It was July 9th 1995 at Soldier Field in Chicago, a Grateful Dead concert. The second of two sold out shows with over 60,000 in attendance each night. It was the end of that summer’s concert run for the Dead and the whole tour had been plagued by troubles – too many kids wanting to see the band, too few tickets, tension between the oldsters and the youngsters and very often too much too fast for way too many. The whole scene was truly turning weird. The draw for these shows though for me was simply too strong and the chance to see family back in the Chicago-land area to good to pass up, so I snapped up tickets the minute the went on sale through Grateful Dead mail order, a service available to the truly faithful. They were reserved floor seats, now mind you the shows were in a football stadium so I guess “good seats” was rather relative.
I had come from Denver without my partner David for the shows but did take Brian my blind bother to the second show. David was not well and stayed back home. I would have been able a few years prior to get him to two shows of a run without much cajoling, getting him to see four in a row though never happened.
These were the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic with protease inhibitors still a year or so away from general availability and use. The deaths did seem to have slowed down mostly because the most affected generation had already been decimated; many of those infected in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s were already gone.
I remember little about the first show on the 8th except that the band was not at their best for sure. Garcia in particular looked bloated, tired and at times almost listless. But you know congestive heart failure, a rather significant heroin addiction and uncontrolled diabetes tends to take the wind out of your sails.
There are several memories though about the shows I recall. One was the hassle of finding parking which for both shows was available only it seemed in public lots south of the stadium in a quite dicey neighborhood. The long walk back to the car the second night in particular was quite a trip in its own, a mugging I am sure was averted thanks in part due to having a blind guy with a cane on my arm. I have always been thankful for Brian coming to that show with me. Also there was a great fireworks display after the second show and the several big screens set up for the folks in the back made the show a bit more accessible.
The music or rather the musicianship both nights was quite forgettable. My LSD days were many years behind me so if the band didn’t come though at any particular show it could be a bust but more often than not the crowd would provide me with endless entertainment. Most of the time though the band would come through for at least one good or even great set, if not both.
That night there was in fact only one song that stuck with me and that was the version of So Many Roads in the second set. It was a relatively new song having only been in the rotation since 1992 and I had heard it only once before that I could recall. It was one of a long line of soulful ballads that were almost always Garcia tunes and played usually middle to late in the second set. The thought that this would be the last time the Grateful Dead would perform with Garcia never of course entered my mind.
Despite people’s impressions, who are unfamiliar with the Dead, they were, Garcia especially, remarkably good at a soulful ballad that at times I suppose might described by some as a dirge. And the Dead were sensitive to play these longer and slower tunes later in the second set when the drugs had perhaps peaked even though they often ended their shows with a rousing couple of numbers. The encores were again often slow tunes to take the edge off before sending the masses into the night in a mellow frame of mind and almost always a single tune. They did a very rare second encore song that night, an old gem called “A Box of Rain. “
At the risk of loosing my Deadhead card I must say I don’t remember that either. Sorry folks it was the gut wrenching beauty of So Many Roads that has stuck with me for nearly twenty years now. I distinctly remember turning to Brian after that song and saying “well that was worth the fucking price of admission”. I am not sure he agreed. He had quite few beers that night and taking a blind guy to the port-a-potties at a Grateful Dead show is another whole story.
I do remember leaving the show singing to myself the chorus to So Many Roads. We made it back to the car safe and sound with only one stoned Deadhead tripping on my brother’s cane. The crowd was in general very sensitive to him and his needs as I swear only Deadheads could be.
A month later Jerry was dead from a cardiac arrest in the middle of the night at a rehab center in Marin County. That I had been to the last two shows was hard to comprehend. This was of course devastating to me and I will always remember David’s loving call to me at work about Garcia’s death to make sure I was doing OK. The much bigger blow though was to come with David’s death another month later.
So many roads indeed.