After listening to the three Fare Thee Well shows from 4th of July weekend—y’know, members of The Grateful Dead plus Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti and our old pal Trey playing the Jerry role, sort of—I basically agree with the vague consensus I’ve found online and amongst Deadhead friends, which is that they were as good as they could possibly have been. It seems like everyone got what they needed out of that weekend; I couldn’t help feeling giddy about the collective goodwill that was powering the sea of humanity in Soldier Field, and also a profound sense of relief having decided to skip it.
It's funny that the recent Chicago run of U2 shows led right up to FTW, because, although U2 is anathema to Deadheads, I think there's a similar communal joy at U2 shows. When I was growing up, the Dead were pretty much the unhippest band in the world (it's been fun watching hipster musicians and critics coming out of the woodwork suddenly professing their affinity for the Dead, hasn't it?). Nowadays, U2 is the unhippest band in the world, and their shows are my personal sanctuary for the purest celebration of music and love that there is, which I think is the general idea amongst Deadheads regarding Dead-related shows. I say "think" because you need that deep connection to the music first, which I don't have with the Dead. Musically speaking, I don't understand the appeal of post-Jerry Dead at all.
We live in an age where bands that reach a certain level of fame will never break up. It has ruined the music industry. Fans remain loyal, and rock stars won't step aside gracefully to make way for new things. I'll be the first to admit that, for the good of humanity, U2 should've broken up long ago, maybe after the victory lap album All That You Can't Leave Behind and subsequent tours. Their music hasn't been remotely groundbreaking since Pop, they're hopelessly out of touch with modern culture, and countless other bands could've benefited from the gazillions of dollars gobbled up by the U2 machine. Selfishly, I'm really glad they haven't bowed out, because they're still giving me that feeling I can't get anywhere else. They're keeping on for their own benefit and that of their fans, and to the detriment of music, just as the Dead are.
U2 has one advantage over the Dead, though: All U2 has ever been is four dudes with great songs playing their instruments competently. That's what the Dead are now, too, but they used to be, well, various numbers of dudes playing their instruments better than almost any musical collective that has existed. (They used to have an iconic, soulful lead singer, too, which U2 still has, but I guess that's beside the point.) I never saw Jerry perform, but I've listened to a lot of Dead over the years (a minuscule amount of Dead compared to the average Deadhead, yes), and I've seen configurations of ex-Dead members seven times, and I'm perfectly content to acknowledge missing the Dead boat, because to me all the post-Jerry stuff has been a drawn-out degradation of the legacy of one of the greatest bands of all time.
As for the FTW shows themselves, I enjoyed the listening experience, even though I found most of it to be pretty boring, just like most of the post-Dead performances I've attended and/or listened to. In a way, it was similar to listening to Woodstock, which I did a couple years ago. The spirit of a particular snapshot of culture and time lives in the recordings. It's palpable, a moving experience even for an outsider such as myself. And I'd say that the playing was at least as good as the last several post-Dead shows I went to, which was a pleasant surprise; I'd say the only parts I found unlistenable were "Shakedown Street", "Terrapin Station" and…well, everything that came after "Terrapin Station", actually. And every time Phil sang lead. And even taking these bits into consideration, the performances were probably as good as anyone could reasonably have hoped for.
There's no shame in being faithful to a deteriorating band. As we get older, that stripe of fandom boils down to how much we're willing to forgive, really. For instance, Bono's dogged pro-America rhetoric, some of it recycled word for word from the last tour, is enough to make a person vomit, and a lot of his banter is forced and awkward where it once was impassioned and timely. I can overlook all of that because of what I love about a U2 show. I assume it's the same thing for Deadheads regarding Phil's singing, the drummers' persistent rhythmic incoherence, and the utter lack of full-band, powerful, pointed improvisation. In the end, it's about the songs, the community, and the memory of Jerry. I get that.
Most of the Deadheads I know are also Phishheads, for whom this FTW thing had to be a dream scenario. It almost made me wish I was more into the Dead! I've always felt it was inevitable that Trey would step into this role at some point, and I highly doubt this was the last time. I used to dread it, but now I really don't care. When you fight your whole life to set yourself apart from Jerry, there's only one place you're guaranteed to end up. The most puzzling thing about this run, though, was the gushing about Trey's playing. Here again, I probably don't have the proper context in order to understand what people were expecting. I've seen The Dead with Warren Haynes filling the Jerry role; he was fine. I've never seen or listened to a note that Fake Jerry has played except for him jamming out what I guess is supposed to be "Bouncing Around The Room" on a hilarious youtube clip. How bad can he be, though, in his usual Jerry-impersonation mode? Worse at playing Dead songs than Trey 3.0? But that's not the point; Trey has the experience in original creativity and the status along with the ability to play noodly guitar. I thought he was the obvious choice for this event, but I might be a tad biased.
I thought overall Trey played competently at these shows, occasionally even very good for 3.0. The fact that he taught himself all these songs and scarcely fucked up, that's certainly impressive, although I have to assume he already knew how to play most of them. The fact that he managed to generally stay in synch with a bunch of guys playing ridiculously slow tempos--oftentimes mere approximations of tempos, in fact--is probably his biggest accomplishment of the weekend.
The impression I'm getting, though, is that people are impressed with Trey's synthesis of his own style with Jerry's, which at certain moments I could discern--"Throwing Stones" and "Althea" stuck out for me--but obviously, when faced with people who've spent decades living with and analyzing Jerry's playing, I'm not going to have much to add to that conversation. I can only go on things like precision, agility, creativity, based on what I know Trey is capable of.
