It began Friday as it ended in 1995, with one of the most beautiful songs in the Grateful Dead canon. "Box of Rain" was the final song performed by the band when it last played Soldier Field in 1995, and it was the opener in the Dead's three-night sold-out return to the stadium to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
The tender goodbye to a dying father also nodded to the Dead's legac before a record Soldier Field concert crowd of 70,764 "This is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago," bassist Phil Lesh sang. It was a heck of a dream, but it ended in '95 when the band's benevolent visionary Jerry Garcia died only a few weeks after the two Soldier Field concerts wrapped up the band's summer tour.
Without Garcia, this couldn't be the Grateful Dead anymore, no matter what the ticket stub says. Instead, this was – at best -- a Grateful Dead tribute show, a celebration of a remarkable legacy that reunited Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart from the '60s lineup.
For this weekend's shows, which the band has said will be its last, the core four brought in Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti to fill out the lineup. But despite the formidable chops of the newcomers, the show developed little pace, with slack arrangements and some deep cuts that felt indulgent rather than revelatory.
In its prime, the Dead developed the type of chemistry that, unlike the Owsley Stanley LSD tabs that fueled many of the band's early shows, could not be manufactured or mass-produced. It evolved over three decades and 2,000 shows. Introduce new or relatively new characters to the cast -- even ones as accomplished as Anastasio and Hornsby, who played with the band in the early '90s -- and a new chemistry must be created, and that's something that can't happen over a couple of shows or a few weeks of rehearsals.
The Soldier Field shows stood in the shadow of an imposing legacy. The Dead rarely played a song the same way twice. They were not a greatest hits band but a group of genre-blending improvisers who were a genre unto themselves.
Garcia was a longtime fan and occasional collaborator with the late jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, whose theory of harmolodics was reflected in the Dead's democratic approach to jamming. The Dead weren't just a rotating cast of soloists backed by a rhythm section but a true ensemble without a hierarchy between rhythm and melody. As Coleman said of his jazz groups: "I don't want them to follow me. I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me."
The Dead similarly embraced this concept: Their music celebrated individual expression yet also demonstrated that individuals can still find unison, can still work together. It's one of the reasons the Dead were among the most unique bands in rock history, and that's worth one final party. But as much as this show tried to evoke the old days with its '70s-centric set list accompanied by decades-old images and video on the big screens, the old days aren't coming back.
Top tickets for the Grateful Dead's '95 Soldier Field shows were $33.50. The most expensive seats 20 years later were going for $199.50, and many times more on the secondary market. The tapers section that allowed fans to record performances on portable equipment has shrunk considerably, nudged aside by a series of simulcasts and licensing deals, with DVDs, Blu-ray discs and live albums of the final shows already available for pre-order. And, of course, there was no Garcia.
For the Record
July 6, 3:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this review said all of the band’s full-time keyboardists since the 1960s have died. Tom Constanten, a keyboardist with the band in the late ’60s and early ’70s, is alive.
There is essentially a new band playing the Dead's songs. Anastasio's enthusiasm for the job was evident, from the look of wide-eyed wonder on his face in mid-solo or the smile that he couldn't contain when he saw the fans respond to a classic such as "Jack Straw."
But the guitarist often appeared to be walking on musical eggshells, careful to defer to Weir and Lesh on the front line. Weir recognized that Anastasio was feeling it during "Scarlet Begonias," and commanded a second solo round that was well-deserved and well-received. If anything Anastasio should play a bigger role as an instrumentalist, as he channeled Garcia's sparkling tone on single-note runs without slavishly imitating the master. But Anastasio tended to shout his vocals, perhaps to fight through a muddy mix that also made the everyman voices of Weir and especially Lesh sound even more ordinary.
Everymen, indeed. Part of the band's enduring appeal is that the musicians never presented themselves as rock stars. They began each set Friday as if rolling off the living room couch after an afternoon nap and took their time finding their balance. It made the band members appear craggy, frayed and ageless even when they were young acid freaks defining West Coast psychedelia and the new counterculture decades ago. They could've used a boost from Hornsby's vocals, but the pianist was even more underused than Anastasio. His reggae-tinged vocal on "Fire on the Mountain" was a nice change of pace, but otherwise he was barely audible in the mix.
It didn't help that deep cuts "Mason's Children" and "New Potato Caboose" came off as ungainly. A long free-flowing instrumental section went nowhere after the promising start of "Playing in the Band." Only Weir's fiery preacher invocations on "The Music Never Stopped" found the septet in complete sync. Lesh broke into an appreciative laugh while wedging his six-string bass between the jousting guitars of Anastasio and Weir. But after bringing the first set to a rousing close, the band took an hour-long intermission and the moment was lost.
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.