rockin’ soundtrack, some great stills and footage from fifty years of the Grateful Dead, as well as real-time crowd scenes.
Nothing in the first set prepared me for the devastatingly profound second set, which opened with Bird Song. Some folks too young to have seen Jerry live figured out what song it would be before I did, but they didn’t know the name of the song. “It’s gonna be ‘Snow and Rain’!” That’s good enough for me.
Phil took vocals on Bird Song. Trey could have done it better, Bruce could have done it better, and Bobby could have done it better. It made sense, though, for Phil to take it. These shows are about the “Core Four,” and Bobby had to save his voice for what was coming.
The next song was an almost-over-the-top “Golden Road”, with Trey and Bruce again sharing lead vocals. I really hope that Trey and Bruce play together again; they are such a tasty duo.
After “Golden Road”, the mood changed again, with a sweet, soulful “Lost Sailor/ Saint of Circumstance”. There were a few frustratingly rough moments toward the beginning, but, overall, this was one of the big payoffs of the show for me. Bobby was on, and present, singing in soft, easy way, almost as if he were singing to himself, and to Jerry, as much as to us.
From there, another shift into a raunchy “West LA Fadeaway” in which Bruce Hornsby really shone.
A unique feature of the “Fare Thee Well” lineup was the two keyboardists, Bruce and Jeff Chementi. Both are amazing. Together, they added layers to the sound, and to the vocals, that really made the show compelling.
A fun “Foolish Heart”, with Trey on vocals, took us in to drums and space.
I’ve seen most of the post-Jerry projects, and I love them all. I had forgotten how much the rhythm section of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann was responsible for the unique sound of the Grateful Dead.
Throughout the first set, Billy looked less than enthused, although he did his job masterfully. During drums and space, he seemed to loosen up and enjoy himself a bit.
I always loved watching Mickey and Bill during drums. The up-close cameras gave me a view I had never had before.
As the band came out of Space, the first notes were unmistakable, but almost unbelievable. The boys went into a perfect, soul-wrenching “Stella Blue,” with Bobby on vocals. This is why Bobby had been saving himself a bit. He pulled out the stops and owned this Jerry song in a way that was so him, and so Jerry, and so much that broken angel singing.
The “One More Saturday Night” that followed to close the show, and the U.S. Blues encore, were obligatory, but not in the least pedestrian.
Phil’s donor rap, so much a part of latter-year Dead culture, and so close to my own heart (I’m a living kidney donor) was almost as inspiring as the satisfied smile on his face when a second fireworks display, this time directly over the stadium, closed the evening.
He seemed to be basking in it, for a moment. Perhaps he was not so much feeling the weight of fifty years, but the miracle of it. I know I was.