Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 9, 10 or 11
It wasn’t crying in pain; more like grief, or even joy – sort of a cross between a funeral and a wedding – but when I was at Friday’s Grateful Dead concert at Chicago’s Soldier Field, there were tears in my eyes from emotions: delight, a little longing, maybe even some rage at disappointment or fear of future silence.
At the first of three final shows of the legendary band, the fifth song in the first set was “The Wheel,” with meaningful words by lyricist/poet Robert Hunter: “The wheel is turning and you can't slow down. You can't let go and you can't hold on. You can't go back and you can't stand still; if the thunder don't get you then the lightning will.
“Won't you try just a little bit harder. Couldn't you try just a little bit more?”
The Dead’s “core four” – Mickey Hart (71), Bill Kreutzmann (68), Phil Lesh (74) and Bob Weir (67) – were joined by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardists Jeff Chimenti from RatDog and Bruce Hornsby. Together, they rekindled memories of optimism, happiness and kinship, like a great reunion where folks shared memories of believing that anything could happen.
Musically, magically, you can go home again, it seems. But there was heartache for absent friends who’d shared shows at the Chicago Auditorium Theater, in the Maryland woods, and the Iowa State Fairgrounds (twice!). As always, the event was a pleasant blend of a ballgame and church, with the multi-generational crowd singing along to tunes such as “Jack Straw,” “Bertha,” “Fire on the Mountain” and “Playing in the Band.” Throughout the group’s wistful, energetic trademark bluegrass jazz, an undulating audience bounced, swayed and smiled with the rhythm in excitement and glee. Perfect strangers became a comfortable community.
Colors from tie-dyed clothes, flowers in hair, and beads, plus smells from patchouli and pot, all swirled through the family of 70,764 souls. More a spiritual revival than some psychedelic nostalgia, the two-set concert began as their last appearance here ended, weeks before guitarist Jerry Garcia’s 1995 death, with “Box of Rain.”
Just 53 when he died, Garcia’s passing brought old pals together by phone, as several tracked me down at a journalism conference at the University of Missouri, where we shared shock and pain. Now, with more than a “touch of grey,” and still singing the “U.S. Blues,” more than 200,000 Deadheads gathered in Chicago in a kind of pilgrimage for the band that started in 1965 as the Warlocks (recalled in Kreutzman’s fun new book, “Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead”).
Fifty-year careers in music are rare, and such anniversaries are rarer. Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Grand Ol’ Opry, Elvis or the Beatles never had such happenings, perhaps because the Dead so fully accompanied a cultural change and time.
At the stadium, the music, as always, was meandering and controlled, angelic and devil-may-care, juggling improvisation with a barely adequate sound system, all ethereal yet as solid as 12-bar blues or 3-chord rock. There was “Passenger,” “Crazy Fingers” and “The Music Never Stopped,” and “Scarlet Begonias,” “Help on the Way” and “Franklin's Tower.”
Throughout the world there were simulcasts and pay-per-views, and a recording of the weekend’s three shows is expected, but there’s something special about Live Dead. They jam with unity, working and playing with independence within individual tunes’ frameworks, a dynamic tension not unlike the liberty and democracy commemorated that July 4th weekend.
My momentary sorrow gave way to lasting bliss, and I made the turn easily at the signature “celebration of life” number “Ripple”:
“If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine, and my tunes were played on the harp unstrung, would you hear my voice come through the music?”
Indeed, we’ll not go quietly into that night.
We’ll be singing.