20 Years After the Grateful Dead's Last Concert

The Grateful Dead rose to fame during the psychedelic 1960s and spent decades building a loyal fanbase of “deadheads.” One of the most long-lasting and widely known bands, the group recently reunited — 20 years after what many believed to be their last show together.
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The Grateful Dead rose to fame during the psychedelic 1960s and spent decades building a loyal fanbase of “deadheads.” One of the most long-lasting and widely known bands, the group recently reunited — 20 years after what many believed to be their last show together.

July 9, 1995 marked the end of a long, strange trip for the Grateful Dead. A maw of sweltering air that weekend had engulfed Chicago's Soldier Field ,where the band was booked to play their last two shows of their summer tour. As always, the parking lot had morphed into a favela of sorts. The air thick with incense and patchouli, fans hawked homemade food, t-shirts, and bootlegs of past concerts (a practice the band famously encouraged). Many deadheads hoped to raise enough money to buy a ticket to the sold-out show, which were going for twice the selling price.

Grateful Dead Photo

1970 trade ad in Billboard Magazine for Grateful Dead's album American Beauty (Photo: Warner Bros. Records (Billboard, page 9, 5 December 1970) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Tensions ran high over what had happened a month earlier in Deer Creek, Indiana, where a riot broke out when fans forced their way into the show. But that wasn't the only thing the crowd was worried about. Many who attended the previous day's show had left disappointed. After nearly five months on the road, the band seemed eager to pack up their suitcases and go home. They mangled lyrics so badly that roadies had to rig up a teleprompter for frontman Jerry Garcia. The music seemed disjointed, even within the usual free form style that they were famous for.

But all that was put to rest when onto the stage walked Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh,Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and Vince Welnick. They started the show with "Touch of Grey." The only song of theirs that had managed to crossover to mainstream audiences, it reached #9 on the Billboard chart in 1987. They followed that with such favorites as "The Promised Land," "Shakedown Street," and Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece."

At one point, fans fashioned together a chain of balloons and sent them floating around the stadium, a symbolic request for the band to play "Unbroken Chain," to which the band obliged. After more favorites and lengthy psychedelic drum solos that seemed to go on for hours, the last song of the night was "Sugar Magnolia" for which the crowd cheered long after the final notes echoed into the fields. The band took the stage for two encores — "Black Muddy River" and a soulful "Box of Rain." When it was over, Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" roared over the loudspeakers as fireworks lit up the Chicago sky, punctuating what was to be the band's final show — not just of that summer as they had planned, but, as it turned out, forever.

The next day, Jerry Garcia checked himself into the Betty Ford Center to try to finally kick his heroin habit. He had been struggling with his health for a decade, ever since suffering from a diabetic coma so severe that he had to relearn how to lay the guitar. On August 9, exactly one month after the band's final show, the news reported the death of Jerry Garcia, the band's spiritual center. That December, the band announced they would be breaking up.

But while Garcia's death spelled the end for the Grateful Dead, it didn't last forever. Last week, the band played five "Fare Thee Well" concerts to mark the group’s 50th anniversary. More than 70,000 fans gathered inside Soldier Field in Chicago, a fitting place for a final goodbye. Four of the band's core members, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir were joined by Phish's Trey Anastasio. Bruce Hornsby joined them on the piano. The band didn't utter a word about their missing front man, but images of Jerry Garcia emblazoned the video screens around them. After the last encore, the band exited the stage for what they said would be forever. Before leaving, a nostalgic Mickey Hart told the audience to "hold on to this feeling. Take it home and do some good with it.”