Sunday, June 28, 2015

First Full Day at Fare Thee Well

I slept pretty well for most of the night and then made myself sleep/doze until 8, at which point I figured I was on California time (morning of 6/27).  Joined Sarah downstairs for the excellent Embassy Suites custom-made omelette breakfast, and then Dave, Ricky, and Holly trickled down too.

CID representatives were already on site in the Embassy Suites and were setting up in the ballroom on the second floor.  I was one of the first ones there right after breakfast and got our tickets, shuttle wrist-bands, and commemorative t-shirts with no problem.  As much as we'd been worried about CID giving us a hard time for me getting two packages, not provisioning well/on time, etc., they turned out to be remarkably nice and efficient people and promoters.  We liked CID Entertainment and could understand delays in dealing with thousands of anxious people.

A few more hours of hanging out, making plans, checking email and maps, and conjecture ... then it was time for me to head over to the Best Western University Inn.  Long story (see earlier post), but I had gotten a package at the BWUI for friends F&P and B&L.  I planned to walk over there to meet B&L and check them in.

Santa Clara is a weird city, segregated very clearly into high tech office ghettos and crowded residential sections running the gamut of income levels.  The Embassy Suites was in the high tech section, which on the weekends was nothing more than a wasteland of huge buildings, corporate logos, freeways, and gigantic parking lots.  I strolled South and East on wide boulevards past towering, deserted buildings and endless parking lots with lots of outdoor fire equipment and parched lawns.  We'd consulted, but Sarah and I had no idea what species most of the trees and shrubs were, though some of them were in bloom and quite beautiful.

I'd rarely meet a car or bicycle, let alone another pedestrian, but it didn't take me long to figure out the pecking order.  It was bicycles/scooters/skateboards first, then cars, and then pedestrians a distant third.  I guess if they had any horses in the city limits they'd be up there too, with Segways maybe.  The reality was that it was precedence to the coolest, and in this decade it's bicycles dominating the pecking order on the roads.  And sidewalks!  Twice that weekend I had to give way to bicycles on the sidewalk when there was a bike lane on the road.

And speaking of dominance of the coolest, it also became apparent quickly that this was not the kind of place where you acknowledged each other when passing on the street.  When I gave way to cars they didn't even wave, and when I passed other people on the street they suddenly had to look at their phone.  The only exception was if both people were wearing gear that identified them as Deadheads, and they got fewer and fewer as I went South.

Picked up a concrete-lined section of the San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail, and it spit me out into the heart of a residential district, which led me down to El Camino Real and the BWUI.  Bob and Lynelle arrived a bit before I did and we hugged in the parking lot ... it had been a long time since I'd seen them!  They were ready for some R&R after a long trip, and so after checking them in and getting their tickets, t-shirts, and wristbands, I took off for the return trip to the Embassy Suites.  F&P were just arriving at that time up at the San Francisco airport and would be a few more hours before arriving in Santa Clara, and so I left their stuff with B&L.

Made it back to the Embassy Suites in 2:15 ... exactly the amount of time expected if everything went well, which it had.  Gathered ourselves and then walked up the block to the local El Torito restaurant on Lakeside Drive, which was nice but a totally formulaic Mexican place.  We yucked it up some there but finished quickly, went back to the hotel for our stuff, and then took off for the concert!

We'd seen that the aforementioned San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail ran North-South a few blocks East of the hotel and went straight to Levi's Stadium.  So it's about a 50 minute walk (55 min, 2.8 miles according to Google), mostly along a city creek to the Stadium.  And we much preferred doing this on our own schedule to waiting for the shuttle busses, which might not leave us that close anyway and might run at very inconvenient times.

You've gotta watch out for bicycles whizzing past on the creek trail (see pecking order above), but we survived and got a great view of the back of a few more HUGE high tech campi, the behind-the-scenes side of the Great America [sic] amusement/water park (with some feral cats sleeping in a back lot), and some wildlife along the urban wetland of the creek.  And then there it was, Levi's Stadium shining in the afternoon sun, flying Grateful Dead flags and marquees, a beautiful sight.

