Grateful Dead's Fare Thee Well: Did Trey Anastasio Deliver?

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Photo by Jay Blakesberg

June 28, Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, California—The controversy leading up to “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead” was, of course, all about the lead guitar player. Who could possibly play the iconic position of psychedelic rock pioneer Jerry Garcia to bring the Dead back to life one last time?

When the four original members—Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir—announced that they would play one last run of shows together including a pair on their home turf at Levi’s Stadium in the South San Francisco Bay, and three shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field over Independence Day Weekend, there was little fuss over the choice to have Jeff Chimenti and Bruce Hornsby cover keyboard parts mostly created by another deceased Dead founder—Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. But there was a lot of debate about whether Phish’s Trey Anastasio would do justice to Jerry, the band, and the fans.

Many thought that players such as Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Kadlecik, or others who had spent time filling Garcia’s shoes in various touring legacy incarnations were more deserving, or better players for the music. The arguments for Anastasio were different. As the leader of the most successful jamband since the Grateful Dead, he had a certain gravitas—and box office draw—that others didn’t. And although he had some history playing with original Dead members, he was reportedly a more neutral choice—less baggage.

Ultimately Anastasio got the gig, and he clearly took it very seriously. He learned an ungodly amount of music. He studied Garcia’s tendencies, and probably learned a whole lot about his own in the process. He worked on his tone, his phrasing, and his ability to blend with another ensemble. He must have done all those things in order to pull off what he did.

Anastasio and the band sounded a bit reserved at the outset—like they were feeling their way through Sunday night’s opener, “Feel Like a Stranger.” But Anastasio actually sounded very Jerry. He played a familiar Languedoc guitar, but he was using an envelope filter, his tone was thinner than normal, and he played a lot of descending chromatic pull-offs that are so signature to Garcia’s style. Anastasio eschewed more overdriven, sustaining tones, and played fewer arpeggios than he does in Phish. It took a few tunes before the show’s signature moment.

Anastasio sang lead on “Alabama Getaway,” and it seemed to help him become comfortable and more confident all the way around. He played more, but still not too much. Anastasio and Weir offered up interesting guitar interplay on “Black Peter,” with Weir cutting into a few bottleneck licks on the fingerboard of a Gibson semi-hollowbody wearing a metal slide on his pinky. Weir donned a Strat-style guitar and copped an almost transparent tone on the tune that would cap the first set, and set the stage for the rest of the night.

On “Hell in a Bucket” Anastasio found the perfect blend of his own style and homage to Garcia. If there’s one thing Anastasio excels at, it’s taking a tune to increasingly energetic levels with every pass of a solo progression. He was riding high on the “Bucket” solo when bassist Lesh tried to cue him out of it. Anastasio missed the cue, Lesh erupted in laughter, and Anastasio took to the heavens. It seemed to loosen up and energize the whole band like a basketball team when a player hits a shot at the buzzer right before halftime.

Highlights of the second set included an jazzy take on “Eyes of the World,” an impassioned performance of “I Need a Miracle,” and an absolutely contagious take on “Sugar Magnolia” that had everyone screaming along including former NBA star Bill Walton—who was thankfully standing a couple rows behind me.

Did Anastasio deliver? He did very well, but probably not as well as he will do in Chicago. That last date will surely be a doozy. He might not win over every Garcia lover or Phish hater, but anyone who listens objectively will have to give Anastasio credit for doing his best to do everyone involved justice. The band seemed very happy with him, and, somewhere, Garcia probably is too.

Tapers can experience the whole show's audio here...

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