By Matt Fuller, Special to The Chronicle
Editor’s Note: Matt and Nancy Fuller of Queensbury attended the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” final concerts in Chicago July 3-5. The Fullers are long-time “Deadheads” and fans of the band Phish. Matt, a Fort Edward native, is an attorney and partner at Meyer & Fuller in Lake George. Nancy, originally from Warrensburg, is a speech therapist at Shenendehowa High School. They also own Fountain Square Outfitters store in downtown Glens Falls.
That day, our final day on island and Nancy’s birthday, saw us come upon those once in a lifetime moments. Walking along the beach, we ran into Trey Anastasio and his lovely wife Susan enjoying the morning rays.
An introduction by a giddy long-time Phish fan (me) led to about an hour or so reveling in past shows from Maine to New Orleans and points between, and the great times we’ve had at Phish shows. Trey was the gracious host of our discussion, soaking up our stories (or being polite!) of true adventures with Phish and laughing at the debacles we have had along the way (the rains of the Great Went and Coventry come to mind).
Nancy and I were actually due to leave Tortola that afternoon so we parted with goodbyes and our heartfealt thank you’s for all of the good times Phish has doled out over the years. While standing in line for security, our friends Mike and Christi, who were staying behind for another week, called to tell us that after we left, Trey stopped down to offer us all the golden ticket: access to all three nights of Fare Thee Well. Now this was before California was announced, and before the Chicago shows were actually sold out.
True to his word, an email arrived from his contacts, tickets were secured, and another adventure was on.
Chicago embraced what they had been dealt: 71,000 ticket-carrying smiles, and from my impression at least that many if not two or three times that many were there for the scene and a miracle (a ticket).
The Hyatt hotel, decorated in Dead wares and music cranking in the lobby, provided us a free courtyard show — all weekend — by bluegrass Dead cover band “The Grass is Dead.” The scene proved funny at times for the few guests who must have booked, and checked in, not suspecting that Chicago was overrun with hippies for the weekend.
More than one Uber cab of unsuspecting tourists pulled up with the deer in the headlights “Where am I?” look.
Not to worry, they were welcome too.
The Hyatt held an all-out cookout for guests, crashers, friends of guests, and well, friends of crashers, which from the looks of things, was a very, very wise business decision. That place was a scene of its own for the weekend.
Friday afternoon found everyone getting settled in to the scene: getting a layout of Shakedown, where the good food was located, short-line restrooms, vendors, and staking out our place for the weekend. Our place was the left side/first aisle of Shakedown. Friday we wandered, and hit the show.
Out of the gate, Friday night brought out the debate: you were either in the “No place for Trey” camp; in the ‘Phishhead’ “I can’t believe our guy is playing lead for the Dead” camp; or the in-between “Hey, whatever, it’s the Dead and this is it. No rules” camp.
I don’t know about anybody else, but being a Phish fan at the core, there was an odd sense of happiness that Trey was provided an opportunity of a lifetime: lead the Dead to bring it on home. It is clear, at least to many of us, that Trey took this seriously and prepared for the spot.
Seats ‘Treyside,’ left of the stage
As for the debate, since the California shows the weekend before Chicago, the Phish-leaning crowd sounded off for more Trey. When the first set Thursday night rocketed into orbit, that request was granted. Trey was on and the show blasted off.
Our seats were simply unbelievable — one of those times where the usher is walking you down closer and closer, and you have to pinch yourself. We were “Treyside” (left), and we were closest to our guy, Trey.
The Dead opened with the last song of the 1995 Chicago Dead show (their last): “Box of Rain.” I heard that prediction often in the parking lot, but it didn’t stem the tears of die-hard Dead fans seated around us, and that wasn’t the first such song to generate that response. The first set also saw a great “Bertha” with Trey on lead, and a lot of great guitar rips that we followers of the Phish have come to love.
The play between Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Trey was great. It was like the legends egging on the fire-haired leader of the Phish tribe, and none of them disappointed. I cannot confirm, but I think on more than one occasion I saw Weir and Lesh, ready to bring a song in for a landing, look over at Trey to give the signal, only to find Trey refusing to look left. We loved it.
The crowd roared with every solo and exchange among the band and I think that only fueled the band to keep the jams going.
