The Grateful Dead will play their final shows, dubbed "Fare Thee Well," at Soldier Field over the July Fourth weekend. The shows mark the band's 50th year anniversary and 20 years since the death of frontman and principal songwriter Jerry Garcia. Garcia played his final show with the Grateful Dead at Soldier Field on July 9, 1995. We discuss the upcoming event and the iconic band’s legacy with Greg Kot, music critic for The Chicago Tribune.
A Condensed History of the Grateful Dead
It truly has been one long, strange trip. The Grateful Dead have been entertaining audiences for 50 years now. They’re considered a groundbreaking act within the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history.
Formed in 1965, the band quickly gained traction playing all over the San Francisco music scene. They were the house band for the Acid Tests, a series of LSD-fueled parties organized by author Ken Kesey and chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
The band thrived in the psychedelic atmosphere of the mid-to-late 1960s. One of the Dead’s first major shows was the Mantra-Rock Dance in 1967, an event put on by the San Francisco Hare Krishna temple at the Avalon Ballroom. Other performers included Janis Joplin, Moby Grape, and the poet Allen Ginsberg. The band’s first album, The Grateful Dead, was released later that year by Warner Bros. Records.
The original members at this time were lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia, guitarist Bob Weir, keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummer Bill Kreutzmann. Garcia, Weir, and McKernan shared most of the vocal duties. After a gig at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967, Mickey Hart joined the group as its second drummer and percussionist.
Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann, and Hart will perform as the Dead’s original members this July Fourth weekend at Soldier Field.
While the group’s self-titled debut album was not well received, 1968’s Anthem of the Sun did a better job of capturing the group’s onstage magic. The songs were longer, with free-flowing improvisational jams that spiraled through multiple themes.
This penchant for musical tangents became a trademark for the band. It was evident on Aoxomoxoa in 1969, the first album to feature lyrical contributions from Robert Hunter. Hunter would form a longtime songwriting partnership with Jerry Garcia, penning the lyrics to some of the band’s most famous tunes, like “Truckin’,” “Casey Jones,” and “Sugar Magnolia.” When the Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Hunter became the first non-performer to receive such an honor.
While the band had developed a cult following by 1969, their extensive use of studio time had plunged them into more than $100,000 worth of debt with Warner Bros. Records. Later that year, the band’s first live album was released. Live/Dead was a vivid representation of the Dead’s concert experience. “Dark Star,” a crowd favorite, opened the album and clocked in at well over 20 minutes.
1970 was a pivotal year for the band. Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, two albums considered classics, were released within four months of each other. With FM radio-favorites like “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” and “Truckin’,” these albums signified an apex in popularity for the band. Listeners were introduced to the Dead’s relaxed acoustic style.
With this fresh taste of commercial success, the group released two more live recordings, 1971’s double album The Grateful Dead and the 1972 triple album Europe ’72. It was clear that the band felt most comfortable on stage, where they showcased their long, impromptu jams. Europe ’72 would be the last album to feature keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. He died of liver failure in 1973. Keith Godcheaux joined the band on keyboards, injecting a jazzy influence into their sound.
After fulfilling their contractual obligations with Warner Bros. Records, the band released Wake of the Flood in 1973 under their own label, Grateful Dead Records. Wake of the Flood was a commercial success, cracking the Billboard Pop Albums Chart at 18.
Following 1974’s From the Mars Hotel, the Dead took a hiatus from touring so members could pursue solo projects. After resuming life on the road in 1976, they released four more albums in the 1970s. These works received mixed reviews from fans, with some complaining the productions were overly polished and misguided.
The 1980s were a difficult time for the Dead. Frontman Jerry Garcia struggled with heroin addiction and the band would not release another album for six years after 1981’s Dead Set. Garcia slipped into a diabetic coma for several days in July 1986. The following year, however, would see the release of the group’s best-selling album ever, In the Dark. They scored their only top-10 chart single with “Touch of Grey.”
Bolstered by this chart-topping success and an initial improvement in Garcia’s health, the band continued to tour throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. They’d suffer a major blow in 1992 when Garcia was hospitalized for diabetic complications and an enlarged heart. Although he recovered and returned to touring with the band, Garcia played his final show with the Dead on July 9, 1995 at Soldier Field. He would die from a heart attack the following month.
The Grateful Dead will reunite at Soldier Field to play their final shows this July 3-5. Joining original members Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann, and Hart will be guitarist Trey Anastasio of the band Phish, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and pianist Bruce Hornsby.
View tweets of decorated envelopes of mail-in ticket requests.