Editor: Justin Kreutzmann.
When it was announced in early 2015 that the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary celebration would include a handful of reunion gigs -- their first live appearances since the 1995 death of founder Jerry Garcia -- the news was met with a cautious optimism. In the two decades since officially disbanding, numerous iterations have toured the band's catalog (the Dead, the Other Ones, etc.) featuring surviving members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, collectively considered the "core four." Until 2015, though, the Grateful Dead brand had not been revived and, for some fans, the thought of playing a proper Dead show without Garcia still seemed sacrilegious. But time has a way of softening old wounds, and when they revealed that Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio would take on Jerry's lead guitar role, the community rallied, selling out the Fare Thee Well shows in minutes. Along with the core four and Anastasio, the Dead of 2015 included pianist Bruce Hornsby, a former staple of their early-'90s lineup, and organist Jeff Chimenti, known for his work in Bob Weir's group RatDog. Following a pair of inaugural gigs in Santa Clara, the celebration moved to Chicago's Soldier Field -- site of their final show in 1995 -- culminating in what was intended to be the last ever Grateful Dead performance on July 5th. By this point, any skepticism regarding Anastasio's ability had vanished and the proliferation of fan-made "Let Trey Sing" T-shirts resulted in Weir wryly donning one during the encore. Launching into the classic combo of "China Cat Sunflower" and "I Know You Rider," an immediate spike of energy jolts through the jubilant assemblage. Trey does indeed get to sing, ably taking the lead on "China Cat," "Althea," and later on "Touch of Grey," the first of their two encores. Hornsby also gets his due as a vocalist, poignantly taking on the late-era Garcia track "Built to Last." Weir brings the funk as only he can on a spirited "Estimated Prophet" with Anastasio nimbly revisiting Garcia's trademark envelope filter effect. Throughout the evening, the collaborative exploratory spirit that has long been the band's creed leads to inspired peaks and wobbly stumbles in a way comfortingly familiar to fans. Phil Lesh's gentle handling of 1969 rarity "Mountains of the Moon" is a pleasant surprise and, while occasionally shaky, he and Weir lead fan favorite "Terrapin Station" into moments of sublime beauty. A slowly chugging "Truckin'" heads into "Cassidy," another Weir classic. A final "Drums/Space" interlude from Rhythm Devils Hart and Kreutzmann sets up the endgame as the crowd becomes fully audible, singing the Dead off-stage one last time on the quintessential closer, "Not Fade Away." Already bittersweet, the night ends on a hushed note as Weir leads the group through a harmonically ragged but stirring acoustic rendition of the rarely played "Attics of My Life." More than a victory lap, these sets capture a genuine moment in time, something the band strove for since the very beginning. ~ Timothy Monger