Setlist & Review | Fare Thee Well Grateful Dead 50 Chicago Begins

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UPDATE: Friday’s show broke the attendance record for a show at Soldier Field previously held by U2’s 360 Tour in 2009 (last night: 70,764, U2: 67,936).

After five months of build-up Fare Thee Well -Celebrating 50 Years Of Grateful Dead finally started at Soldier Field in Chicago on Friday, when Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and Bob Weir played their first of three shows with keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti as well as Phish frontman Trey Anastasio at the football stadium that hosted Jerry Garcia’s final performance. One of the biggest criticisms of last weekend’s Santa Clara run was that the band didn’t make full use of Trey Anastasio’s vocal and instrumental talents. The first show in Chicago was a completely different story.

The band began one of the most anticipated run of shows in rock history with “Box Of Rain” at 7:25 p.m. local time in front of a capacity crowd. Lesh sang his signature song to open the set nearly 20 years after “Box Of Rain” was the final song of the Grateful Dead’s 30-year tenure with Garcia at the same venue on July 9, 1995. “Jack Straw” started off with a jam that seemed to be hinting at “Bird Song,” before the band kicked into the tune. Bobby traded verses with Phil on a “Jack Straw” that as with “Box Of Rain” featured strong lead guitar work from Trey. Anastasio then took a turn on lead vocals for “Bertha” and was all smiles as he delivered Robert Hunter’s lyrics. Next up was “Passenger,” a song the Grateful Dead last performed on December 27, 1981. Weir and Bruce Hornsby harmonized on lead vocals, while Anastasio tore into “Passenger’s” guitar solo and Chimenti leaned into a strong organ solo.

The musicians on stage took time after “Passenger” to fix on-stage sound issues with Lesh telling the audience, “It’s just not exactly perfect.” Following the brief delay Phil kicked into “The Wheel.” Anastasio utilized a syrupy, reverb-heavy tone for his “Wheel” solo similar to what he uses on “Wingsuit” for Phish. “The Wheel” eventually faded into “Crazy Fingers,” which as with yesterday’s soundcheck was sung by Trey. “Crazy Fingers” featured Hornsby’s best piano work of the set as the keyboardist traded licks with Chimenti. “The Music Never Stopped” was up next and was highlighted by Anastasio’s rapid-fire riffing and powerful solo. All told the first set contained seven songs each of which was debuted by the Grateful Dead in the ’70s. Trey Anastasio was the star of an impressive opening stanza as he played with authority and passion throughout the set.

Both the audience of approximately 75,000 at Soldier Field and those watching the live streams were treated to more original music from Neal Casal for portions of the hour-long setbreak. “Mason’s Children,” a song the Grateful Dead only played 18 times between December ’69 and February ’70, opened the second set. Lesh, Weir and Anastasio shared vocals on the obscurity. Anastasio then stepped to the mic and led the band on “Scarlet Begonias.” The guitarist patiently weaved together one melodic riff after another to build the “Scarlet” jam to a rolling boil before the group transitioned into “Fire On The Mountain.” Hornsby took his first turn of the night on lead vocals for “Fire.” One of the night’s few trainwreck moments came towards the end of “Fire,” when Trey and the band stumbled through the song’s final section and the group sans Rhythm Devils quickly vacated the stage for “Drums.”

Friday’s “Drums” segment found Hart and Kreutzmann touring their massive rigs as they banged away on many different drums. Mickey eventually settled into strumming “The Beam” and even broke out a bow at one point to use on the instrument. The drummers stuck around when the other members of the band returned for an excursion into “Space.” Chimenti toyed with a synthesizer, Anastasio put his delay pedal to good use as Lesh provided a melodic anchor for “Space.” Out of the madness “New Potato Caboose” emerged. The Grateful Dead only performed the Phil Lesh/Robert Petersen-penned rarity 22 times, though Lesh & Weir’s Furthur project nearly equaled that total between 2009 and 2013.

“Playing In The Band” brought the focus back to songs the Grateful Dead debuted in the ’70s. The band explored a number of different jam spaces over the course of the extended “Playing” as Anastasio led excursions into dark, minor-key territory as well as pretty major-key and spacey, squonky sections. Hart used his theremin to add texture to the “Playing” jam, while Weir contributed his trademark wild rhythms throughout. Towards the end of the evening’s longest improvisational segment, Kreutzmann dropped out of the mix for a formless section that could’ve passed for “Space.” The seamless set continued with “Let It Grow,” another GD classic debuted in the ’70s. Trey showed off the months of practice and study he’s put into his role again as he nailed his “Let It Grow” parts, egged on by Phil.

“Help On The Way” came next with Anastasio handling lead vocals. Trey laughed off a vocal miscue and continued on his way through singing the song. The band quickly moved back towards deep space as they rolled from “Help On The Way” to its usual instrumental partner, “Slipknot!” Kreutzmann provided a strong and steady beat out of which Lesh, Anastasio, Weir and the keyboardists were each able to add melodies to the stew without losing form. Trey utilized a dirty, envelope filter tone for an intense “Slipknot!” solo that stood among the highlights of the night. Out of a rough transition came the expected third part of the “Help/Slip/Franklin’s” triumvarite -“Franklin’s Tower.” Lesh stepped up to take lead vocal duties on “Franklin’s,” the only time all night he was the sole lead vocalist on a song he didn’t write. Chimenti was “on” all night, but “Franklin’s” was a particular strong moment for the keyboardist. There were big smiles all around as the Fare Thee Well band brought the second set to a close following another sizzling Anastasio solo.

The encore began with Phil Lesh urging attendees to donate their organs after he told the story of receiving a liver transplant thanks to the kindness of a man named Cody. After the donor rap, the rest of the band filed on stage. “Ripple” featuring Weir on acoustic and vocals brought the evening to a close. Fare Thee Well -Celebrating 50 Years Of Grateful Dead continues on Saturday night at Soldier Field in Chicago. Here’s a few of the options to follow along.

There were a number of celebrities in the crowd last night including basketball legend Bill Walton, Justin Bieber guitarist Dan Kanter, writer George RR Martin, Phish bassist Mike Gordon and many other jam scene musicians. Guitarist John Mayer even brought along his girlfriend –Katy Perry.

Photos (by Jay Blakesberg & Chad Smith)

Setlist

Set One: Box Of Rain, Jack Straw, Bertha > Passenger, The Wheel > Crazy Fingers > The Music Never Stopped

Set Two: Mason’s Children > Scarlet Begonias > Fire On The Mountain > Drums > Space > New Potato Caboose > Playing In The Band > Let It Grow > Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower

Encore: Ripple

Head here to purchase and watch video-on-demand of all five Fare Thee Well performances for $49.95.