Well, it’s been a week since I returned from Chicago and the final three Grateful Dead concerts. The “Fare Thee Well” shows, as they were billed, were the first — and last — concerts to feature the remaining members of the band on stage together since the passing of lead guitarist and de facto heart-and-soul of the band, Jerry Garcia in 1995. And while I had a ton of story/post ideas during the shows, it’s taken a week to digest them all and get them down here on paper, so to speak.
Why so long? Because there were a lot of conflicting thoughts going into the weekend. For instance, Trey Anastasio of Phish took Jerry’s place — much to the consternation of many Deadheads…including me. In fact, I was one of the most virulent anti-Trey folks after the announcement was made. Case in point: a Facebook post I made that put the oft-used “Hitler reacts to…” meme to work regarding Trey’s selection.
But you know what? Trey won me over. He really did. Of course he’s not Jerry. No one will EVER be Jerry. But Trey’s guitar chops were wonderful and, more importantly, his spirit really rose to the occasion. Deadheads went out of their way to show him some love, to welcome him to the family, when he took his first solo during “Box of Rain” Friday night — and you could see that it really got to him. It meant a lot to him that he was being welcomed into a role filling shoes that simply cannot be filled. He knew what he was undertaking, knew he could only do so much, but he made it clear he was going to give it all he could and honor Jerry’s memory. And he did. My only complaint? He doesn’t sing so much as he talks or recites the lyrics. Small complaint, given the so-called “singing” of bonafide Dead bassist, Phil Lesh. (The less said of Phil’s crooning, the better.)
Video sidebar: Even the city of Chicago got into the celebration during Saturday’s intermission with these Fireworks (well…actually they were for the Fourth of July but who’s counting?!).
So…what of the music? Well, the seven guys on stage sounded like great musicians who love to jam and who were working on jamming together. They just need more time. I realized midway through the weekend that by the time I was of age to enjoy the Grateful Dead and their jamming they’d already been at it for 20 years. They’d figured each other out. Give these seven guys 20 years and they could get to a similar place. They won’t get that time so yes, there were a few bumps and hiccups over the course of the weekend. But did I care? No, not really.
Why not? Because it was so good to be back in the scene after 21 years away. Walking into Soldier Field I felt like the prodigal son knocking on the front door at home. And when the first notes of “Box of Rain” began to carry out into the evening sky, I began crying. Yes I did, and I’m not afraid to admit it.
Yes, I miss Jerry. I miss that sense of family that existed at every show, even during the band’s heyday following “Touch of Grey.” But after 21 years away, it was a comfortable sweetness and joy that resulted from knowing those same feelings evoked by the Grateful Dead, by their music and their shows decades ago, were still available if we only put a few pieces together — good tunes, good friends, good vibes — and remember to answer in the positive when the song asks, “All I want to know is are you kind?” In fact, percussionist Mickey Hart’s exhortation after the final encore Sunday night summed up what made the weekend — and what should make up all of our futures: “The feeling we have here…remember it. Take it home and do some good with it. I’ll leave you with this: Please, be kind.”
In August 1995 I drove around Montana and British Columbia on vacation, listening to Dead shows on my cassette player in my truck and getting teary-eyed over Jerry’s passing on the ninth of the month. (My mother called me at work that morning to inform me; I couldn’t help but see her smiling at me last weekend as I danced for three nights — she always enjoyed hearing me explain what the band and the music meant to me.) Two decades later, I realized Jerry is still around. We’ll always have those tours, that music, from way back when.
It occurs to me that last weekend I felt like Rick Blaine. I got to see my old love, briefly, but it was enough. In the years we’d been apart, I’d lost it — lost it until four close friends I’ve never met recruited three other impeccable musicians and brought them to Chicago. I got it back last weekend. Here’s looking at you, Grateful Dead. Thanks for the music.