CHICAGO — The Grateful Dead performed for the last time July 3-5 at Soldier Field, concluding an incredible 50-year run. The windy city became the center of Deadhead universe with their Fare Thee Well tour.
After a difficult effort to get tickets, the long overdue plan to visit my cousins, John and Joe Potomis (formerly of Swoyersville), was cemented with the added bonus of being a part of Deadhead history.
I arrived at the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre airport July 1 at about 5 a.m. and, as I expected, several other Deadheads were waiting to board. Among them were a young couple in their 20s, from Williamsport, who were expecting their second child and who also brought their 11 month son with them. They told me that they didn’t have tickets, but wanted to be part of the last gathering of the tribes under the Deadhead banner.
There was also a couple in their 30s, fortunate to have tickets for all three nights, and had just returned from seeing the Santa Clara shows held a few days earlier.
Upon arrival, Chicago was already clad in tie dye — even the business district.
Part of the magic of The Grateful Dead is the “gestalt,” or “collective mind” feeling one gets from seeing and talking to so many people who share the same interests and views. The band has said many times “the magic doesn’t happen until we’re on stage and playing our music and feeling the energy and the love of the crowd.”
As I walked around Chicago wearing a Grateful Dead shirt so many people smiled and said, “Hello, are you going to the show.” Even several men in business suits and one woman wearing high heels and business attire surprised me by saying, “See you at the show, dude.”
Vendors were selling Grateful Dead memorabilia and other contraband — legal and some mildly illegal — that form part of the traveling “Shakedown Street” of merchants that appear outside any Dead-related event.
Friday, the first show of the weekend, the entire park, including the Field Museum of Natural History was Dead themed. The first floor of the museum housed a Grateful Dead Exhibit, which included one of Jerry Garcia’s famous one-of-a-kind guitars (“Tiger”), pictures and equipment from the Dead, lyric sheets, and eight Plexiglas wall exhibits of the decorated envelopes that fans sent hoping to secure some concert tickets.
Several dinosaurs were adorned with crowns of roses and the museum entrance was decorated with pictures of dinosaurs wearing roses with the phrase “Everything’s Dead.”
When entering Soldier Field, concert goers received a long stem rose from the band as a thank you for being there.
The stage was spectacular and more elaborate than Dead shows of old, featuring two tall video screens at both ends of the stage — the source of an amazing light show with oval inserts used to show historical pictures of the Dead. Home movies from vacations where band members went scuba diving, one of Jerry Garcia’s favorite vacation activities, and close-ups of the band performing were some of the videos shown.
Looking straight onto the stage, one saw concentric circles that flashed and changed colors looking like a more sophisticated version of a Time Tunnel set.
Then came the music.
Among the many songs were “Scarlet Begonias” — my personal favorite sung by Trey Anastasio — which morphed into “Fire on the Mountain,” sung by Bruce Hornsby. After about three and a half hours of fantastic music, the band closed with “Franklin’s Tower,” followed by an acoustic Bob Weir version of “Ripple.”
And so now it ends under The Grateful Dead banner. The individual members will continue with their side projects — Ratdog, Phil & Friends, Billy & the Kids, The Rythym Devils, Furthur, etc.
Looking back, it’s clear that Jerry Garcia and the boys created some of the best music ever written, and were key factors in the creation of the hippie movement, which spawned an entire sub-culture with values of peace, harmony and non-materialism.
Gary Taroli is a Northeastern Pennsylvania native who traveled to Chicago for The Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well tour. He is a guest writer for Weekender.