For three days in July, the jam band world converged in Chicago, Ill., chosen specifically because it was between the two coasts—where the majority of the Grateful Dead’s fan base resides. Now, after tapes of the performances have been circulating for months, the band is releasing Fare Thee Well (The Best Of), a two-disc set compiling the 16 best—or at least best flowing—performances from the three-night run.
With nearly nine hours of material to choose from across the group’s six sets, done without repeats, just as the original band would have intended, the group made some inspired choices to compile this “best of” set as well as some that fell flat.
Celebrating their 50th anniversary, the group dusted off the Grateful Dead name that had lain dormant since the passing of lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995, one month after the band’s final performance at Soldier Field. That’s not to say the group hasn’t existed in some shape or form, using the monikers The Other Ones, Furthur and The Dead in addition to each surviving member keeping the music alive with their own bands.
The “core four” as they’ve come to be known as—drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, bassist Phil Lesh and guitarist Bob Weir—joined Phish front man Trey Anastasio, pianist Bruce Hornsby and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. They played a quintet of shows—two in Santa Clara, Calif., and these three at Soldier Field to play their final shows ever.
The two-disc set opens with “Box of Rain,” off the band’s 1970 release American Beauty and sung by bassist Phil Lesh. Consequently, it was the final song ever performed during their 1995 run, which featured a somber Lesh singing to his dying friend Garcia. While sentimentality means a lot on stage and in the audience, Lesh’s grating vocals are particularly jarring when listening at home.
Anastasio wasn’t given many chances to sing, but took full advantage of the classic Garcia tune, “China Cat Sunflower,” which also gave Anastasio a chance to display the guitar tone he’s made famous with his own band, Phish.
The band kept many of their classic transitions, leading from “China Cat” to the traditional “I Know You Rider,” from “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain” and others.
While some of Anastasio’s singing was good—his take on “Althea” was particularly notable—sometimes it seemed as if he was pressing a bit, unsure of whether to keep his own voice or fall back onto mimicry of Garcia. He fell more toward the latter on the bluesy romp “Bertha,” unlike the last public time he performed the tune with Phil Lesh and Friends in 1999.
In true Grateful Dead fashion, any live performance wouldn’t be complete without a minor train wreck yet, somehow, even in a “best of” compilation, the group’s disjointed take on “Cumberland Blues” made the cut.
As a fan of exploratory jams, I was a tad disappointed no truly exploratory improvisational sequences made the cut—a mammoth “Dark Star” was performed in Santa Clara, but not Chicago. The group also neglected to include the excellent take on “Throwin’ Stones.”