Where did Shakedown Street go?  There were a few people selling stuff out of their cars, but there was no dedicated vending area that we could see, even when we wandered and wandered around the parking lots.  Dave met up with a friend from back East eventually, we heard lots of rumors about where Shakedown Street was, and we tried texting with my friends about where to meet up.  This was just the start of phone failure, probably due to thousands and thousands of phones being used at once in a small area and fucking up the bandwidth.  No possibility of meeting up with them (their shuttle didn't even leave the BWUI until 5:30), so we got in line and went on inside.  Actually we had a little delay when they wouldn't let Holly in with her hula hoop and we had to check it.

But then we got in and were instantly delighted.  The Shapiro Productions people were giving a long-stemmed rose to everyone and handing out commemorative placards to wear around your neck.  These were both very nice touches and we stood behind the stage a while to get acclimated when we reached the main concourse.

Levi’s Stadium is nice in some ways … they have great vistas of northern Santa Clara with its soccer fields, the water slides at Great America, and high tech parks.  And you can see up to the Bay from the very top.  But in other ways it’s a shockingly poorly designed place for a large number of people.  Maybe it works better with the people-flow you get at a football game, but on the main concourse for concerts at least there are certain narrow choke-points that thousands of people have to go through and that become violent rugby scrums.

The bathrooms are incredibly poorly designed for people flowing in and flowing out: you have to wind your way into a dead-end room, find a vacant toilet, and then force your way through the crowd jamming in behind you so you can get out.  They only sell Bud Light at most beer stands, and charge $11 for a small cup when you do find a good beer stand.  They tell you that you can bring in one empty water bottle, but they have no stations to fill water bottles!  You’ve got to find one of the few water fountains in the place and fill your bottle awkwardly, spilling some on the floor.  And this is a brand new stadium??  It gets very poor marks from me.

Enough of that … we got some beer, got to our seats, and settled in to our seats at about 6:20 to enjoy the crowd and the show.  We were in section 142, about at the 10-yard line in the Northwest corner of the Stadium, looking at the stage set up in the South end zone, projecting out almost to our opponents' 30-yard line.  The setting sun was still partly lighting up the East seats, but the day was partly overcast and the upcoming sunset promised to be fantastic.

The Stadium was filling up steadily, and we were soon very glad that we had made it to our seats.  We looked over in section 313 and were glad to see that our friends had made it too.  A lot of people couldn’t get in the Stadium at all until after 7 (show start on paper), but by 7:25 the place was pretty full, the house lights went off, and the band came out.

The guys lined up with Trey Anastasio on the left, Phil next, and of course a bit behind him, and then Bobby stage center.  Behind those three was the massive drum setup, just an incredible area centered on two drum kits and ringed by rows of congas, tom-toms, thunder drums, and everything you could think of, including The Beam in Mickey’s section.  Way over to the right was Bruce Hornsby’s grand piano, and a bit above that on a riser (but not as high as the drum setup, was Jeff Chimenti’s organ/synthesizer/Leslie setup.

This was all centered under a huge scaffolding, with skull and roses artwork across the the top.  Both sides of the scaffolding held up vertical video screens that generally showed the view from one of the cameras that circled the band and/or were set up at the front of the sound tent, in a lozenge surrounded by beautiful graphics provided by Candace Brightman and her crew.  These screens were echoed in the large video screens, high up at the ends of the Stadium, but in a horizontal format.  These generally showed the selected camera’s view with the graphics to the left and the right of the real-time scene.

It was still too light out for us to tell how good the stage/crowd lights would be, but as it got darker we marveled at them too.  They played on parts of the scaffolding, sending shoots of color up them and into the sky.  Each vertical board was bordered at the top and at the bottom with banks of lights that either lit up the boards, or panned synchronously across the crowd or the far parts of the Stadium, shifting colors all the time.  At times the lights could make the crowd look like rippling waves of people.

