Grate­ful Dead eases into mystic in first of Fare Thee Well gigs


The VW buses were sup­planted by Ubers. Mar­i­juana was more of­ten va­por­ized than burned. And bright iPhone screens re­placed Bic lighters dur­ing “Morn­ing Dew.” But the mu­sic was nearly the same: the Dead, jamming in ( mostly) per­fect har­mony. No Jerry Gar­cia holo­gram nec­es­sary.

Those of us dizzy and lost amid the sonic tec­ton­ics and me­an­der­ing melodies of the Grate­ful Dead’s con­cert in Santa Clara, Calif., on Satur­day night could be for­given for think­ing that Levi’s Sta­dium was some sort of por­tal, and the rain­bow that rose over the venue dur­ing “Vi­ola Lee Blues” added vis­ual proof.

On Night 1 of f ive in its Fare Thee Well tour, the band that helped de­fine the 1960s San Fran­cisco psy­che­delic rock scene — and Amer­i­can hip­pie cul­ture in gen­eral — re­turned to celebrate f ive decades as an en­tity.

Af­ter a sec­ond Santa Clara show Sun­day, the band will head to Chicago’s Soldier Field for three shows over In­de­pen­dence Day week­end.

To say Night 1 was an emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence for some would be an un­der­state­ment. One man wait­ing in the con­ces­sion line re­marked: “I think I cried through the first three songs


He wasn’t alone. Within a few choice min­utes, a football sta­dium- sized com­mu­nity was singing “what a long, strange trip it’s been” as the so- called core four — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutz­mann and Mickey Hart — con­jured and con­nected, as well- prac­ticed, f luid and mas­ter­ful as ever .

With his shaggy, gray­haired mus­tache- side­burn combo, Weir now looks like a re­tire­ment ranch Yosemite Sam, but he still tapped notes with a sharp­shooter’s eye.

Lesh played with typ­i­cal grounded pres­ence, a bassist stand­ing front and cen­ter equally bal­anced be­tween Chicago blues and North­ern Cal­i­for­nia min­i­mal­ism. The drum­mers were tight, pro­pel­lant, f illed with mo­men­tum.

Fill­ing in on lead guitar was Phish’s Trey Anas­ta­sio, who re­peat­edly struck with high wattage bolts. Not only an ex­pert gui­tarist but also a dyed- in- the- wool Dead- head, the artist un­der­stood that the late Gar­cia’s phi­los­o­phy re­quired only that he col­lab­o­rate, not du­pli­cate. That sim­ple in­struc­tion guided his ev­ery note. ( This rare col­lab­o­ra­tion will be re­peated at all the Fare Thee Well shows.)

Add in pi­anist Bruce Hornsby, whose set- end­ing lead vo­cals on “Casey Jones” turned into a gi­gan­tic “high on co­caine!” sin­ga­long, and key­board player Jeff Chi­menti, and the re­sult was a Grate­ful Dead per­for­mance that mor­phed and evolved, var­i­ously nu­anced, in­ven­tive, star­tling, son­i­cally deep and at times way, way gone.

Pre­sented in a glis­ten­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley fa­cil­ity built for the San Fran­cisco 49ers with high- class con­ces­sions and an over­all com­fort level a few notches up from Max Yas­gur’s Wood­stock farm, the digs il­lus­trated the dis­tance trav­eled.

“I’m sur­prised they even let peo­ple like us in here,” com­mented one guy, awestruck at the clean­li­ness of the men’s room.

But this con­cert could have taken place in­side Weir’s mus­tache and fans wouldn’t have cared, given the set list.

Far from a great­est hits pack­age, the Dead did what the Dead do: of­fered sur­prise se­lec­tions from across a vast reper­toire, with mind­ful fo­cus on both col­lab­o­ra­tion and in­di­vid­ual im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

It’s been said be­fore: To fully ap­pre­ci­ate the band, you have to ac­cept it as a group of jazz- minded play­ers and sur­ren­der to the f lu­id­ity.

An as­tound­ing, ex­pan­sive take on “St. Stephen” moved from epiphany to epiphany, a wild roller coaster of rhythms, sig­na­tures and melodies.

With so many del­i­cate hands work­ing in­stru­ments with grace, touch and emo­tion, the band seemed to con­nect not only in­stru­men­tally but also at times as­trally.

Mu­si­cal ques­tions prompted im­pro­vised re­sponses, the planned and un­planned in­ter­min­gling.

Its great song “Dark Star” is one of the jewels in the Dead’s cat­a­log, and Satur­day’s ver­sion was equal parts hymn and med­i­ta­tion. A song pow­ered by bassist Lesh’s gen­tle rud­der, “Dark Star” was its own plat­form, one that the seven play­ers ex­plored over the course of 15 or 20 min­utes.

Through­out that song and oth­ers — es­pe­cially “Cum­ber­land Blues,” “Cream Puff War” and “The Other One” — the mu­si­cians cre­ated real- deal emo­tion on a mass scale, the kind ab­sorbed by kin­dred be­liev­ers. When Weir and band moved into “Turn on Your Love Light,” made fa­mous by Bobby “Blue” Bland, the sta­dium had the vibe of a re­vival tent.

As usual, mid­way through the set, all the play­ers save per­cus­sion­ists Hart and Kreutz­mann left the stage, and for the next minia­ture eter­nity the two had a beat- based break­down. Thump­ing drum, mbira, conga, tim­pani and var­i­ous stringed beasts, the team didn’t need to re­mind any­one that they’ve been tap­ping into the same uni­ver­sal beat for decades. You could hear it.

Grad­u­ally, the full band re­turned and eased back into the mystic: Lesh’s ut­terly strange ver­sion of “What’s Be­come of the Baby” was f illed with noise, feed­back, echoes that cas­caded through the sta­dium.

Oth­er­worldly? Yes. Wor­thy of praise? Most cer­tainly. So ex­pertly imag­ined as to sug­gest not just a re­union but a con­tin­u­a­tion, this was the Dead ideal, com­mu­nal, filled with a gen­eros­ity of spirit that united stage and seats.

Jay Blakes­berg I nvision f or t he Grate­ful Dead

ONE MORE Satur­day night f inds the Dead play­ing to a packed Levi’s Sta­dium in Santa Clara, Calif. No ex­tra charge for the rain­bow dur­ing “Vi­ola Lee Blues.”

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