As I’m sure all of you remember, last year was the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary, and to celebrate they put on the Fare Thee Well extravaganza. Plenty has already been written about those two weekends of excitement and jubilation, and in a much more timely manner, but now that it’s been a whole year, I’d like to share memories of my own experience. Most of the pictures below are from my mom, and you can view her whole album on Flickr. Some are mine, and you can tell because they’re crappy cell phone pictures and I’ll probably point them out as we go. And yes, this is a long post (maybe it’s two posts by now, who knows) but there’s a lot to talk about and it’s worth reading the whole thing. Trust me, I wrote it and also read it!
It all started in January of 2015, when Dead.net announced the three nights in Chicago at Soldier’s Field. We were a little worried about the price and the hassle until my mom pointed out we would always regret not going if we chickened out. So we were sold! Three nights in the place where the Grateful Dead last played under that name, on the most American weekend of the year! By the time the travel packages (we wanted all three nights and guaranteed accommodations) went on sale, however, the hype train had left the station and everyone who ever had a cousin that mentioned the Dead in passing once was going. We were all set up with four computers between the three of us when the tickets went on sale, and we thought we were golden. But instead of having our wishes granted, we had three computers with spinning wheels waiting for tickets to no avail. My dad got a hit, and we lept up to see...and it was at the top of the stadium behind the stage, listed as “no view.” Not even “obstructed view”?? We debated the idea for a bit, and finally decided to pass; if we were going, we were going to see the whole fucking band.
We went a few weeks hanging our heads, wondering if we made the right decision, but ultimately hoping for a webcast to be announced. I went on a trip to Ithaca to visit friends from college in April, and when I got into town where the cell phone coverage returned, I had a text from my dad saying, “We’re going to the Dead in California, CALL ME.” I understandably freaked out, but then thought it was maybe a delayed April Fool’s prank. I called him up, and the truth came out: the Dead had suddenly put travel packages on sale for two shows in Santa Clara, CA, and my dad just happened to stumble upon the news and bought a package! Well, he actually bought two, one for us and one for some friends. Normally he would’ve let the friends figure it out on their own, but he had actually bought our second choice package, so he went back to see if he could get our first choice, and lo-and-behold, he could!! We were going to see the Grateful Dead in California!!
Brief interlude: I know, maybe calling them “The Grateful Dead” isn’t accurate. BUT, they didn’t give us any other name to call them, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to call them “The Fare Thee Well Band,” so Grateful Dead it is. I’ve written in the past about what it takes to say you’ve seen the Dead, and by those rules, this was certainly at least the Dead, if not the Grateful Dead.
Not only did we get tickets for the three of us, but we got my good friend Ricky tickets too! Long time readers will recall that he was my constant companion at Furthur shows, especially the 11/11/11 show, and best friend extraordinaire. He moved out to Colorado after school, and has been living there since, so he planned to meet us in CA. To jump ahead a little, he ended up driving out with his friend Holly, who had a ticket to the first night. Rick only ended up going to the first night as well, due to work-constraints, which was too bad, but we were all still thrilled! My Ithaca friends who witnessed this phone back-and-forth from Ithaca to Boston to Denver to Boston can attest to the atmosphere of mania surrounding the whole scene. Luckily, they all had Minors in dealing with Dead Heads after four years of college with Ricky and me, so they tolerated it like champs.
While we were sitting pretty, however, controversy and conspiracy theories filled the internet and airwaves. We weren’t surprised a popular band with millions of fans worldwide would charge actual money for the shows and then have the nerve to run out of tickets to sell, but many people felt the oriental rug had been pulled out from under them. While I totally agree that Ticketmaster has more-or-less ruined the ticket-buying experience, I think Pete Shapiro (owner of Capitol Theatre and organizer of FTW) and the Dead truly did their best to get tickets to everyone. They even brought back mail-order tickets to try to get them directly to their fans! Of course the mailing office got inundated as well, but the effort was there. Maybe I’m just happy because I got tickets, but I think they did a good job organizing this whole cluster fuck of Dead Heads and our demands.
