5 concerts chronicle the story of the Grateful Dead
Let the countdown begin: The Grateful Dead’s final five shows have arrived.
With shows Saturday and Sunday in Santa Clara, California, and another three at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 3-5, the five shows cap roughly 2,300 concerts over 30 years.
Pioneers of psychedelic music in the 1960s, the Dead brought jazz-style improvisation to rock music. No two Dead shows were the same — not just the performances but the setlists were made up on the spot. Each show had a seat-of-the-pants quality that meant things could go wrong, but also that great heights could be reached.
The band’s run came to an end with the death of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. This summer, the four surviving members of the band — guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — are performing.
Here is a look back at five shows that capture the band at key moments along their long and, yes, strange trip.
FEB. 14, 1969
CAROUSEL BALLROOM, SAN FRANCISCO
Garcia, the lead guitarist with the bushy black (later gray) beard and impish smile, was probably the best-known member of the Grateful Dead. But he was not its leader; that was a role he never wanted.
If the band did have a leader in its early days, it was keyboard player Ron McKernan. Affectionately nicknamed Pigpen for his unkempt look, McKernan also played harmonica and was more comfortable singing lead at first than Garcia or Weir.
Pigpen both did and didn’t fit with the Dead. He didn’t share the musical adventurism of his bandmates, and he preferred alcohol to LSD. But the blues and R&B tunes he sang served as an anchor to keep the band’s more experimental work from spiraling out of the stratosphere.
Pigpen’s drinking eventually caught up to him, and he died in 1973 at age 27.
APRIL 8, 1972
WEMBLEY EMPIRE POOL, LONDON
The Europe ’72 tour — 22 shows in April and May — is considered by many fans to the Dead’s best.
The band was still playing the exploratory jams they became famous for in the 1960s, like the 30-minute version of “Dark Star” that highlighted this show, the second of the tour. But a songwriting partnership of Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter that was just beginning in the late ’60s had matured.
Hunter’s lyrics pulled from a wide variety of sources, from blues standards to nursery rhymes. He took an old folk tune based on a real-life train wreck and turned it into “Casey Jones.” And he wrote the instantly iconic line in “Truckin,'” the band’s 1970 chronicle of life on the road, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
“His lyrics worked on a much more elevated level than your typical love ballad or rock anthem — they belonged to literature.” Kreutzmann wrote in his 2015 autobiography “Deal” — which borrows its title from a Hunter-Garcia song.
MAY 8, 1977
CORNELL UNIVERSITY, ITHACA, NEW YORK
Spring 1977 was another peak for the Dead, and many fans consider this show to be the best they ever played.
In the mid-1980s, tapes of the Cornell show became highly sought after in the Deadhead taping community. The band for years had turned a blind eye to fans making bootleg tapes of their concerts. In 1984, they began to actively encourage it, setting aside a section for tapers at their shows.
David Letterman asked Garcia during a 1982 interview about the philosophy behind giving the music away. “When we’re done with it, they can have it,” Garcia said.
OCT. 16, 1989
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY
It was a rejuvenated Grateful Dead that took the stage at the Brendan Byrne Arena on this night — Weir’s 42nd birthday.
By the early 1980s, Garcia had become addicted to heroin and had put on weight. His bandmates, setting aside their strong inclination toward personal freedom, staged several interventions. They felt the music was suffering, and many fans agreed.
Garcia cleaned up in the mid ’80s, but he slipped into a diabetic coma in 1986 and nearly died. Once he recovered, the band recorded their first studio album in seven years. And “Touch of Grey” — a song they’d been playing in concert for five years — became an unexpected hit single in 1987. It was the band’s only Top 40 song.
The Dead were riding high for the rest of the decade. Brent Mydland had joined on keyboards in 1979 and added energy to a band of aging hippies. But he died of a drug overdose in July 1990.
The band quickly found a replacement in Vince Welnick, but the pressure of touring, the burden of increased fame and Garcia’s return to heroin use conspired to make the band’s last five years on the road largely forgettable.
JULY 9, 1995
SOLDIER FIELD, CHICAGO
You’d be hard pressed to find a Deadhead who thinks that this — the band’s final concert before Garcia’s death — was a good one.
Things had gone sour in the band’s world. Several gate-crashing incidents marred their summer tour, and some venues and cities were refusing to host the Dead.
Things weren’t much better on stage. Garcia was using again. He would forget not just lyrics but even what song he was playing. Kreutzmann claims that Garcia occasionally nodded off during concerts. “I’d hit my crash cymbals as hard as I could, just to wake him up,” the drummer wrote in his autobiography.
The band members have since admitted that by this point, they had stopped listening to each other while they were playing.
The Dead was scheduled to have a few months off after this show, and Garcia sought help. After a short stay at the Betty Ford Clinic, he checked himself into Serenity Knolls, a substance-abuse clinic in northern California, where he died of a heart attack on Aug. 9, 1995, at age 53.
A few months later, the surviving band members decided to retire the name Grateful Dead. The long strange trip was over.
Weir, Lesh, Hart and Kreutzmann have toured periodically in various formations in the 20 years since Garcia’s death. They have billed these five concerts in 2015 as the last they will perform together.