By Will Hermes
“I have spent my life/Seeking all that’s still unsung/Bent my ear to hear the tune,” sang Phil Lesh last night, harmonizing with colleagues new and old, on “Attics of My Life,” the final song of a fraught, moving, ultimately magnificent five-night, two-state Fare The Well concert series — billed as the final shows that the surviving members of the Grateful Dead will ever perform together. The final concert was also the run’s strongest, showcasing a new band hitting its stride precisely as it was set to retire. The new guys — Phish’s Trey Anastasio, RatDog’s Jeff Chimenti and returning moonlighter Bruce Hornsby — found equal footing and perfect sync with original band members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart. It was clear from the opener, “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider,” one of the band’s most emblematic and potent pairings. When Anastasio and Hornsby, not Weir or Lesh, traded lead vocals on the former, it felt like a torch was passed. And when the 70,000 fans sang “I know you rider/Gonna miss me when I’m gone” during the latter, it was like they were singing those words to each other.
As good as the music was, much of the night’s magic was in the connections: meeting fellow fans, finding out where they travelled from, a bit of what their lives are like, how long ago they saw their first Dead show; or showering ushers and security staff with grins, salutations and high-fives, like a bunch of tipsy, T-shirted Jehovah’s Witnesses working a neighborhood. I came to this show with a friend who joined me at my first Dead show in 1977, but variously hung and partied with a Santa Monica children’s book writer, a Wisconsin college professor, an L.A. vapor-pen manufacturer and an Illinois Spanish teacher. Strangers stopped strangers just to shake their hand, share a joint, dance a jig, hug it out or serenade each other. Friends and lovers sang into each others’ mouths and dove into each others’ eyes, swimming through flashbacks of who-knows-what.
If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that music’s true value is not so much about the individual players, distinguished and virtuosic as they might be; it’s about the beauty, pleasure and love it communicates, and the community it engenders. The relationship Deadheads have with these songs is deeply personal: We’ve eaten, slept, and breathed this music, bonded and tripped and fucked and fallen in love to it. It seems to carry with it an implicit set of spiritual, ethical and hedonistic values, and it marks the tribe, which extends beyond the Dead’s music. Over the course of this weekend’s shows, improv-minded acts flooded Chicago. Among them were Jerry Garcia’s old confidant and side-project partner David Grisman, who played jazzy bluegrass fusion with his sextet on Sunday afternoon to a reverent mob at the historic Palmer House Hotel ballroom. The town became jam-band ground zero.