As most of you know, the lineup included The Core Four, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, and also Jeff Chimenti, Trey Anastasio, and Bruce Hornsby. There was some controversy about Trey as the lead guitar, but I’m going to skip all of that; it’s the same controversy as when anyone other than Jerry plays lead guitar with a Dead band, and we’ve all heard it before. Despite our excitement, we were also prepared for subpar music. I hadn’t seen a show in a stadium before this, so I was expecting a somewhat impersonal show compared to the shows I’d been to in theaters and smaller venues. Besides that, the drummers hadn’t played with Phil or Bobby in a while, and there’s rumors of hard feelings between some members of the band. So we geared ourselves up for a fun time, if not a musically perfect night. Luckily, our expectations were more than satisfied, but I’m getting ahead of myself...
The months and weeks leading up to the concert were interesting, but it’s all turned into a blur of anticipation and speculation, so I’ll skip over most of that. I spent a lot of time trying to explain the last twenty years of Dead history to my coworkers, mostly in vain. “Yes, Jerry is in fact dead...No, I don’t think Trey will ‘ruin the band...Well actually, the Dead do have something in common with Star Wars, they played a famous show on the day the first movie came out...” You guys know what I’m talking about.
Before we get into Santa Clara itself, I’m going to put this out there: none of this will be about Chicago. Maybe I’ll change my mind at the end and throw in a little footnote, but probably not. I wasn’t there. I was on my couch watching the live streams, which was fun, and I have opinions on those shows too, but who wants to read a review of a couch concert? I mean, if you really do I guess I will, but I’m assuming you don’t. So I won’t. (Let me know if you do)
We flew out of Boston on Friday, the 26th, late in the day, arriving to a beautiful sunset just getting underway. We got a cab to the hotel where Ricky and Holly were already waiting. We checked in and got settled before making a quick shopping trip in Holly’s car. When we got back we joined the Dead Heads hanging out in front of the hotel to make friends and speculate. Some people hanging outside the stadium were taping and streaming the sound check, so we got to hear reports of what they were playing: “William Tell Bridge,” “Cream Puff War,” and “The Eleven”??? Holy shit! In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t known (spoilers!), but at the time we were all ravenous for whatever Dead info we could find online. We called it a night eventually, and somehow managed to fall asleep even with all the excitement!
Saturday June 27, 2016 -- Santa Clara, CA -- Fare Thee Well
We woke up and ate breakfast with our fellow Heads, and planned ways to kill time. None of that is too important, so I’ll skip ahead to after lunch. We spent a lot of time outside the hotel with everyone else, making friends and playing games and twirling hula hoops. Well, Holly was twirling the hula hoop, the rest of us would flounder about and then hand it back to her to show us how it was done. We took off for an early dinner before the show, stopping at a Mexican place near the hotel. From there we walked down a little path alongside a stream we figured would be the death of us if it started pouring upstream, but we survived. We ended up at a security checkpoint where they checked our tickets and waved us on through. We thought it was strangely placed because we couldn’t see the stadium and assumed it was still a bit away. As soon as we came around a bend, however, there it was! The stadium! Where the Dead were going to play!!! There’s some water park next to the stadium that we walked by, listening to people screaming on the rides, thinking if they wanted a real ride, they were in the wrong place!
We thought the scene outside Levi’s Stadium would be the biggest Shakedown Street in recorded history, but it was surprisingly a mostly empty parking lot! There were conflicting accounts of where the “real” Shakedown Street was, and we decided we didn’t care too much anyway. There were still people selling things out of their cars and hanging out, so we joined the small crowd. We met up with a friend of mine and got ourselves in a certain State of Mind, and then headed for the gates. Because it’s an NFL stadium (and a brand new one at the time), the rules for entry were the NFL rules, meaning everything had to be in a clear plastic bag of a particular size. We weren’t sure if this meant security was going to be a hassle, but it turned out to be one of the easiest security checkpoints at a Dead show I’ve ever experienced; I didn’t even need to hide anything in my shoes! We made it in and were pretty awestruck for a while inside the stadium; there’s the stage!!! The event staff were also handing out flowers and commemorative pieces of cardboard. We wandered around for a bit, filled our water bottles at the water fountain by the Jerry shrine, and then headed to our seats. Unfortunately Holly’s ticket was on the opposite side of the stadium from us and up a few levels, but we could at least see where she was, so we felt like she was with us! We were in the lower seats at what I think would normally be about the...30 yard line. The crowd filled in, the anticipation built, until finally: the Grateful Dead took the stage for the first of their Fare Thee Well concerts.
