Grateful Dead's long, strange trip to end in Chicago

Grateful Dead marks 50 years with concerts in Chicago
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Story highlights

  • Grateful Dead celebrates 50th anniversary with three concerts in Chicago
  • Legendary band says it will be the last time 4 founding members perform together

Chicago (CNN)The legendary Grateful Dead is celebrating its 50th anniversary this Fourth of July weekend with three concerts at Chicago's Soldier Field, the same place the band played its last show 20 years ago, shortly before Jerry Garcia died.

Billed as "Fare Thee Well," named after lyrics from their early 1970s song "Brokedown Palace," the concerts will be the last time the four founding members will perform together, the band says.
Rounding out the group is guitarist and singer Trey Anastasio of the popular band Phish, keyboardist and singer Bruce Hornsby, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who has collaborated with the band over the last decade. They also performed two shows last weekend at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, close to their San Francisco roots, where the group was born 50 years ago during the 1960s counter-culture.
    The first time I saw the Grateful Dead was in 1992, the summer before I started college. It was insane for me to see Soldier Field, the place I grew up watching so many Chicago Bears games, be transformed into a raging party.
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    "Deadheads" of all ages descended on my hometown to dance, sing, and celebrate life. I was fascinated with how a weird band from the '60s could connect with a stadium packed with so many different types of people.
    Like so many lifelong Dead fans, I became hooked during the whole experience of going to my first show. But when the party was over and I started exploring the band's full catalog of records and their famous concert "tapes," I became obsessed. Here are a few reasons why:
    • The great songwriting and vocals on songs like "Brokedown Palace" and "Ripple" from their 1970 Americana-soaked American Beauty album.
    • Their amazing musicianship and improvisation on tracks such as "Eyes of The World," with sax guru Branford Marsalis on the 1990 "Without a Net" live album.
    • Their adventure-packed spacey impromptu jams like "St. Stephen" and "Dark Star" from their earlier years.
    • The electric feeling that takes over the crowd when the band plays "Shakedown Street," "Scarlet Begonias/Fire on the Mountain," "China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider," "Jack Straw" or "Brown Eyed Women" -- just to name a few of so many of their great songs they could bust out on any given night.
    As a young producer with CNN in 2002, I jumped at the chance to mix in a little fun music coverage with all the hard news stories, and with that came various opportunities of a lifetime to interview the four men who founded the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia -- Bob Weir (rhythm guitar/vocals), Phil Lesh (bass), Mickey Hart (drums), and Billy Kreutzmann (drums).
    So without any more rambling, here are some of my favorite quotes from those intimate conversations that touched on the Grateful Dead's legacy, capturing the magic all those years, and what makes their music so unique and special.

    Weir and Lesh in 2002: What it's like when the band is 'on'

    "It's an eternal moment, it's a timeless place," Weir said. "We've been there on many different nights, but it's the same moment. When your body becomes electric, and all the other stuff you bring to the party is sort of left behind because you are there in the moment and time drops away, space drops away, you sort of ascend to another place. And those moments have occurred. We've reached that moment on any number of nights, quite a few nights. But it's that one place, that's the moment."
    "It's when the pipeline is open, and that eternal moment -- as he is describing -- which is where music really lives, is open to us and we become the vessel to which that passes, so in a way music is about bringing eternity to time," Lesh said.

    In 2006, Lesh elaborated on the feeling of being in 'the moment'

    "It's paradise. At that moment, I'm not really there. And no one is. We are the music, and our personalities as such really cease to exist at all. We've been subsumed into the greater personality of the group mind, that's what's been created. That's what's created when we are creatively improvising, and the flow is really happening. When we are actually channeling, we are opening that pipeline to another reality that speaks to us. And we are acting as transformers, and we have to step that down into musical thought. But this is not something you can do consciously, learn how to do or be taught. It's just something that happens to you when the stars are aligned properly and when your individual consciousness is open enough."

    Weir in 2002 on what it was like when they started playing together in the '60s

    "With the Pranksters, and with the Acid Test, we learned so much about sort of living in each others' heads, hearts, and bodies, and sharing music. Our concept of what constitutes music expanded greatly at that time. It comes from the disorientation that you have when you take LSD. You start piecing the world back together, and your realize, well I'm here to make music, whatever that is. (long pause) You know, it's hard for me to explain. Let me start over," he says, taking off the microphone and declaring the interview over.

    Kreutzmann and Hart, aka the Rhythm Devils, look back at the doubters early on

    "When I first got into this, I never thought about making money, that was the farthest thing from my mind," Kreutzmann said in 2003. "The only thing I cared about was having my drums close by and having people to play with when I was a teenager."
    "And chicks," Hart interjected.
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    "Yeah, sometimes chicks, yeah," Kreutzmann continued. "My dad picked me up from my first rehearsal, my eyes were wide and he said, 'Bill, what's going on, you look so happy?' I just played music! He looked down at me in a very serious father voice and he said, 'You will never earn money at this.'"
    Said Hart: "Bill Graham (a famous promoter), one time he was standing next to me and he said, 'Are you going to be doing this when you are 27?' He said, 'This band won't do anything. It's got no hooks. You can't even whistle these tunes!"

    The new generation of Deadheads since Garcia died

    "It's the same crowd, they are the same people," Weir said in 2002. "It may be a new generation basically, but it's the same person, the same kind of person. They like a little adventure in their lives, and they want to hear adventure in their music. And we are more than happy to provide that for them. And then they provide us a lot of energy to work off. "
    "I like to say that it's the community that really generates this music, and we are just there on the receiving end to tap into the pipeline and feed it back to them, maybe at a higher level," Lesh said the same year. "So we get it from them, and we give it back to them. "
    In 2003, Hart explained, "First you have to connect with yourself and your brothers and sisters on the stage. Once you do that, and get into it like that, then you give it to them, and then you perform this feedback loop and we all get high. That's what it's all about."
    "Most of these kids are too young to have seen the Dead in our earlier incarnation," Kreutzmann said in 2004. "It's a chance for us, you know, to dedicate ourselves to transporting them."

    Mickey Hart in 2012, reflecting on his life after Garcia's death

    "I think of this as the second set for me, the second part of my life after the Grateful Dead. I was thinking about the universe, where it all began, where the beat came from, where did we get the groove? Where the brotherhood and the sisterhood, who did it, come from. Now, I can go visit the sun every night, and hear it and play with it and know that there is a whole other spectrum of sounds that we never even contacted. We never heard them until recently. Music creates a virtual space. You are creating another consciousness and a whole other architecture when you play music. That's the power of music."

    Lesh and Weir on influencing the next generation of rock 'n' roll musicians

    "The mainstream seems to be referencing '60s, '70s and '80s rock, rather than '30s, '40s, '50s blues and jazz and that sort of thing," Lesh said in 2006. "Our generation, the '60s 'jammers' let's say, our influences were people like Coltrane, and blues artists like Bobbie Bland, or Wilson Pickett or more of a roots-y thing. I think that young musicians today are more influenced by rock music. It's sort of narrowed down a little bit. That's not to say that it's not extremely expressive and diverse, but I don't sense a lot of roots involvement."
    A year later, Weir said: "We found plenty of adventure in our music, maybe, at times, too much. I guess a lot of folks found inspiration in that and I'm real glad that happened because I think music is more interesting that way. "

    In 2003, Weir talked about finding the magic

    "The song happens where the audience and musicians meet right out there somewhere. That's where the song happens, that's where the magic is made. And for the most part, people meet us there with bells on. We are looking to find that hole in the sky and pop through and take everybody with us."