The second set brought on “Fire on the Mountain,” “Scarlet Begonias” and a song I hadn’t heard played before but one of my first-night favorites, “New Potato Caboose.”
Saturday found us all eagerly wondering “how can they top that?” The second night saw a much more cohesive Shakedown. Where Friday brought law enforcement shutting down grilled cheese vendors and pop up bartenders, Saturday brought on more tolerance, which seemed to cut down the crowd tension.
Heady Toppers for $20 a can
We actually saw a guy unsuccessfully trying to peddle Heady Toppers for $20 a can. Though legendary in the eastern New York/Vermont craft beer following, Toppers apparently weren’t famous enough to command $20 a can. As usual, the Shakedown food selection was great, and the bartenders aplenty.
All in all, Shakedown was as it should be: great fun with great friends along with the always-in-attendance cast of characters on their own journey, and there were some interesting characters, legendary Dead Head Bill Walton among them.
Saturday night’s show was one for the ages. It seemed like the group stepped off stage Friday night and right back on Saturday night as if the amps never even cooled down.
Pre-show rumors of set lists spun on Twitter/Facebook as one lucky Dead Head had the good fortune to stumble upon the afternoon sound check — rumored to last more than an hour — with cell phone in hand. He recorded it, which I listened to after, and it indeed would have foretold what was in store for the night.
Appropriate enough, Saturday night started with “Shakedown Street.” Emotion later ran high as the group pulled the heartstrings with “Standing on the Moon.”
For my money, the song of the night was Bobby Weir-led “Stella Blue.” He grabbed ahold of the song out of the gate and wouldn’t let go. Trey provided some great lead jams in Stella that upped the energy of what was a more jam-bluesy second set. “One more Saturday night” closed out the second set and a “U.S. Blues” encore brought the show to a close.
Sunday brought about a boat trip on a rented pontoon boat with our friend from Bolton Landing Clint Binley hosted by his Chicago friends, and our new friends. Chicago from the water was a fun and interesting time.
We weaved our way in and out of heavy boat traffic with a 15-foot pontoon boat with what appeared to be no more than a 10-horsepower motor. I think at one point we were passed by a kayaker.
After our river adventure, we hit Shakedown again. Sunday saw sun, 80-degree weather, and what seemed like a lightning bolt kind of energy in Shakedown. Everyone was keyed up from Friday and Saturday nights in a kind of “what can they possibly do tonight” frame of mind.
Bob Weir’s emotional finish
Hitting our seats for the last time, we glanced around the Stadium and took in the flow. When the first chords were struck for the first set of the last show, once again the band did not disappoint. If anyone missed the emotion and intensity in Bob Weir’s lead of “Throwing Stones,” they were not paying attention. I think he poured 50 years of emotion into that song, and everyone felt it.
The second intermission brought out our second night of fireworks. Trey led a fantastic “Althea” and the entire band took turns on a cool “Terrapin Station.” Hard to pick a highlight of the weekend, but the Bob/Trey exchanges during “Not Fade Away” only added to the energy of the second set. You could actually feel the Stadium shaking.
Even after the group parted the stage, the entire Stadium kept up a chilling “you know our love will not fade away” as the musicians one by one brought their respective instruments to a quiet and walked off one at a time. It was goosebump time. Everyone knew the ship was landing but no one there wanted to admit it.
Trey ‘bridged the gap’
For the encore, Bob Weir busted out a “Let Trey Sing” t-shirt, which since that night has turned into an Internet fundraiser for the Dead and Phish charities. Trey and Bruce Hornsby led the weekend landing with “Touch of Grey,” which like “Not Fade Away,” almost brought down the house.
“Attics of My Life,” led by Weir on guitar and Phil and Trey singing along without instruments, brought home 50 years of the Grateful Dead. Mickey Hart closed out the journey of the Grateful Dead with words of wisdom: Be Kind.
I think Clint had it best: “Maybe this weekend makes more Deadheads out of Phishheads, and more Phishheads out of Deadheads.”
Though some griped that bringing in Trey was a money grab, the hope on the scene was that it was more of the bridging of whatever gap there may or may not have been. Trey was up for the task, and one thing always trumps criticism: talent.
No one suspicious of the motives questioned Trey being there when we left Sunday evening. That gap had been bridged.
On the off chance he gets a copy and reads this: Thank you, Trey. Maybe we’ll catch up next year on island.
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