Grateful Dead Too Big to Fail at Fare Thee Well July 4th Show: Concert Review

Grateful Dead Chicago Fare Thee Well Night 2 - H 2015
Associated Press

Let’s face it — the vibes in Chicago have been pretty darn good.

Let's face it  the vibes at this spate of Grateful Dead shows in Chicago have been pretty darn good. Celebrating their final three gigs after 50 years, the band's stunning overload of tribal entertainment and countercultural participation has once again reaffirmed its unique status as a mega-mainstream live act occupying a extraordinary slot in the hallowed tradition of great American music bands. Not many groups could fill Soldier Field for three consecutive nights, and what could be better timing than for Fare Thee Well to be held on the Fourth of July weekend?

As always, the band had to navigate through the multiple layers of performance madness to provide its devoted fans with proper entertainment. The pressure has always been on them. So, hat's off to the "core four" of Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann, replacement guitarist /Phish fave Trey Anastasio, and the ace keyboard tandem of Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti.

Looking at the comeback shows last week in Santa Clara, Calif., and now in Chicago (night 2 set another attendance record, with 70,844 packing Soldier Field), we see the band deliberately striving not to repeat itself, thereby ensuring the revival of many less-remembered songs and a number of concert rarities. With so much well-documented history and an imposing repertoire, the Dead boast loads of secret handshakes with iconic catchphrases, poetic lyrics, idiosyncratic musicianship and truly universal imagery.

It must be acknowledged that guitarist Trey Anastasio was the proper choice to fill the guitar chair left empty by Jerry Garcia. While other musicians could have fit the bill, Anastasio's talent speaks for itself and the loving crowd's enthusiastic partiality to his apt contributions have helped bridge the generation gap between the band and its fans.

While still adventurous, the band's template for performance is less spontaneous than it once was. Nowadays, the set list is well considered in advance, and as a result the structure of the show was solid but a bit clunky. As ever, factions of fandom exist while the band performed as democratically as possible, spreading the lead vocal chores around fairly equally. That said, Saturday night's performance leaned heavily towards singer/guitarist Weir, for better and for worse. The evening's song selection was interesting, but also resulted in less of a flow.

There's been some fuss over the singing  but time has revealed these tunes as truly important songs that simply need to be sung. The vocals  — whether by Weir, Lesh, Hornsby or Anastasio — were wobbly at times and the harmonies hit and miss, but this has been a criticism of the band since its inception. The first set started out decisively with a funky "Shakedown Street" followed by the Independence Day-appropriate "Liberty." Things became somewhat countrified with familiar tunes like "Me and My Uncle," "Tennessee Jed" and an upbeat "Friend of the Devil." The blues were represented with Weir singing "Little Red Rooster," and the set ended with a rocking version of "Deal."

Pianist/singer Hornsby gave the band a nice musical boost, and Anastasio's fretwork was duly appreciated since the band's material so often relied on a rousing lead guitar. Anastasio stretched out on the second set's opener, "Bird Song," and his comfort level within the band is growing. The vintage tune "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)" had the crowd boogieing righteously, but less familiar Weir tunes like "Lost Sailor" segueing into "Saint Of Circumstance" slowed things down. The Weir dominance continued with a lengthy, winsome "Stella Blue" before the well-chosen finale of "One More Saturday Night." Equally fitting, the encore of "U.S. Blues" was a patriotic farewell from a band that has been integral to American music culture for five decades. Then came the fireworks, accompanied by an orchestral rendering of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" mock-conducted by Lesh. The show ended just before midnight. Let the countdown to the final gig begin.

Set List

Set 1

Shakedown Street
Standing On The Moon
Me and My Uncle
Tennessee Jed
Cumberland Blues
Little Red Rooster
Friend of the Devil

Set 2

Bird Song
The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)
Lost Sailor
Saint of Circumstance
West LA Fadeaway
Foolish Heart
Stella Blue
One More Saturday Night


U.S. Blues
Fireworks (w/ The Stars and Stripes Forever)

This story first appeared on Billboard.