Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well: Trey Anastasio For the Win on Night Two in Santa Clara
After the shredding, a moment of silence to those gone before their time.
Night two of the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well run-up got off to a funky and ferocious start. The cobwebs were shaken loose, the groove found its pocket in opener “Feel Like a Stranger,” and all was well in Deadhead land, as the truly faithful showed for the second night in a row and a slew of new nostalgia seekers and first timers got their twirl on.
And twirl they did through surefire crowd-pleasers like “Brown-Eyed Women,” “Alabama Getaway” and “Hell in a Bucket,” each of which saw Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio finally able to stretch out, intensifying his playing patiently as jams wound around to a crescendo or an expected twist. Clearly relishing in the moment — perhaps better able to process playing alongside the "core four" — he never stopped smiling.
On “Hell in a Bucket” in particular, Anastasio let it rip — to bassist Phil Lesh’s visible surprise — and it was not lost on the Phish fans in the crowd that the song was likely a favorite of his from his pre-fame days.
But fame follows Anastasio, a guitar hero on a similar plane to the late Jerry Garcia, who held his own on the previous night but truly shined on Sunday. The slower songs provided an open door to his signature shreds and soaring note extensions, particularly on favorites “Row Jimmy” and “Wharf Rat,” the latter of which came at the start of set two.
The highlight of the night: the moving “He’s Gone” with its three-part harmonies and especially poignant message “nothing’s gonna bring him back.” The refrain hit home, binding band to fan to man up above.
That’s not to say there weren’t missteps. Relegating Anastasio to rhythm keeper on the anthemic “Eyes of the World,” a song so well-suited for his voice he should consider introducing it in Phish sets, was one. Vocals were handled by Lesh, who in an attempt to either sing in his range or alter the main melody for no apparent reason, fell short in the frontman department.
Who knows, maybe Anastasio is pulling a reverse-Dave Grohl, putting aside his frontman status to be a player in the band. No one seemed to mind, of course, especially with “Sugar Magnolia” next on the set list.
Not to disappoint, a rollicking, crunchy take on the song that's a staple of the Dead's live canon took shape, with the swell of organs, courtesy of groove maestros Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti — driving it to even greater heights as Anastasio's marathon playing elicited among the most enthusiastic cheers of the night.
But it wasn't all about Trey, as Bob Weir made sure to remind the crowd with a request for "a moment of silence in memory of those who couldn't be here tonight." And credit is due to the "core four," which also include drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, for reapproaching these songs with the added collective experience of 20-plus years playing on their own and in Dead offshoots and opening the door to new interpretations by their heirs apparent — be that Phish on this round, perhaps John Mayer on the next and more after.
Speaking of Mayer, he was spotted in the "friends and family" VIP viewing area on the floor, singing along "pretty much the entire time," one observer noted. "He knew all the words." Also in the house was singer-songwriter Harper Simon, son of Paul Simon, who was still coming down from Saturday night, elated to have heard a song from each of the Dead's first three albums. That the band's choices pre-dated his birth was the best gift Harper, the head, could hope for.
To that end, it was fully expected that the last song of night would be the beloved "Brokedown Palace." After all, it includes the line after which this run of shows is named and was generally considered to be one of the band's strongest regular closers. The band clearly took the responsibility to heart, slowing the song to a crawl that allowed its intricate beauty to bloom and build.
The gentle encore proved a perfect cap to the supergroup's practice run, with all systems a go for the main even in Chicago five days away. Which glaring omissions will find their way to the set —"China Cat," "Ripple," "Franklin's," anyone? — and what repeat numbers will the "core four" serve up? Stay tuned...
Feel Like A Stranger
New Minglewood Blues
Hell In A Bucket
Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo
Eyes of the World
I Need A Miracle
Death Don't Have No Mercy
[Update: a previous version of this article misattributed lyrics from "He's Gone" to "Brokedown Palace."]