It was the roller coaster event that brought 50 years of peace, love, and incredible jams to a close: The Grateful Dead's 50th Anniversary Fare Thee Well Tour. What a trip.
It all started with the deluge of mail order requests. The initial three shows were scheduled to take place at Soldier's Field in Chicago over the 4th of July weekend. A venue chosen, in part, because it was the last place the band appeared together before the 2005 death of band leader and mystic sage: Jerry Garcia. Fans buried the mail order ticket office with over 70,000 lovingly decorated envelopes requesting tickets for the three shows.
The coveted mail order tickets for the final three shows were decorated with fan envelope art chosen as part of an envelope fan art contest.
A state frustratingly referred to as "limbo" ensued. Fans waited. And waited. And waited. Updates on the GDTS TOO mail order ticketing website let anxious fans know that the goal was to get confirmation and rejection letters out before tickets went up for sale on Ticketmaster. The demand for tickets was unprecedented and unexpected. A series of changes to ticket sale dates, the addition of two more shows in Santa Clara California, and seating changes at Soldiers Field allowed for more of the GD faithful to be part of the experience firsthand. This didn't go over well with the mail order ticket holders that paid for specific seats and then were moved and those who paid one price for tickets that then were advertised for less. The tour promoter David Shapiro offered up full and partial refunds after frustrated Deadheads threatened legal action.
Money orders were cashed and tickets were sent out, but according to posts on GD fan Facebook pages some didn't have their tickets show up until just days before the shows started in Chicago. It did all work itself out though. Record breaking crowds packed Soldier's Field with over 70,000 fans in attendance each night. Additionally, across the country, there were viewing parties at bars and clubs. According to the New York Times there were over 150,000 individual concert stream purchases for Saturday night alone.
In Chicago, the city embraced the onslaught. The Field Museum held a special exhibit titled “Everything is Dead” featuring fan envelope artwork, live music, and items from the Grateful Dead archives. Venue security and ushers had specially designed tie-dye uniform shirts. Bars and clubs advertised viewing parties and lists of after parties were posted on line. In the words of Maurice Sendak: “Let the wild rumpus start!”
All three shows had fans talking. There were two camps among the Dead faithful: those who were pro Phish front man Trey Anastasio taking the up position at the front of the stage and those who questioned the choice. At the end of the run it seemed to be a good fit. Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti pounded the keys for the band. Both musicians have been part of the Grateful Dead family in the past and were also fitting additions to the lineup. The first song on the first night, “Box of Rain”, was the last song the band played in Soldier’s Field in 1995. In other words, the last song they played at the venue before Jerry Garcia passed away. There was the standard “One More Saturday Night” on Saturday night and “The U.S. Blues” also made an appearance on the 4th of July. Fireworks colored the sky on July 4th and 5th. They also simulcast the Navy Pier fireworks during Saturday’s intermission. The “China Cat Sunflower” into “I know You Rider” on Sunday was a religious experience. “Not Fade Away” had both band and audience doling out the love. There were even celebrity sightings. Former Boston Celtic Bill Walton, perhaps the tallest of the Deadheads, was easily spotted grooving in the crowd. John Mayer, Katie Perry, John Popper, Al Franken, Bill Murray, and George R. R. Martin were also among the celebs who made appearances. The excitement each night was palpable.
Now, road weary and spinning, the dust of the chaos begins to settle. The shows were not perfect and the debate will rage for a long time as to which was the best night, the best groove, the most memorable moment. Some fans are now clamoring for East Coast shows as well. During a PBS interview drummer Bill Kreutzmann weighed in on the issue stating that he would “love to play East Coast Fare-Thee-Well shows." This really puts the band in a pickle. On the one hand, Deadheads (myself included) love the idea of more shows. On the other, those who made the trek to Chicago thinking this was the last hurrah (again, myself included) might feel slighted. Tickets to Sunday’s show meant tickets to the last gathering of the Core Four ever. They scheduled the Santa Clara shows prior to the Chicago shows, in part, for that reason. I for one do not know how many “last times” I can handle. There were a lot of tears Sunday night. But, just like all of the other issues that cropped up during the Fare-Thee-Well experience, Deadheads will roll with it.
There are many Grateful Dead quotes that can wrap up the experience and the headlines have borne many of them over the last few days. “Loose Lucy” says it best though: “Thank you, for a real good time.” It has been 50 years of something that has taken on a life of its own and woven itself forever into the fabric of the American experience. There will never be anything else like the Grateful Dead experience and for being able to be a part of it we Deadheads are forever Grateful.