- Truckin’ (BW)
- They did a small jam into “Truckin’,” but we all knew what they were going into.
- We thought Jeff was a little low in the mix at times, but overall the sound was shockingly good for the whole show.
- This song, along with most others they played, got some of the Furthur treatment: slightly slower tempo, opened up in the middle for jams the Dead never played, and a few extra bars here and there to let the tune (and the band) find its legs.
- The end kind of fell apart, but in a musically satisfying way!
- Uncle John’s Band (ALL)
- Ricky and I were already scratching our heads. This doesn’t fit into any of the possible setlists we made!
- We guessed “Row Jimmy” from Bobby’s noodling but were wrong.
- This went off without a hitch, but I started getting nervous they were going to just do a “best of” set...I was wrong, luckily.
- Alligator > (PL)
- Yeah, baby!
- Rick loves all songs equally, but this one is more equal than the others.
- Phil singing threw me for a loop, but I actually loved his vocal interpretation.
- Some of the harmonies (“hung up, waiting for a windy day”) were not so great, but that just added authenticity to the whole show!
- Cumberland Blues (ALL)
- No, they didn’t go into “Caution,” but this was a cool/surprising transition!
- Around this point I started wondering what songs they’d leave for future shows since they were doing such great ones on the first night!
- To jump ahead, they also did this one in Chicago. I know I’m obviously biased, but I truly think the Santa Clara version was better. This one seemed tighter and more energetic to me.
- Born Cross-Eyed > (BW)
- They did whaaaaat?? Ricky and I realized at this point that nothing would ever be the same again.
- The band had been a little...jittery up to this point, so I was a little nervous about them doing such a weird and tricky song, but I think they did it better than Furthur ever did!
- Trey had convinced me all the way back in “Truckin’” that he was up to the job, but his solo in this song really cemented his position for me.
- Cream Puff War > (TA)
- They’re doing this one too?? What’s happening, where and when are we??
- Trey’s first real singing of the night, and he crushed it.
- This also made me realize that Trey could, and would, solo for as long as it takes to get this ship off the ground.
- This was the first of a few times from these two shows where Phil and Bobby would look to Trey to signal “hey, we’re going back into the song,” and Trey would smile, turn his back, and dig in for another blistering lead.
- Viola Lee Blues (ALL)
- This is what it’s all about, folks.
- Another of those moments where they ended the previous song on a big, dissonant chord, so you knew “Viola” was coming next.
- Some of the band seemed a little unsure if this was straight twelve-bar blues or not, but after the first go-round Trey decided he was just going to rock his and everyone else’s faces off, and we all thought that was a good idea!
- The first two lyrics and jam sections were going great, and a little bit of rain fell but stopped after a few drops. In the third and final jam section, the band’s energy built higher and higher, the crowd was cheering, and then suddenly the cheering got a hundred times louder. I was confused; the music was great, but at the same level it was ten seconds ago, why is everyone-- and then I noticed everyone pointing their phones at the sky to capture...THE MOST PERFECT FUCKING RAINBOW YOU’VE EVER SEEN. I never take my phone out during shows, but I made brief exception to capture a small video of this magic. That’s what it was, real magic. I don’t know if it was Jerry, if it was God, if it was all the musicians and Heads we’ve lost along the way, but this was undeniable proof that the Grateful Dead play with the Old Powers. To echo what Wavy Gravy said at the band’s first show of ‘73, these are the Rainbow Makers.