The scaffolding was studded with huge banks of speakers of course, and there were other speaker towers arrayed around the football field.  One was pointing right at us from about a hundred feet away.  The speaker towers hosted banks of lights too, that could pan up into the sky and reflect colored light into the crowd.  And they also hosted smoke machines, that belched out clouds that were subtly lit by the multi-colored light show.

Hope I’ve described it well enough!  Really, the sound was fantastic (especially on night two) and the lights and the graphical visualizations were wonderful and trippy and mind-bending.

There was also crowd participation in the visual experience of course.  Balloons and beach balls were inflated and batted around constantly.  Some descended from the upper decks, but the incredible thing was how many up-drafts and swirling mini-twisters there were in the Stadium, and the balloons soared up into the air and around the crowd.

And then the band started and the magic really began!  On this opening night they felt each other out, felt out the sound in the Stadium, and turned everything into long, academic jams.  Here’s the first set:

  • Jam >
  • Truckin’
  • Uncle John’s Band
  • Alligator >
  • Cumberland Blues
  • Born Cross-Eyed >
  • Cream Puff War
  • Viola Lee Blues
We’d spent a lot of time before the shows wondering about what they were going to play, and Truckin’ was high up on the "they *have* to play this" list.  Their tuning turned into a slow Truckin’ jam … obvious at least to those of us familiar with later Furthur and recent Phil and Friends concerts.  They then dropped into the familiar riff, the whole group started into the opening chorus, the crowd joined in in full-throated unison, and we were off!

No one of the thousands and thousands on the stage or in the suddenly packed Stadium (or watching the webcast around the world) doubted at all the wisdom that had sprouted from Hunter’s pen over 45 years before, that it had been a long, strange trip.  And we were all fulfilled acknowledging as a group that the trip continues.

For me, this was the first of many moments in the Santa Clara concerts that almost moved me to crying and beaming at the same time, like a sun shower.  It felt so self-affirming, life-affirming, and vital.  We were all sharing the experience of these great moments, and a consciousness of music, and a perspective on life that in some of us dated to 50 years ago (or more), and in some of the younger people dated to much more recent happenings.  I was surprised at the number of children and even infants in the crowd, brought by their parents to be part of what we all had participated in and hopefully would always participate in.

Bobby didn’t forget any of the words to Truckin’ … I also noted that he had a stool set up in the back of his workstation in case it was needed.  They ended that number and almost immediately dove into another “must play” song, Uncle John’s Band.  The crowd wanted to sing, kick out the kinks, and roar in delight and these first two songs were so cathartic for everyone!

Then they ended and scratched their asses a bit in true Grateful Dead fashion, and then they launched into Alligator, Phil singing the lead excellently!  This was nowhere near the top of the “must play” list but signaled that they would be giving the early phase of their career its just treatment tonight.  Phil even sang the “burn down the Fillmore, gas the Avalon” back-lyric clearly, and all the vocalists joined in on the choruses … as well as everyone in the Stadium of course.  Ricky was particularly delighted as this is perennially near the top of his personal list.

The night was not at all without glitches and confusion on stage, and their transition from Alligator to Cumberland was filled with false starts, but was marvelous anyway.  This song is always near the top of my list, and again signaled that they were going to be playing the early stuff tonight.  Bruce had his first chance to really shine on this one, tickling those ivories with a bluegrass frenzy.

Trey was obviously not stepping up, preferring to sit back and let Bobby, Phil, and the drummers lead.  We could barely hear Jeff in this set.  The sound was still not fully worked out, and they all were playing it safe.  But what’s this?  How can you play it safe when you’re playing Born Cross-Eyed (another opposite of a “must play” but great)??  And then Trey grabbed the bit and ran with it on Cream Puff War, possibly the first great Garcia guitar send-up.  He was rocking on this one and the thousands all around the stage were right there with him.  Wow!

