Fare Thee Well, The Grateful Dead…

A long read about the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary shows, their remarkable fans, and what happens next...

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Over the next four shows, the band play 68 more songs from every phase of their career, only repeating two (“Cumberland Blues” and, not unreasonably, “Truckin'”). The phrase “Greatest American Band” is thrown around a lot, and Barack Obama sends his regards. The first night rainbow is investigated at length, and initial stories that it was a son et lumiere stunt appear to be discounted. The general feeling mixes exhilaration with qualified relief: perhaps Phil Lesh sang a little more often than necessary; perhaps the pace dragged now and again; maybe the setlists ranged far and wide in a way that only someone attending all five nights could really appreciate. Nevertheless, consensus suggests Anastasio nailed his seemingly impossible brief and, for once, the Grateful Dead didn’t screw up the big shows.

It’s hard to portray the whole Fare Thee Well project as anything other than a lucratively nostalgic endeavour, with its attendant live streams, cinema screenings, imminent commemorative boxsets and so forth; as one last trip for the baby boomer generation, and for those successive generations who dreamed of being a part of it. At the first night in Santa Clara, though, the crowd is celebratory rather than sentimental, and pragmatically informed about what happens next to the music they love. “I saw Jerry at least 30 times,” says Tom from Idaho. “Jerry was a huge part of the band, but some nights Jerry sucked.”

Tom raves about Jeff Chimenti and his various activities, while a woman who has flown in from Ecuador, and who went out on the road with Lesh and Weir’s Furthur rather than with the Dead themselves, is not the only fan who proselytises about a new San Francisco band. They are called the Golden Gate Wingmen, and feature Chimenti alongside the redoubtable “Fake Jerry”, John Kadcelik. For many, it seems, the Fare Thee Well shows are not last rites so much as one more manifestation of a scene that is boundlessly complex and incestuous. A scene where founding fathers jam with young tyros and tribute bands; where one former Dead keyboardist – Tom Constanten, who served between 1968 and 1970 – was not recalled for Fare Thee Well, but currently figures in a long-established covers band called Jazz Is Dead. Where Phil Lesh And Friends frequently gather at Lesh’s own San Rafael club, Terrapin Crossroads, to replay entire Dead shows from the archives.

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The scene is rooted in the past, but it understands how gifted improvising musicians can find infinite possibilities in a small constellation of songs. In this telling of the story, the mass impact of Fare Thee Well is a glitch that will pass soon enough, and leave the true believers to get on with its long, involved, compelling business.

David Browne begins So Many Roads with a wondering assessment of the band from Carolyn ‘Mountain Girl’ Garcia, the Merry Prankster who became Jerry Garcia’s wife. “How <>did<> they get together and relate to each other?” she ponders. “They really worked on it. They wanted it badly. They were glued to the enterprise.” The Grateful Dead may be formally over, but the enterprise, the songs, and many of the players – in whatever form they next manifest themselves – remain indefatigably alive. Trouble behind, as the old song goes, trouble ahead…

 Heads up! Next month’s Uncut – on sale July 28 in the UK – comes with a FREE GRATEFUL DEAD CD: our historic attempt to piece together the album that should have followed “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty”…

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