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Deadheads old and new prepare for frenzied final Grateful Dead shows in Chicago

Grateful Dead fans gather in the parking lot before the Grateful Dead show at Levi's Stadium on June 27, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. The Grateful Dead is kicking off their 50th anniversary tour with shows in Santa Clara, California and Chicago.
Grateful Dead fans gather in the parking lot before the Grateful Dead show at Levi's Stadium on June 27, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. The Grateful Dead is kicking off their 50th anniversary tour with shows in Santa Clara, California and Chicago.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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When The Grateful Dead announced that they would be playing a handful of shows that would be both a celebration of the band's 50 years and also their final shows, people lost their minds.

The Wall Street Journal reports that over 500,000 people tried to purchase tickets for the three shows at Chicago's Soldier Field, which has a capacity just over 60,000. All of that excitement and interest resulted in very, very expensive tickets (look upon this Stubhub page and despair).

The band later announced two shows in Santa Clara, California, which took place this past weekend, and while observers were skeptical of the band's ability to put on a good show, reviews from Billboard and the LA Times were mostly positive.

The largest source of controversy surrounding these shows? A rainbow that appeared at the conclusion of the band's first concert, which was maybe real or maybe fake.

Coming up on the band's last shows, we talked with Greg Kot, the Pop Music Critic at the Chicago Tribune and the co-host of the show Sound Opinions at WBEZ in Chicago. He's also seen around 20 Grateful Dead shows.

When he joined us on The Frame, he talked about the corporate entity the band has become, the importance of Soldier Field in the band's history, and the issues he has with the band touring under the name 'The Grateful Dead' without Jerry Garcia.

Interview Highlights:

Tell us a little bit about the scene right now in Chicago. What kind of anticipation is building for these three shows?

As soon as they announced that tickets were on-sale, there was an overwhelming amount of ticket requests. I know the California shows didn't sell hugely well and tickets were available for cut-rate prices, but that's not the case in Chicago. I hear from Dead Heads and jilted fans almost every day about how the ticket sale was screwed up, asking things like, "Is there a way to get tickets? I'll pay anything for tickets." You're seeing these ridiculous prices being paid, so there's an incredible amount of anticipation for the shows.

Why is Soldier Field so important in The Dead's history?

The band played there numerous times, and I saw a bunch of shows there, including their last two at Soldier Field in July of 1995, almost 20 years to the date. Those were Jerry Garcia's last shows, and I think he was dead less than a month later. I reviewed those shows and I was not particularly kind — I'd seen the band a bunch of times, and I thought they had two off nights. Jerry in particular was off his game, he was blowing lines and he seemed distracted and rather out of it. I hate to say that I was presaging something, but in many ways you could see the end coming, and it was right there on stage. 

That's so sad. Obviously, this is a band playing without Jerry Garcia. I don't know if you've been able to see the songs they've played without him, but what's the composition of the band? How can you actually replace someone as iconic and talented as Jerry Garcia? 

I think it's folly to even think you could replace him. I'm extremely skeptical about the band calling themselves The Grateful Dead, which they're actually doing for the first time since Garcia's death. It's important to note that the four core members, as they're calling themselves or as the promoters are referring to them — Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh — have done other reunion shows in various guises over the years.

God bless 'em, they're still here, but the notion that this is somehow going to evoke the old days...I suppose it could, but Garcia's style was unique and I'm very skeptical about any attempt to recapture old glories under the guise of a brand name, which is essentially what's going on here. 

So what's actually driving this reunion? Is it sadly all about money?

I think you nailed it. This is a sad money-grab, and I think the fans of The Dead who have been longtime fans, the ones who were mailing in envelopes for the shows at The Auditorium back in the day in Chicago, those are the ones who see through it and see that this is not the same thing any more.

It's become a corporate band, and Bill Kreutzmann, to his credit, said pretty much the same thing in his book, "Deal," his memoir that came out earlier this year. He said this apparently before he agreed to this reunion, but basically he says that the band has not been the same since Jerry, it couldn't be the same, and they were turning into a corporate entity even before Jerry Garcia died. In many ways, this is just a continuation of that legacy.

Now, if you can't get into the shows, you're able to watch the shows via other means, correct?

Yeah, there are all sorts of ways to access the shows, but virtually every one of them requires some sort of payment. They're simulcasting the shows in theaters, you can get them on the web, there's a radio component to this — virtually any way you'd want to experience the show without having a ticket, you'll have access to, but for a price, of course. In a way, that's the way it should be, but it's too bad there has to be a price attached to everything these days, including being able to see the show even if you're not there.

Even if you saw Jerry Garcia in one of his lesser performances, is there a song that is special to you from the band in its heyday that you cherish?

Too many to mention. I cherish the songs and I also cherish the lyrics, particularly those by Robert Hunter, who was Garcia's great collaborator. I would have to say that Garcia's ability to create a philosophy around the band could be said in countless songs, but I go back to a song like "Dark Star," which encapsulates everything that The Dead were about.

There are multiple versions of that song out there, there is no one definitive "Dark Star," and that's the beauty of it — it changed every time the band performed the song. To me, that's the one song that summarizes what The Dead is about. And it's an off-putting song to some people, because it is long and it's kind of a journey, but in a way it says everything about the band and what it stood for.

Click here for info on where to watch The Grateful Dead final shows

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