CHICAGO, IL (LOOTPRESS) – On this day 28 years ago, the Grateful Dead would take the stage for the final time as a fully formed unit in the conclusion of a two-night stand at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
The event would serve as the conclusion to the storied, decades-long performing career of the band and, on a narrower scale, a series of disastrous concert events to be hosted by the band that year.
One such disaster was the first in a pair of shows planned for Noblesville, Indiana at the Deer Creek venue. Night-one saw the familiar hordes of Grateful Dead hangers-on crowding the venue despite not having purchased tickets themselves – a sight which had become all too familiar at this juncture in the band’s career.
The scene would ultimately escalate into a full-scale riot with fans charging over and through the gates of the venue, leading to the cancellation of the remainder of the show along with the following night’s scheduled performance.
But despite the series of bad omens seemingly trailing the Dead during their 1995 run, as well as singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia’s rapidly deteriorating physical condition, the band characteristically opted to press forward, committing themselves collectively to the completion of the slated performances ahead of them.
Garcia’s physical well-being had become a particular point of concern by this time, though few would be willing to press the issue with Garcia himself. Despite the singer’s impressive turnaround following the mid-1980s coma which preceded the band’s late-career ascent to superstardom, the death of longtime keyboardist Brent Mydland in 1990 had a profound impact on Garcia. This, by most accounts, played no small role in his eventual backslide into destructive habits, setting into motion perhaps the most inconsistent period in the Grateful Dead’s career.
For devoted fans, the footage of the 1995 concert at Soldier Field remains difficult to watch to this day. Garcia, once a fluid, cosmic presence onstage, can be witnessed struggling to pull himself through the performance, with vocals in particular appearing to be a source of significant strain for the legendary musician.
In his autobiography, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, drummer Bill Kreutzmann describes the formerly stout frontman as appearing frail and aged well beyond his 52 years by the time the band was preparing for what would become its final show.
Interestingly, Garcia seems to pour himself into the show’s ballads and slower numbers, a trend that began only during the his final decline in health throughout the early 1990s. Uptempo numbers such as the opening “Touch of Grey” seemed to find the vocalist attempting simply to make it from Point A to Point B, so to speak.
The slower tunes however, spurred from the ashes a surprising degree of soulfulness on the part of Garcia, who seemed to connect to the weighty and universal elements comprising the material. One particularly stirring example is that of “So Many Roads,” one of the final collaborative efforts from the ace songwriting team of Garcia and Robert Hunter.
The singer’s apparent physical struggles throughout the performance notwithstanding, the rendition of this song given at Soldier Field endowed the tune with an indelible significance that is all but guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of the invested observer.
The final performance for which Jerry Garcia would perform lead vocals would come with the penultimate song of the evening, the Hunter/Garcia ballad, “Black Muddy River.” One of the most poignant numbers in the catalogue of the Dead, “Black Muddy River” emerged as part of 1987’s In the Dark, and sees its narrator confronting their own mortality and making peace with the unknown journey that lies ahead.
As such, “Black Muddy River” was as fine a send-off as one could hope for from the iconic musician, to the degree that it comes almost as a disappointment that the band would treat the audience to one additional encore number, the Phil Lesh-led “Box of Rain.”
As the final song the Grateful Dead would ever play together however, “Box of Rain” doesn’t feel remotely inappropriate, and could almost be interpreted as Garcia’s bandmates seeing him off through their own dismay at being helpless to aid in their friend’s predicament.
Approximately one month after the band’s July 9, 1995 performance at Soldier Field, Garcia would pass away as the result of an apparent heart attack. The singer and guitarist had celebrated his 53rd birthday just over a week prior.
Though nowhere to be found in the upper echelon of masterclass performances given by the band throughout their career, the Grateful Dead’s final show is heavy in sentimental value nonetheless, and is undoubtedly significant in totality of the band’s sprawling and expansive lore.
Although the music of the Grateful Dead remains alive and well, evolving by way of modern interpretation and garnering new devotees each day, the Dead themselves as a complete unit would never be seen again after leaving the stage at Soldier Field on this day 28 years ago.