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Grateful Dead in Santa Clara, Night 1: A rainbow of bliss

Yes, that was a rainbow that rose over the Grateful Dead's gig in Santa Clara, Calif., on Saturday

On Saturday night in Santa Clara, Calif., the Grateful Dead opened the first of a series of farewell concerts with one of the band’s most recognizable songs, “Truckin.” To a capacity crowd of Deadheads giddy to find themselves once again before the altar of their favorite musicians, the band that helped define the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene -- and hippy culture in general -- returned to celebrate a certain American ideal. 

Within a few choice minutes, a whole football stadium was singing about “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” 

Yep. Fifty year’s worth of trips, all coming to a grand conclusion on Saturday and Sunday in Silicon Valley, followed by three closing gigs at Soldier Field in Chicago. 

We’ll have a full review of Night 1 in the hours to come, but for now, here are five snapshots from a blissful night under the stars. 

1. Levi’s Stadium is a glistening new multimillion-dollar facility in Silicon Valley with high-class concessions and an overall comfort level a few notches up from Max Yasgur’s Woodstock farm. For their part, Deadheads aren’t known for their cleanliness. Those two competing truths made for a disconnect that fans noted from the start. “I’m surprised they even let people like us in here,” commented one man, awestruck at the facilities. Posh and high-tech, it certainly didn’t feel like a place Jerry Garcia would have vibed with; it’s not bluegrass enough. 

2. Yes, that was a rainbow arcing across the sky as the band wound down the first of two sets. It rose during “Viola Lee Blues,” the band’s early cover of a classic blues song. One of three songs it played from “The Grateful Dead,” its 1967 debut album, the song’s conjuring of a rainbow seemed like a blessing from Garcia himself -- though, according to Billboard, the Dead paid for the effect. 

3. Garcia died in 1995, so this wasn’t a “real” Dead show. Fine. The so-called core four -- Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart -- carried the torch, and were as well-practiced, fluid and masterful as ever. Filling in on lead guitar was Phish’s Trey Anastasio, who was the perfect foil. Add in pianist Bruce Hornsby and keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, and the result was a Grateful Dead performance as nuanced, meandering, inventive, sonically deep and, at times, way, way out there, as ever. With so many delicate hands working instruments with grace and deft touch, the band seemed to connect not only instrumentally, but at times astrally. 

4. Did somebody say way, way out there? They played “Dark Star.” On the first night, they played one of the jewels in their catalog, and did so with a typically immersive meditation. A song powered by bassist Lesh’s rumbling lines, “Dark Star” on Saturday was its own platform, one that the  players explored over the course of 15 or 20 minutes. 

5. If you’re going on Sunday or hitting the Chicago shows over Independence Day weekend, get there early and celebrate on the band’s so-called Shakedown Street. The open-air market, which for decades sprang up in the parking lots that doubled as campgrounds at Dead shows, was a joyful experience. In every direction, longtime fans were reuniting after years apart. Hugs and screams of recognition were everywhere. It felt, to many, like a return. 

Full review to come. 

Twitter: @liledit

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