Instead of building up to breaking point and breaking down into feedback, Phil led the band into a slow decline from the peak, mellowing down to a close. We all filed up the aisles for our different Intermission rituals, not suspecting the next surprise Mother Nature had in store for us. The clouds that had helped create the Rainbow went streaking past the stadium into the setting sun, and an apocalyptic skyscape was waiting to greet us as we turned the corner. People (we) were freaking out! Ricky and I knew this would be one hell of an Intermission, and luckily our plan to meet with Holly between a set of stairs and some bleachers worked out. We went down the stairs to a smoking area to get some space and air and talk about what we were hoping for. Rick already got his “Alligator,” so he and I both were hoping for “Cryptical Envelopment > The Other One,” while Holly was hoping for a “Casey Jones.” How we all got what we were hoping for is beyond me, but I’m getting ahead of the story. We finished up our various smokes and headed back to our seats for the second set.
- Cryptical Envelopment > (PL)
- I’d like to apologize to the people who were directly in front of Ricky and Me, because we probably broke your eardrums when they opened the second set with this after we were just talking about it. Also, THEY READ OUR MINDS!
- They jammed on “Cryptical” for a long while, like Furthur used to, and we kept thinking they’d shift into “The Other One” at any second, but it just kept getting spacier…
- The light show was awesome for both second sets of the weekend. The stage was huge, there were so many lights set up, and the coordination was handled excellently by the Dead’s longtime lighting designer, Candace Brightman.
- The jam started getting a little spooky and breaking down, and we were sure either Bobby was going to start “The Other One” rhythm or Phil was going to do his bass run, but...
- Dark Star > (ALL)
- HOLY SHIT.
- No one saw this coming, but the reaction was pure jubilation in the aisles and field. The first show of a five show run, and they were already playing “Dark Star”!
- After the show Holly was raving about the fireworks during this part of the show, and we had no idea what she was talking about because we couldn’t see them. We had almost convinced her she was crazy until we saw pictures. In the video stream, there are some great shots of fireworks exploding between Phil’s and Mickey’s heads, and you can hear them on the audience tapes.
- A fantastic “Dark Star,” too, not just long. It had peaks and valleys, and they nailed the jam on the lyric theme coming back into the second verse. Jeff and the drummers especially clicked with Phil as they brought the song around.
- They did the “nightfall of diamonds, diamonds, diamonds/ nightfall of diamonds, etc.” thing that at least Furthur has done, if not other Dead bands. I thought that was a Phil thing, but Dead & Company just did it on their 2016-06-17 show, so I guess it must be a Bobby thing?
- Phil definitely wanted to be the head of the band, and lead “Dark Star” down some dark alleys that the rest of the band seemed a little unprepared for before bringing it into “St. Stephen.”
- St. Stephen > (ALL)
- My dad was saying for months that they were going to do the classic Live/Dead segue at this show, so he knew what was going on here.
- It had all the signs of being an epic “St. Stephen,” but when they got to the “ladyfinger” verse, I think Phil’s ear monitors stopped working, because there seemed to be some onstage confusion from there until “Drums,” with Phil jumping the gun in some places. He even fiddled with his monitors a bit at this point, but had to tough it out.
- Bringing the jam to a close and coming back into the lyrics was a bit...difficult to listen to, but overall it really was a good version of the song. Bobby and Phil clearly had similar ideas as to how they were going to get back, but they didn’t quite mesh until Phil decided “fuck it,” and dove in with the band right behind him.
- William Tell Bridge (BW & TA)
- We knew this was coming because of the soundcheck from the night before, but it was still a shock to see the Grateful Dead play it live!
- Ok, Bobby blew the second verse. BUT, he caught it, waved the band to go around again, and got it right on the next one. Trey seemed nervously bemused by the whole thing.
- Jeff Chimenti’s fills on this song makes me think Dead & Company and Phil should put this song back in regular rotation. It’s so fun and could grow so much from the peppy-sixties versions!
- The Eleven > (BW)
- Not the best one of these I’ve seen, but still. Trey and Bruce seemed a little confused on the whole “eleven beats” thing at times, but mostly got it under control after not too long.
- Bobby sang the main lyrics while Trey tried to sing Jerry’s part, but he kind of petered out.