And then they played one of Dave’s favorites, another from their first album, Viola Lee Blues!?!  I would never have thought this would make their setlist for the Fare Thee Well shows, but Dave was consistent in arguing for it.

They had been in the song for a few minutes and were getting into a complicated jam after the first few verses, and then the magic whacked us over the heads.  As I say, that late afternoon had turned kind of adventuresome weather-wise and there had apparently been a few raindrops.  And then the setting sun came back out strong, lighting up the clouds in mysterious shades of purple and yellow, and then a complete rainbow appeared, spanning the roof of the Stadium from West to East.  We all roared as the rainbow glowed and widened, eventually spreading out like a cosmic peacock’s tail to show distinct bands of the whole spectrum of color.  And the music never stopped ... the band played on, louder and louder, reaching crescendos and then spilling off them and re-forming for the next.  A second, narrow rainbow appeared, arcing just South of the first.

That was the last song of the set, how could you beat that?  Some idiotic news outlets carried the rumor that the rainbow had been a man-made apparition produced by the Shapiro Production crew (see Snopes response).  One I saw even quoted a price of $50K for it.  This was patently ridiculous … man can’t duplicate that beauty (and wouldn’t be allowed to try to in the San Jose airport flight path that Levi’s is in).  This was one of those cosmic, magical moments that the Grateful Dead experience (and/or the live music experience, the get-out-in-nature experience, etc.) is all about.  Leave your senses open to serendipity and it will occur!

Geez, we were having fun, though we knew that leaving our seats at the set break would be a struggle.  I made it to the bathroom and back and it’s a good thing that people were so friendly, because this was difficult for everyone involved.  I’d brought my empty water bottle and finally found where to fill it up.  I would have liked another beer, but it was so crowded on the concourse that no one knew where the line began and ended.  Besides all this confusion, people had set up a Jerry shrine in the middle of the concourse, now adorned with many of the roses we had all been handed.  And there was a silent guitar auction set up there too.

Oh well, made it back to the seats unscathed and Sarah, Dave, and Ricky did too eventually (Holly had a ticket in one of the upper sections, we could see her through Sarah’s zoom lens).  The lights finally went off again, the guys were suddenly back on stage, and the dragon started roaring.  Here’s the second set:

Cryptical Envelopment >
Dark Star >
St. Stephen >
The Eleven >
Turn On Your Love Light >
Drums/Space >
What's Become Of The Baby >
The Other One >
Morning Dew

What can I say but that this was an experience beyond description?  Here's a shot at some bullet points about that set, just to make it easier for you to read:

