I’m late to the Grateful Dead party, but right on time to the July 5 live finale of the San Francisco band—or, rather, its surviving members plus guest musicians—which is being broadcast inside Brooklyn Bowl from Chicago’s Soldier Field on a screen above the stage. It’s anything but a happening, however. There are barely 200 tie-dyed folks sitting at highboys and picnic tables right where I assumed people would be grooving along. The Dead play dance music, but alas, there’s fried chicken to sell.
This static atmosphere changes slightly once the Dead launch into opener “China Cat Sunflower” and a dozen folks get up to get down. It’s a start. While things slowly build, I listen closely to see how Trey Anastasio, the Phish lead guitarist essentially standing in for Jerry Garcia, is faring. I’m not expecting him to substitute nor mimic the late Dead steward, but for 20 minutes, he dispenses fluid lines and sharp notes, and when the tune ends in applause from the Vegas crowd, it feels like some of it’s directed toward him. Also, when he sings the “gonna miss me when I’m gone” during “I Know You Rider,” it’s an early indication that a thematic current will flow through the setlist.
As “Estimated Prophet” funks along and “Samson and Delilah” rollicks through, more dancers emerge and it starts to feel a little more like an actual gig, even though the band’s not on the stage before us. The musicians might as well be during “Throwing Stones,” its build and release leaving most of us shaking our heads in amazement. After that song and set one ends, some onlookers hug. It’s time for intermission, some half-off appetizers and a quick chat with KUNV DJ George Lyons, who praises the show thus far but emphatically reminds me, “This isn’t remotely the Grateful Dead.” Translation: Jerry’s still dead.
When set two starts, “Truckin’” gets a huge response, though not as loud as when Bob Weir sings the song’s iconic (and circumstantially resonant) line: “What a long, strange trip it’s been!” Some 50 dancers now fill the small dancing space and the pathways between the tables. One dude kicks off his flip-flops. Now we have a happening … until “Drums”/“Space,” a bathroom break for most, but a revelation for me. I close my eyes and imagine percussionist Mickey Hart moving on to collaborate with any of my favorite modern sound-shapers: J. Spaceman, Kamasi Washington, Daniel Lopatin, Flying Lotus.
After a mellow song suite, the (still-growing) crowd erupts at the first few notes of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” singing “You know our love will not fade away” well after the song’s end. “Touch of Grey” gets everyone in the room on their feet (finally!) including myself—though I remain reflective as I recall how that song’s video introduced me to the Dead. I wonder: What kept me from becoming a fan? Probably being 11 and unable to fully appreciate its chorus—“I will get by, I will survive”—or the Dead itself until I was 39. But I’m Grateful it finally happened, as I am for the chance to have joined the Deadheads’ moment of milestone jubilation.