Grateful Dead end long, strange trip in Chicago

Story highlights

  • Band chooses Chicago on the Fourth of July weekend to "go out on top" with three shows
  • The band says its "Fare Thee Well" event will be the last time the four founding members will perform together

Chicago (CNN)"You know our love will not fade away."

The chants and claps from Buddy Holly's classic song, one of the last the Grateful Dead say they will ever play with one another, echoed through the Soldier Field tunnels as a nation of Deadheads sang goodbye.
The Grateful Dead have always been notorious for blowing a few of their biggest concerts, and they will be the first to admit that they have played sub-par sets throughout their career, most famously flubbing a set at Woodstock during a thunderstorm, as well as their 1973 show with the Allman Brothers at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway in New York.
    "We found plenty of adventure in our music, maybe at times too much," Bob Weir, the band's rhythm guitarist and singer admitted to CNN. "Every night has its own challenges."
    Weir, who founded the beloved band in the San Francisco Bay area with Jerry Garcia, (guitar) Phil Lesh (bass), Mickey Hart (drums), Billy Kreutzmann (drums), and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (organist, harmonica player and singer who died in 1973), celebrated their 50th anniversary over the holiday weekend with three historic concerts at Chicago's Soldier Field, the same place the band played its most recent show on July 9, 1995, about a month before Jerry Garcia died.
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    "Jerry was way more than just a musician," Kreutzmann told CNN. "He was a total humanitarian. I do miss him. But it's not in sadness that I miss him. I miss his energy. I miss his love of life. I miss the way that he communicated with people very succinctly, very clearly. And his musicianship goes without saying. It was incredible."
    "Fare Thee Well," named after lyrics from the song "Brokedown Palace" on 1970's "American Beauty" album, will be the last time the four founding members will perform together, according to the band.
    "Playing the 50th year is more than overwhelming. These are the biggest gigs we have ever done. We have never played shows like this before," Kreutzmann told CNN. "I was amazed by that because basically the Grateful Dead hasn't been doing anything since 2009."

    'The great American songbook'

    Bringing in Trey Anastasio to play lead guitar and carry the torch on some of Garcia's songs was described as "a dream come true" by various fans throughout the weekend. Rounding out the band was pianist and singer Bruce Hornsby, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who has collaborated with the band over the last decade.
    "It's the great American songbook," Pete Shapiro co-producer of Fare Thee Well, told CNN about why Chicago was chosen on Fourth of July weekend for the band to "go out on top."
    "There's a little bit of jazz, a little bit of Southern rock, little bit of bluegrass, little bit of folk, psychedelic rock, country. Little bit of blues. They do so many different things."
    The five concerts, which kicked off with two shows at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, last weekend, were filled with many memorable moments that fans will be talking about for years. Perhaps nothing was more poignant than a rainbow appearing at the end of the first set at the first California show, a moment that Shapiro described as "Jerry blessing the place."
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    After the music ended, Kreutzmann told the audience that he believed the rainbow was also connected to the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
    "Nobody thought it was real because it was so perfect," Shapiro told CNN.
    Another surprise came on Independence Day, as the top of New York City's Empire State Building was transformed into a giant light show, synchronized live as the Dead played their "U.S. Blues" encore.

    Performing under pressure

    Deadheads are notorious for having opinions about every nuanced detail of their beloved band, so naturally the Fare Thee Well event was scrutinized meticulously since it was announced last January. Criticism ranged from passionate opinions about how the music should be honored, to more harsh feelings that the event was just a big "money grab." Giordano's pizza boxes on display near the stadium entrances didn't help complaints that the event felt "too commercial."
    "It's just because people love it so much," Shapiro told CNN, not surprised about the intense scrutiny and pressure he has faced.
    On the eve of the first Chicago show, Shapiro compared the event to the Super Bowl, where fans only remember the game and not all the hype. "I think they are gonna nail it! We're gonna pound them," he exclaimed.
    More than 70,000 fans attended each night, breaking the Soldier Field attendance record previously set in 2009 during U2's 360 tour. The event was also simulcast in movie theaters and music venues across the United States, as well as available on pay-per-view and online.
    "I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams what a long strange trip this would be," Lesh told a sea of Deadheads. "God bless Terrapin Nation!"

    'Excited and happy and sad'

    To say goodbye after "Not Fade Away," the band played its hit "Touch of Grey," followed by an acoustic version of "Attics of My life," which featured the audience cheering as photo tributes of all the current and former band members were broadcast on screens.
    "I'm excited and sad, and excited and happy and sad," is how Amy, a 33-year old from Massachusetts, described her feelings during the last concert, a sentiment shared by many.
    "There will be some sadness. Some lamenting that was the last show," Kreutzmann told CNN. "And because the band will probably play really well that night, I will be elated because the playing was good."
    And before the chants of "Not Fade Away" carried out of the stadium into the Windy City streets, The Grateful Dead's career ended with these words of encouragement by Hart.
    "This feeling you have here. Take it home and do something good with this," he said. "I leave you with this: Be kind."