Marco della Cava, USA TODAY
The Grateful Dead kicked off their five-concert farewell tour Saturday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. less
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Can you ever really go home again? The Grateful Dead proved Saturday that you can, with a little help from your friends.
The venerable Bay Area jam band kicked off its five-concert Fare Thee Well mini-tour not far from where it formed 50 years ago with a screaming three-and-a-half show that trucked mostly in staples from the group’s earliest years.
Opening with Truckin’ and closing at midnight with Casey Jones, the heart of the program included hardcore Deadhead favorites such as Dark Star, The Other One and The Eleven. Squint and it was 1970.
To pull off each of those extended jams, the four original members – guitarist Bob Weir, bass player Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart – successfully leaned on Jeff Chimenti on organ, Bruce Hornsby on piano and Phish leader Trey Anastasio on guitar, ably filling the arguably un-fillable shoes of the late Jerry Garcia. Anastasio summoned Garcia’s soaring licks with ease, but the band wisely chose to sing as a collective on tunes that the former bandleader used to sing alone.
The overall effect was electric. While the Dead might have spawned modern-day jam bands such as Phish, Widespread Panic and String Cheese Incident, Saturday’s show proved that the grey-haired gents from Haight-Ashbury could go out with a bang.
The sold-out performance drew a mixed demographic to Levi’s Stadium, south of the Dead’s first formative cradle of Palo Alto. Grey-haired boomers mingled with pre-teens and babies, tie-dye clashed with hipster techie attire. Some were there to once more relive their past, while others wanted to show their children what the big deal was all about.
“This is all about coming full circle,” said Todd Sandler, a Los Angeles sit-com actor whose last Dead show was the very last Grateful Dead concert, 20 years ago this summer. Garcia, whose heroin addiction had returned, died not after that Soldier Field gig on Aug. 9, 1995. “I wanted to come see a show where it all started for them, here in Northern California.”
Sandler’s main complaint wasn’t the band but the venue, a massive football stadium that is home to the San Francisco 49ers (after another show here Sunday, the band performs at Soldier Field in Chicago July 3-5). In truth, while the sports stadium lacked intimacy, the sound proved more than respectable.
In fact, being in an open-air arena provided two serendipitous moments, one natural and the other artificial. During Viola Lee Blues, the crowd suddenly started screaming and pointing up at a massive rainbow arching across the darkening sky. And during the elegiac anthem Dark Star, fireworks lit up the night, courtesy of the nearby Great America amusement park.
Marco della Cava, USA TODAY
At one memorable point during the Grateful Dead’s show, a rainbow caused the fans to stand up and scream.
Perhaps one of the most impressive things about the show was how unpretentious it was. For a band that formed half a century ago and hasn’t taken the stage as one collective in 20 years (since Garcia’s passing the survivors have splintered off into groups such as Phil and Friends and Ratdog), Saturday’s show begged for big speeches.
Instead, the musicians ambled on stage, strapped on their instruments and began noodling around, eventually leading into Truckin’. After an hour, they left the stage without a word, taking an hour-long break that left the crowd watching large screens showing a mix of psychedelic art, vintage ’60s clips of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and vacation videos of Garcia scuba diving in Hawaii.
When the group returned, the long rest clearly did them good. For the next two and a half hours, the Grateful Dead played non-stop – significant considering the band’s youngest member, Weir, is 67. Of note were St. Stephen and Turn On Your Lovelight, the latter allowing Weir to show a level of singing passion and power that isn’t always evident in his non-Dead shows.
Shortly after wrapping that contiguous set with the apocalyptic ballad Morning Dew, the band left the stage. Then Lesh returned, mentioned that he was alive only thanks to a liver transplant, and urged the crowd to consider being organ donors. But he also added, “I can’t tell you how good it is to see you all again.”
He didn’t have to say it. The band’s joyous, inspired and energetic playing did the task for him.