On Sunday night, hundreds of the countless fans unable to attend the Dead’s last-ever shows at Soldier Field in Chicago gathered at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Bowl to bid adieu to their favorite band. “Oh, I couldn’t afford it,” said Sarah, a huge Phish fan who lives in Hell’s Kitchen, when asked why she didn’t make it out to Chicago. (Trey Anastasio, Phish’s frontman, had filled in for the late Jerry Garcia over the course of the Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows.)
“I decided not to go without tickets in hand,” said Eric, from Brooklyn. “I’m 58, so that’s kind of weird, walking around the parking lot with your finger up, expecting somebody to help you out.” Eric mentioned he’s been to approximately 200 Grateful Dead shows since the Seventies, but he doesn’t appear to be overly emotional about tonight’s farewell. “I had breakfast at two, a small appetizer at five, so I’m really looking forward to the fried chicken for dinner in between sets, or maybe just during ‘Drums/Space.’ ”
By 8:30, the venue was nearly full to capacity as the audience watched the Grateful Dead (plus Anastasio) take the stage on a giant projector screen. Almost instantaneously, most of the things one would expect to see at a Grateful Dead concert — balloons, constant head-bobbing, plenty of tie-dye, a woman wildly waving her cane around as she danced on the main floor — were visible in the crowd.
A little more than an hour later, the band finished its first set. During the entirety of the hour-long intermission, the projector screens flashed a message that read: “Own the Complete Chicago Experience on CD, DVD, or Blu-ray!” while Gillian Welch played over the P.A. A young woman from out of town tapped the shoulder of a man standing next to her. “Who is going to play tonight?” she asked, pointing at the stage. After the man explained the situation, she responded, disappointed, “So no band is going to play?”
“I saw my first Dead show later than most people, on November 17, 1971, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the Civic Arena,” remembered Will, an older man from Long Beach with a long, white beard. Will said he’s been to precisely 3,820 concerts in his lifetime, 220 or so of them being Grateful Dead shows. “They’re not my favorite-favorite band, but they’re one of them,” he says, not quite believing this is their last show. “If the Stones can play for 50 years and keep touring, and the Beach Boys can keep going on as well, the Dead can certainly do the same.”
“I first saw the Dead in Madison Square Garden in 1983,” said Frank, from California, during intermission. “For the first time ever, they played ‘Revolution’ by the Beatles during the encore, and Madison Square Garden went cuckoo-bananas.” Frank, who saw the final Dead shows in California the previous week, happened to be in town for his mom’s 75th birthday. “It’s been quite the weekend, hasn’t it?” he said. “It hasn’t subsided yet. We’ve still got a half-day left to go.”
A few minutes later, the Dead began their second set of the evening with “Truckin,’ ” and the crowd went berserk, proudly shouting “What a long, strange trip it’s been!” to one another whenever possible. Before long, I found myself eating a plate of fried chicken during the twenty- minute-long percussion improvisation “Drums/Space,” and I wondered if Eric was doing the same. “So, this is the same sound that’s been going on for a while now, right?” asked a bartender.
Well past midnight, the entire crowd sang along to every word of “Not Fade Away” and “Touch of Grey,” belting out the chorus of the former (“You know our love will not fade away”) in unison during the encore break. There was surprisingly little sentimentality, no teary-eyed breakdowns to be seen, among the crowd at Brooklyn Bowl as the band closed, fittingly, with a rendition of “Attics of My Life” just short of one in the morning. Perhaps that’s because most fans at Brooklyn Bowl seemed to know, or feel, that the band, and their music, will be back in one form or another.
“I don’t believe in these farewell, goodbye, reunion tours — they always come back,” said Bill, a longtime Deadhead from Brooklyn, earlier that evening. “Musicians never actually retire.”
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