A skull and rose by any other name

From left to right, Trey Anastasio, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir perform at Soldier Field in Chicago during last weekend's Fare Thee Well shows celebrating 50 years of the Grateful Dead. [Photo by Billy Cooper]

When the Fare Thee Well Shows were announced in March I bristled at the use of the name Grateful Dead as a moniker for the band. After all, there could be no Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia.  

A closer look revealed that the poster was not proclaiming itself to be a run of Grateful Dead concerts at all. It said, Fare thee well: Celebrating 50 years of the Grateful Dead. 

Even Bob Weir himself told John Mayer, who was filling in for the departing Craig Ferguson as the host for the Late Late Show, that the band was not the Grateful Dead. “I think the Grateful Dead, you can’t [use that name] when half of those guys are pushing up daisies,” Bob said. “You can’t call it that.”

But of course the media and the fans have to call it something so the shows were referred to as the final Grateful Dead concerts.  

After the initial hype, the mail order frustration, the invasion of the Chicago Bears season ticket holders who drove up the cost of tickets to unheard of prices (did anybody really pay $15,000 for a pair of tickets?), I was pretty turned off by the whole thing and decided I wasn’t interested in going to Chicago. 

That is until two months later when my friend Aaron miracled me — getting tickets at face value for these shows constituted a miracle. I thought to myself, I guess I am meant to go to Chicago.

I still couldn’t quite get the word Grateful out of my mouth. In my mind I was going to see The Dead. This was one of the names the “core four” used when they toured after Jerry died, and after all when you went on tour back in the day you went on Dead tour not Grateful Dead tour. 

I watched the first two Fare Thee Well shows in Santa Clara on the pay per view simulcast. I enjoyed both shows tremendously because I love the songs. 

But overall, the playing of the band itself underwhelmed me. While there were plenty of great moments, the band had trouble getting it out of third gear. Songs like “Alabama Getaway,” a house rocker back in the day, were played with a mid-tempo groovy vibe that sounded like ear candy when I was looking for a steak. They just weren’t tight. 

I said to a friend after the shows, “My Grateful Dead was a rock ‘n’ roll band.” I was fortunate enough to see most of my Grateful Dead shows between the years of 1987-1990, the years between Jerry’s coma and Brent’s death that Bob has proclaimed to be the musical zenith of the band. In those days they could take what was a slow song in the seventies like “Loser” and work it into a crescendo that could shake an entire stadium. 

In Santa Clara, Bobby and Phil seemed to play tug of war over who was leading the band. After all, these guys have been playing in their own bands – Phil and Friends and Bob Weir and Ratdog — for years. They were the kings of their kingdoms and they were struggling abdicating their respective thrones.  

But one thing was clear, Trey emerged from Santa Clara as both rookie of the year and most valuable player. The band was at its best when Trey was given the reigns, but they were given somewhat reluctantly. At one point, Bob walked over to Trey and literally signaled for him to wrap up a solo much to the horror of the entire audience. 

The inherent concept of “the core four” is what hampered the shows in Santa Clara. Core four implies that the band is Mickey, Billy, Bob and Phil with special guests Trey, Bruce [Hornsby] and Jeff [Chimenti]. That construct was not serving the music. If they were going to take the music as far as it could go they had to drop their egos and become the core seven, a true band.

During sound check Thursday, Kreutzman kept pointing to Trey over and over as if to say, “don’t look at me to drive this ship, look at Trey.”

What made the Grateful Dead so unique is that Jerry was the conductor of the train. Unlike most bands where the rhythm section drives the tempo, the Grateful Dead played their best music around Jerry’s magical guitar. When Jerry slowed it down, the band followed suit. When Jerry brought the thunder the band had to be there to match it. That was how the Grateful Dead conjured musical alchemy.

The core four had to put the music where it belonged, in the hands of the guitar player. And Trey proved to be a worthy recipient. 

I arrived in Chicago with relatively low musical expectations. I went to see friends, enjoy the atmosphere and drink from the deep well that is the canon of Garcia/Hunter and Weir/Barlow. 

After the first set Friday night, everyone in the stadium appeared to look at their neighbor with disbelief as if to say, “I had no idea!” 