I thought Trey's solo in "Stella Blue" was gorgeous, probably the highlight of the whole run for me. I also loved his stuff in "Me And My Uncle". I felt like he was strongest during Sunday's first set plus "Cassidy" in the second. But otherwise, I hear a lot of very average 3.0-style Trey. He played "Jack Straw" like it was "Backwards Down The Numberline", "Bertha" as "Seven Below", "Crazy Fingers" like "Limb By Limb" or "Taste", "Tennessee Jed" like "Alaska" or any of the half-dozen other Phish songs that play just like "Tennessee Jed". There were moments of beauty, but of brilliance? I'm not hearing it. A lot of the people raving about Trey's playing would be bitching about him and/or the lack of jams if these had been Phish shows.
Admittedly, I'm really only interested in this whole ball of wax in terms of how it might impact the impending summer tour by Trey's side project (i.e., Phish). I'm glad I listened to the FTW shows because they brought my expectations down to earth. Based on the internet chatter during and after the Dead extravaganza I thought maybe he'd be back to 2011-12-caliber playing, but he sounded maybe a little better than the past two years, which were, to these ears, generally subpar. Still better than anyone else could be at doing what he does, mind you. But I'm still really excited for this Phish tour, for a number of reasons.
For one thing, Trey will be playing his own songs. I have to hope that concentrating on Dead songs for so long doesn't leave him bungling his own; time will tell, but the mere fact that he has supposedly been spending hours every day practicing the guitar has to be an overall good thing, right? I mean, it didn't show at these FTW shows, but I could never fathom the enormous pressure he probably felt trying to fill in for Jerry in such a specific way on such a huge stage, plus trying to link up with a bunch of dudes who don't even know themselves when the next change is gonna come or even what beat they're on half the time; you're bound to be a bit hesitant, a bit timid, blah blah blah. The last thing I'm suggesting here is that I'm disappointed in Trey; for fuck's sake, I'm beaming with pride that he not only pulled this off but had all the curmudgeonly old Deadheads admitting that he was the right guy for the job. My fundamental reaction to FTW is FUCK YES, way to go, Ernest!!! I'm just hoping when he dives back into his own catalog, he will be relaxed as hell and ready to let fly.
I also hope he has absorbed some of the spirit of looseness and adventurousness that the Dead always embodied more than almost anyone else. Again, it didn't often show at the FTW shows, but hey, the end of the "Playin' In The Band" jam, and "Cassidy", and a few minutes of "Estimated Prophet" before it petered out, and the drums/space segments, these were reasonable facsimiles of without-a-net Dead, and Phish has been dying for some bold, spontaneous exploration and experimentation with a badass guitar player at the helm. THAT'S WHAT PHISH IS.
Then again, I always thought that was what Deadheads were chasing, too. Maybe the glowing reaction is purely the drastic lowering of expectations over the years. Maybe it's the need to not shit on what was supposed to be (but will surely not be) the end of it all, or what was ostensibly the final sendoff for Jerry's legacy. Maybe the feeling engendered by those songs is so powerful, the grand Deadhead subconscious so benevolent, that one submerged in it can only hear beauty. I like that theory the best.
Maybe it's less ethereal than that, though. Phish came to prominence and thrived in a culture of obsessive discussion and analysis, and it's hard to say whether that internet movement has been good for the band in the long run. I've always felt that, at least in the 90s, it urged the younger, ambitious Trey to want to prove the critics wrong, but in the long run it might have killed his motivation. Of course, I love that culture of obsession, all the more because Phish is worthy of exhaustive analysis. The Dead were, too, but in real time all they had to worry about were critics who hated the type of music they invented, the occasional scathing review, which had to be pretty easy to ignore. Fans traded tapes and whatnot, but they didn't have instantaneous access to every recording ever made, so there wasn't this hive of oversensitive, persnickety fans judging Jerry's every note and comparing it to every other note. Maybe there's simply no such tendency in Dead world, and the fans couldn't give two shits whether something sounds good or not. To put it in a more pleasant light, maybe Deadheads are more forgiving. That's a beautiful thing.
It could be that what we fans of Phish and the Dead were drawn to all those years ago is now officially dead to the world. I don't know if the music industry will ever allow for another Jerry- or Trey-type lightning rod guitar player to properly develop a career with a band anywhere near as good as the Dead or Phish. The thing is, I know Trey's still got that ability to captivate with his presence and his will, to make an average technical showing seem otherworldly, which I suspect is a big part of what happened at FTW. That's probably what I really chase, what has kept me going all these years. From what I gather, even in Jerry's fading years, he still had that (I confess I haven't listened to any Dead shows from the 90s…). And that's still gonna be there with Trey, even after he finally acknowledges that his heart isn't actually into Phish any more and he goes off with some other bunch of people, hopefully to get weird again rather than play the same old six-minute versions of TAB songs and joke covers and his new crappy pop songs.
But if you'll let me fantasize for a minute, here's what I really hope...that maybe, after he said all his goodbyes to the old geezers and told them how they should totally not let this be the end and that they totally should work together next time they've got some free time, he thought to himself, 'Holy shit. In another decade or two, that is the kind of sad remains of past glories that I'll be faced with. In a couple weeks, I'm going out on the road again with these three guys I've been playing with my whole life, who are still on top of their game, who play with precision and keep reliable, danceable tempos and can sing in tune (well two of them anyway) and are just waiting for me to lead them into some new territory and blow people's minds again. This has been fun, this has been one of the greatest honors of my entire life, but I have never been so grateful and excited to be playing with Phish again.'That's what I'm really hoping. I guess we'll see what happens.