The hallowed columns of Soldier Field that saw the shadow of Jerry Garcia leave the bright lights of the stage for the final time was awoken for these three nights of the spirit of the Grateful Dead. Though close to twenty years have past the Deadheads have not forgotten and in this celebration of the Grateful Dead the band proved that they have not either. The band resurrected the spirit by starting right were they left off, the final song the Grateful Dead played, Box of Rain opened the nights festivities. It was the band's affirmation or declaration that they were not missing for the last twenty years, they were exclaiming that they have been here all along. Based on the fan reaction to when the tickets were released and the cluster fuck and the ordeal that most fans went through for this weekend, there is the belief that we are all apart of something bigger and better then just going to a concert. It's a light that Deadheads are drawn to. Here is were we can "believe it if we need it or leave it if we dare." "Love will see us through."
There was a bit of fan criticism after the two nights of Santa Clara. The Grateful Dead were always a band with a leader, in Jerry, who didn't want to be a leader at all, and yet he was followed. The group was a band of self-sustaining musicians. Each one wanted to be louder in the mix, yet each one focused on fitting their roles under what Jerry played. The first gigs were good but they were leaderless. Despite Phil's spirited take on Box of Rain, the band started falling into place as Trey Anastasio took the second leads on Jack Straw. The Santa Clara band with lovely tunes transformed as machine gun Trey started to blaze is fire all over "Jack Straw from Wichita." Leaps and bounds over the dim previous two shows. The fans got more of what they wanted when Trey took lead vocals on Bertha, and instead of him slinking back into the background, he kept control as a lead guitars should dictate. The spectacular Passenger ended giving the band and audience a chance to catch their breath after four rockers.
They slickly pulled off a smooth segue between The Wheel and Crazy Fingers. In the Crazy Fingers, Trey lit up the reggae beats with a buoyant solo and then took a step cross the stage and signaled to Bruce to take over, it may have been accident but Trey here took over to be an de facto leader. A leader without wanting to lead. In that space he created, Jeff shone for the first time. Playing Brent Mydland's B3 organ, Jeff sparkled on the solo to Trey who continually sang "I tried" over and over as if he was singing from more then lines on the page.
The set close with Trey stepping up again and filling those holes in Music Never Stopped with his electric finger. They assented the notes on the guitar as the crowd egged him on. Phil and Bobby clearly pleased as the band and audience reached a fever pitch. For the first time the atmosphere created such a crushing sound that my ears hurt. The Grateful Dead was fully awake. We walked into the light and prepare for the second set.
The band started with some tuning as Trey cautiously started building the chord progression to Mason's. Right out of that came Scarlet Begonias. The place erupted. With the Candance light show in full effect the place seemed to be bubbling with emotion as this prized Dead song began and stepped us through the door to "get shown the light." Each solo turn was a new excuse for the audience to celebrate there revival in the song and the band feed off the energy and love that they got from us. The band then layer on textures and the created a base to keep the masses moving. A bit of relief was breathed as Bruce took the lead vocals on Fire on the Mountain. The thick groove filled this palace as we were all "dead to the core." Bobby cued the band into final singing of "Fire," which was supposed to leave space for the drummers to take over but the cue was partially missed by most of the band members. Mickey got the affirmation that he wanted from the crowd as beat a break into his firebird drums and stood with his hands over head. By the time Billy had worked his way over to Mickey's side of the drum kit the band members had started to find their instruments.
Being that the band only played three songs before Drums, there were big expectations for the second half of the set. The band pieced together the Dead rarity New Potato Caboose. Slowly afterwards the band started building till Bobby signal Playin' like a lighthouse on a foggy night at sea. The crowd was re-invigorated by Playin' as they marched along with the band. As the band slipped off into the abyss of darkness that they gathered from the Playin' they individually followed their own calling till Phil started them down to a lull. This moment of quietness was the opportunity for the band to reconnect with each other. This is what they did by layering texture on top of texture till they broke it apart again. One more time they built and in the frenzy of the built jam they slided into Bobby gently strumming Let It Grow. The band lead us as we "raise and fall," in the moments with the band. (Of all the songs in the Dead catalog, Let It Grow is one that has never been the same since Jerry left us and that is still true.) Then the band briefly moved into a transition jam that I thought might have been back into Playin' but no. The band dropped the hammer on Help/Slip. Trey had a mind lapse during the verse but that was not a distraction to the band as they found the murky waters of the Slipknot section. Trey had firmly established his leaderless leading in this song and so once he shot a glimpse to Bobby to say take us home. Bobby's arm raised as he counted them down into the closing scripted section as Phil eased them into Franklin's Tower. In a moment of metaphysical musical cohesiveness, Bruce and Trey aligned as they complemented each other in the first solo of Franklin's. Every step Trey took, Bruce pushed the envelope further and further. Phil was crawling with emotion when he took over vocals. While Phil sang Trey strolled to his side of the stage to get Bruce's attention, Trey signaled that Bruce was taking the solo after "if you get confused listen to the music play." Bruce shrugged him off once but Trey persisted and Bruce went for it. Might not have been a bigger Bruce fan in the place than Trey as he smiled and cheered him until "some come to laugh the past away."
The sing along Ripple was the fitting topper. The band has completely transformed. The band is now the best band ever assembled for five gigs. This was their half way point and their high water mark. As Neil Young's Cortex the Killer played over the PA, I feel like I have been transported 20 years back in time. There is a spring in my step. I've awoken fully dead.
I: Box of Rain, Jack Straw, Bertha, Passenger, The Wheel, Crazy Fingers, The Music Never Stopped
II: Mason's Children, Scarlet Begonias, Fire on the Mountain, Drums, New Potato Caboose, Playin' in the Band, Let It Grow, Help on the Way, Slipknot!, Franklin's Tower