The only way I can describe what happened Friday night is to compare it to an experience another audience in the Windy City had years ago when a crowd walked in to see The Oprah Winfrey Show only to be told that there were keys to a brand new car under their seats. Oprah’s faithful went absolutely crazy.  That’s what it felt like the first night in Chicago. The stadium was explosive. Nobody expected the band to come out firing on all cylinders. Nobody thought they had that kind of gas in the tank. 

After Trey took the vocal lead on “Bertha” before delivering a ferocious solo it was clear that Chicago was going to be something special. The genie had been let out of the bottle and Trey had three nights of musical wishes to bestow upon the faithful. 

The choice of Trey as the guitar player for the Fare Thee Well shows calcified a long time divide between Dead Heads who derided Phish as a wannabe jam band and Phish fans who shot back with a “just you wait and see, Trey is the man for the job” response. 

The rivalry between Phish and the Grateful Dead has always been a one-sided affair. Almost every Phish fan loves the Grateful Dead. It is the Dead Heads who are dismissive of Phish. 

I must admit I was one of those crotchety Dead Heads. I have seen Phish three times, twice in the late eighties and once at the Elks Lodge in Telluride in 1991. The music didn’t pull me in. 

That said, I know how talented Trey is and I was confident he would treat the position with the reverence it deserved. After all, Trey had seen over a hundred shows himself. He had gone from seeing the band to playing in the band.

A friend of mine who is a long-time Phish fan told me that Trey holed up in his studio putting in long hours practicing every day for the months leading up to the Fare Thee Well shows. Still another told me Trey learned every Grateful Dead song in all 12 octaves.

While Trey’s career in Phish has been remarkable, I think Trey knew that these shows would be his legacy. The pressure on him was immense and if he could deliver on the biggest of stages it would seal his place as one of the greatest guitar players of his generation. 

And his playing was nothing short of incendiary. Trey captured Jerry’s tone perfectly. Yet instead of merely imitating Jerry, he both paid tribute and brought his own sensibility to the table and delivered some of the finest work I have ever heard. And 70,000 people each night agreed with me. No member of the band drew more thunderous applause throughout the weekend than Trey. Every time he stepped up to the microphone to sing the lead vocal, the place erupted. 

A friend showed me a photo from backstage of Trixie Garcia and Mountain Girl together with Trey’s daughters Eliza and Isabella. The photo was symbolic, the Dead family and the Phish family were together.  I get it. I feel closer to Phish than I ever have. I might even go see a show. 

After a while as the weekend wore on and the music got better and better, I cared a lot less about what it was called. After all, a skull and rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Whatever it was, it sure felt like a Dead show to me. And that’s all that mattered. We all got to swim in the river Jordan one final time. 

At one point during the third night, my wife turned to me and pointed to the crowd and said, “Look at all these happy people.” 

Fare Thee Well allowed Dead Heads to say a proper good bye to the band and the scene. Not only did the Grateful Dead get taken away suddenly in 1995 when Jerry died, the band was already terminally ill before it expired. 

The idea of the miracle ticket implied that there was someone on the other end to deliver the free ticket to the person looking for the miracle. There was an implicit act of kindness involved. It was the metaphor for the entire scene.

But by 1995 the miracle that was the Grateful Dead was gone. The scene had taken a dark turn and deteriorated into something ugly. Fans were crashing the gates at shows; the drugs had become harder, the dealers more sinister, the cops more aggressive. Someone even made a death threat on Jerry.

In a 1968 interview with Yale professor Charles Reich for Rolling Stone magazine, Reich asked Jerry why the Haight-Ashbury scene collapsed. Jerry responded, “There were a lot of people there looking for a free ride — that’s the death of any scene when you have more drag energy than you have forward-going energy.” 

History had repeated itself with the Grateful Dead itself. The scene imploded beneath its own weight. The only way the darkness could give was with the death of Jerry himself.

But Fare Thee Well gave the band and the fans a chance to say goodbye on their own terms, to wrap up 50 years in a ribbon rather than in yellow police tape.  

As the band encored with “Touch of Grey” on the final night, a picture of Jerry flashed on the scene and I lost it. I cried because I missed Jerry; I cried because of how much this music has meant to me; I cried because of how free I was when I traveled the country when I was young looking for the secret and searching for the sound; I cried for the more than a little touch of grey in my own hair; I cried because I sang “Sugaree” as a lullaby to all three of my children who are no longer so little and I cried because one day I will listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul. 

And when the music did in fact finally stop, I dried my eyes, held my wife’s hand and walked out of Soldier Field, ever grateful.