- Bobby didn’t say anything about Samuel, which bothers me, but we sang that part for him. (CORRECTION: yes he did, not sure why I wrote that...too late now!)
- I did like that Bobby sang the whole countdown at the end, which I think he used to do in The Other Ones or some other band...
- Turn On Your Lovelight > (BW)
- We all knew this was coming at this point, but again it was still fun.
- While still a little shaky from Phil’s possible ear troubles, this song really showcased the power of these two drummers for me.
- Drums >
- I think this was the best “Drums” of Fare Thee Well, but I acknowledge my bias.
- We could see on the big screens that Mickey had some kind of box in his hand, and he was shaking it about and dancing, but we couldn’t quite make out what it was. We figured it was some kind of remote control for the various drum loops and rhythms. When we saw the official stream and heard the soundboard recording, however, it was clear that Mickey was playing a kalimba! We hadn’t been able to hear it at all, and I can’t make it out on any of the audience recordings, but it is incredibly prominent on the soundboard! Could any of you hear the kalimba at the show??
- Mickey also incorporated some of the sounds he managed to pluck from outer space for his Mysterium Tremendum album, which Ricky and I both love, so that was a nice treat to hear those sounds and rhythms in a different context.
- Space >
- This was my first experience with The Beam, and Mickey did not disappoint!
- The whole stadium and everything in it was vibrating on frequencies too low to be heard. Mickey’s got that thing hooked up to techonology that I’m sure NASA doesn’t even have yet.
- I’m glad this was more like 70’s and early 80’s “Space,” in that there was no MIDI; no one was playing a trumpet on their bass or a flute on their guitar or a monkey on the Beam.
- What’s Become of the Baby? > (PL)
- “Space” started seeming like there was a definite theme building, and all of a sudden Phil started singing…”What’s Become of the Baby”?! No way!
- But it was, and it was way better than I thought it would ever be! Phil was kind of moaning/singing and was really nailing the lost-in-the-psychedelic-wilderness-feeling of the song.
- In the list of songs I have and haven’t gotten so far, this is a strange one to have crossed off, but I’m so glad they played it! Those Pranksters!
- The Other One > (BW)
- Phil finished up the lyrics and Bobby started the unmistakable “The Other One” rhythm. I immediately knew that Phil was not going to do his bass run to the song and made my peace with it to avoid disappointment.
- Not the best “The Other One” I’ve seen, but it was my first, and that makes it special.
- This one was more of a simmering boil than the overflowing, roiling intensity of other versions, but it was still good for what it was, staying with the theme for most of it.
- We were certain they were going back into “Cryptical” and then maybe “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” but instead they went right into...
- Morning Dew (BW)
- Goddam this is such a good song.
- We knew right away this was the set-closer, but that was ok with us.
- Bobby sings this very differently from Jerry, as he does with all of Jerry’s songs, but it was clear that he really meant this one. I’m not sure what that means, but that’s the sense I was left with after the show.
- They absolutely killed it. I could have listened to them do the final jam for another hour or two, but I’m so grateful for what we got.
- Casey Jones (BH)
- Bruce got his first lead vocals!
- A little rough around the edges, but still good and fun, and all three of us got our wishes!
When the show was over Billy came out on stage to tell us how good it is that the Supreme Court had just struck down the ban on gay marriage, and everyone cheered. A rainbow flag, a stealie flag, and the California flag were flying from the stadium all day, and it was great to have Billy acknowledge it. We met with Holly again and all proceeded out of the stadium in the usual manner: doing a penguin march with thousands of other people who were also in various States of Mind. A helicopter flew over filming the crowd, and it suddenly felt like a Last Helicopter Out of Saigon kind of situation. We all made it out together though! Holly picked up her hula hoop from the coat check area, and we walked back to the hotel in a herd of people that gradually got smaller and smaller as we went. Ricky, Holly, and I spent most of the night in front of the hotel with the other people waiting to be able to fall asleep, raving about the show, and wondering what the next night would bring.
Like I suggested at the top, this has been split into two posts, next one coming out tomorrow, so tune in!