What a long, strange trip it’s been. Since their first show at a suburban Bay Area pizza joint in 1965, the Grateful Dead have performed thousands of shows, pioneered multiple genres, and spawned a subculture. This July, that will all come to an end. On Friday, the four living original members—guitarist and singer Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann—announced three final reunion shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field. They’ll be joined by longtime keyboard collaborators Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti, as well as Phish frontman and noted Dead torchbearer Trey Anastasio.
“It is with respect and gratitude that we reconvene the Dead one last time to celebrate,” Lesh told Billboard. “Not merely the band’s legacy, but also the community that we’ve been playing to, and with, for 50 years.”
Soldier Field holds special significance for the band and their fans alike. The 55,000-seat capacity venue was where iconic frontman Jerry Garcia performed his last show with the band on July 9, 1995, less than a month before his death. Since then, members of the Grateful Dead have united under various monikers—the Dead, Furthur, RatDog, Phil Lesh and Friends—but promoters are billing the upcoming Chicago shows as “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead.”
“We had to sort through a number of options,” Weir said. “Were we going to do a festival-style event or go back to our classic mode of an evening with the band? We narrowed it down to: Let’s just do it simple and clean.”
That could explain why the band didn’t reunite at a major festival like Coachella or Bonnaroo, the latter of which allegedly offered $3 million for a headlining set. Another explanation: Some predict the shows could inject as much as $50 million into Chicago’s economy.
Anastasio, who saw his first Dead show when he was 16, is predictably psyched. “Jerry Garcia was a great American master and the Grateful Dead are not just a genuine piece of musical history, but also an important part of American history,” he said. “This is a band, born right at the beginning of electric rock, that took the American tradition and moved it forward. They really embodied the American concept of freedom, rolling around the country with a ginormous gang of people and the mindset that ‘you can come if you want, you can leave if you want. We don’t know what’s going to happen. All we know is we’re not looking back.’ What could be more American?”
This isn’t necessarily the end for the band’s members, though. “I know we’ll all continue playing this music forever in our own ways,” Weir said. “I’ve got some miles left in me.”
Here’s the certifiably hippie video of the band playing their classic tandem of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” at a 1972 Oregon show: