Eight years ago today, the Grateful Dead celebrated their 50th anniversary with one final, stellar performance at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. The Fare Thee Well shows—with two dates at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara on June 27th and June 28th and three dates at Chicago’s Soldier Field across July 3rd, 4th, and 5th—marked the first time Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart had performed together since their 2009 tour as The Dead. The shows were also marketed as the final time that all four musicians would grace a stage together, effectively closing a chapter of the Grateful Dead’s history in the band’s 50th year.
The final string of Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago was groundbreaking. It’s hard not to view Phish‘s Trey Anastasio‘s role as lead guitarist for Fare Thee Well as a passing of the torch, with the legacy of the Grateful Dead officially entwined with the future of Phish. The shows were also a testament to the vitality of the Grateful Dead both musically and culturally, even 50 years later. The final show on Sunday, which happened exactly eight years ago, broke the record for the highest attended Soldier Field event at 71,000 attendees, while the viewers at home who tuned in from home broke the record for the largest pay-per-view audience.
To say that emotions were high for Fare Thee Well is an understatement, as the Core Four along with Trey, Bruce Hornsby, and Jeff Chimenti put on a show for the ages, serving as a perfect way to both celebrate and mourn the legacy of the Grateful Dead. From the “China Cat Sunflower” opener, it was clear that this was no ordinary concert. The Grateful Dead’s final show was in a league of its own. While Hornsby and Anastasio shared vocal duties on “China Cat”, the whole band alternated verses for its counterpart “I Know You Rider”, and they all sang together for the “I wish I was a headlight” verse. Of course, they were joined by a chorus of 71,000 as well.
Grateful Dead – “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” – 7/5/2015
[Video: Sean Roche]
The folksy tones of “Rider” gave way to the funky opening riff of “Estimated Prophet”, giving Weir his first chance to bring the house down in Chicago. The unusual time signature of the song (7/4) led the crowd into a trance, featuring some excellent work on the organs from Chimenti. “Built To Last” followed, with the satisfying number led by Bruce Hornsby on vocals.
Grateful Dead – “Estimated Prophet” – 7/5/2015
Bob Weir brought some blues into the set with a howlin’ version of “Samson & Delilah”, before the band slowed things down with “Mountains Of The Moon” > “Throwing Stones” to end the first set. The band explored through deep improvisational territory on these final set-closing numbers, bringing the crowd along for the journey.
As the sun set for one last Grateful Dead concert, the second half of the show began with a dazzling fireworks display. Unlike the previous night, these fireworks weren’t part of a celebration of America nor the 4th of July—the fireworks were in celebration of the Grateful Dead, and the Deadheads were there to celebrate their favorite band. The energy in Soldier Field was palpable, and the visual display gave fans an excuse to let off some steam.
Then it was back to business as the band dove into their second repeat of the five-night run, “Truckin’”. The American Beauty track was a perfect opener for the set, bringing attendees on one more “long, strange trip.” Next up was “Cassidy”, a song that began traditionally enough but quickly crept into the uncharted jam waters. Weir brought the energy on vocals, but it was Anastasio who led the band into parts unknown.
Grateful Dead – “Cassidy” – 7/5/2015
[Video: Sean Roche]
Anastasio remained in the spotlight, singing the lead vocals on the next song “Althea”. The beloved track was executed to perfection, with everyone singing along gleefully. The real highlight of the second set came, however, as the band broke into “Terrapin Station”. Phil Lesh sang the “Lady With A Fan” intro section, building up to Bob Weir’s vocals on the grand finale of the song. “Terrapin Station” is such a powerful composition that it’s hard not to be moved by the song, and with such a historic setting, it was impossible.
Grateful Dead – “Terrapin Station” – 7/5/2015
[Video: Bill Walton’s Right Hand Man]
After “Terrapin Station”, the majority of the band retreated as Kreutzmann and Hart took the audience on one final cosmic adventure with their seemingly infinite collection of percussion. While the two drummers still regularly perform together as members of Dead & Company, the visuals in the stadium were simply mesmerizing. Between the lights and displays on the screens, the crowd was captured during the “Drums” and “Space” segments of the show. The latter was particularly shorter than the previous show, and the jam bled into the ever-soulful “Unbroken Chain”.
Grateful Dead – “Unbroken Chain” – 7/5/2015
[Video: Bill Walton’s Right Hand Man]
Phil Lesh led the vocals on “Chain”, losing himself to the magnanimous emotion of the occasion throughout the song. Afterward, it was Weir’s turn to lose himself to the emotion, as he sang a powerful rendition of “Days Between”. The two heartfelt numbers slowed down the pace of this final show, but one more song picked up the energy at the end of the second set—”Not Fade Away”.
Grateful Dead – “Not Fade Away” – 7/5/2015
[Video: shinepigeon 2.0]
The Buddy Holly cover was the icing on the cake. With everyone singing—and I do mean everyone—the band was smiling ear to ear throughout the whole song. Chants of “You know our love will not fade away” resonated through the crowd during the break and continued to echo with fans as they later left the venue. Somewhere between catchy and sentimental, the message empowered fans’ love for the Grateful Dead.
The band returned for an encore performance of their only Top Ten hit, “Touch of Grey”. With the whole band trading vocals, Weir offered up some humor by sporting a “Let Trey Sing” t-shirt for the final tunes. After “Grey”, the band retreated once more, only to return for an especially moving version of “Attics Of My Life”. Weir brought out his acoustic guitar, and Lesh and Anastasio only contributed vocals to this final number. The slow ballad captured the emotion of the Dead’s final moments brilliantly.
Grateful Dead – “Touch Of Grey” – 7/5/2015
[Video: Sean Roche]
After one final bow, Mickey Hart took the microphone for the first time, delivering a message for fans and the world to remember—”Please, be kind.”
With five shows and 94 songs in the books (with only two repeats over five days), the Grateful Dead celebrated their 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well celebration in an extraordinary fashion. The band was as perfect as a band can be, with a grateful sentiment emanating from fans and musicians alike.
With the passing of eight years, the Fare Thee Well shows are still at the forefront of many fans’ minds. While Dead & Company tours one last time with Weir and Hart (along with John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge, Jay Lane, and Chimenti) and Phil Lesh plays occasional dates across the U.S., the power that was felt at Soldier Field will never fade away.
Setlist: Grateful Dead | Soldier Field | Chicago, IL | 7/5/15
Set One: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Estimated Prophet, Built To Last, Samson & Delilah, Mountains Of The Moon > Throwing Stones
Set Two: Truckin’, Cassidy, Althea, Terrapin Station > Drums > Space > Unbroken Chain, Days Between > Not Fade Away
Encore One: Touch Of Grey
Encore Two: Attics Of My Life