  • As mentioned, I'm a sucker for old Dead.  It was probable from the before-set tuning that they were about to engage in Cryptical, and then they did and all our faces melted and all light was focused on the stage (no, I was not tripping :)).
  • I (and probably the majority of people (with opinions) in the Stadium) were sure that they were going to go into the full TOO from Cryptical.  And then they blew our minds.  Phil played the signature riff, but it was *not* the signature riff we were expecting.  It took my mind several minutes to realize that they really were playing Dark Star, the second song of the second set on the first night ... the ultimate (well, one of them) expression of their art.  Then I had no problem with it and it was fantastic!  They did the vocal arrangement Furthur had perfected, splitting the verses between the three guitarists.
  • My first attempt at forecasting a setlist for Santa Clara had them playing a seamless second set that included the Dark Star > St. Stephen > The Eleven > Lovelight sequence from Live Dead.  They had done parts of this (with the William Tell bridge!) in soundcheck on Friday.  And then they did it live.  Though they had pleased Ricky with Alligator and Dave with Viola Lee, it may have been even sweeter for me when they did this seminal combo.
  • Of course, Bobby sang the William Tell bridge and got mixed up about the verses!  As opposed to most of his vocal flubs, you could tell he was very embarrassed about this one, and he stepped back from the mike and gave the guys the "do it again" signal, and they got it right that time.
  • And then Bobby (successfully) sang all the count-down parts of The Eleven.  He also gave it his post-Dead treatment ... that is, he embellished it with his cries of "What now?" and "Poor Samuel!"  I guess he must really think that this is how they sang it back in 1969.
  • It was a short Lovelight, but Bobby was in fine voice (Phil was too, their musical preparation for the shows could not be questioned), and he does a great job on this Pigpen rave-up, this time throwing in a few funky shouts.  There was no question but that they were doing these songs as tribute to where they'd been and who had been there with them.
  • The Drums segment was excellent and just watching the delight with which Billy and Mickey pounded every last one of that incredible array of percussion instruments was riveting, let alone the sound which soon filled the Stadium and echoed in the corridors.
  • Later in Drums, Mickey joined Billy at the thunder drums and did his old schtick of raising his mallets to beseech the crowd to join him in bringing down the rain, and then hurling himself at the drums and beating them with the power of Thor.  He also got The Beam going (Google it ... it's in D), and played it with two huge bows from God's Double-Bass.
  • And then they went into Space, and this was not just a meandering Space, they had a theme in mind and we/I was standing on my toes, feeling the vibrations and wondering what that theme was.
  • And then Phil started singing What's Become Of the Baby.  Yes, this is what they'd been leading to sonically and it was part of the beautiful, seamless experience of that second set.  But could there have been anything less expected?  This was yet another supreme expression of the ADVENTURE  of a Grateful Dead concert, to hear this difficult song that had only been done live once prior to this (in 1969) sung and played like it was the most normal thing in the world.  And this is the weirdest song!
  • And THEN they thundered and waffled and thundered some more and then we all KNEW that they were playing TOO, and then Phil dropped into it and then Bobby started singing about the Spanish lady with the rose, and I almost started crying for yet another time that night.
  • They didn't spend much time on TOO, and then they dropped down again, and then Phil turned it up and they started into Dew.
  • They had successfully turned us all into quivering masses of protoplasm by this point, but I still had a little "meta" consciousness left.  The question was, "Who's going to sing the damn thing?"  The answer was Bobby of course, and he just blew us away.  The song's right in his vocal range and he did it like he's been doing it all his life, somehow turning it into yet another tribute to Jerry.  Trey was no shrinking violet here, building up to a lead guitar crescendo fitting for the end of that Biblical second set.

Oh My Dog, we were exhausted and exhilarated and totally uplifted.  As touched on, I was not high on much besides a few beers (and LOTS of second-hand pot smoke), but I was reeling and my mind ... as well as most minds around there I assume ... was laid open on the laboratory table.  It took a few minutes for us to stop saying "WOW" and to return to vocality, if not reality.

Finally Phil came out, just beaming at the crowd.  I forget exactly what he said, but he expressed his own delight in the experience we were all sharing, then did his donor rap.  We were back to the "meta" consciousness a bit and were slightly let down when he said they had "one" more for us.  We'd been hoping for a third set or at least a three-song encore!  Oh well, these guys had been giving it their all and were probably as spent as we were.

We all thought it was going to be One More Saturday Night (seeing as it *was* Saturday night), but they kept up the "early" vibe and did Casey Jones for an encore.  Any disappointed thoughts were gone as soon as they launched into the first few grinding chords of this, and the whole Stadium cheered.

I should mention that one of my goals for the weekend was to really see a whole football stadium of fans grooving to the Dead, and boy, did I get to see this!  We were perfectly situated to watch the whole Stadium in our seats at the 10 yard-line, and Casey Jones was yet another great visual experience for me.  The lights played over the crowd in psychedelic sweeps of color, from the packed mob on the field, reaching up into the mezzanines and the terraces, and then up into the satellite banks of seats, way up into the sky, where small figures were dancing and freaking out and jumping up and down.

The song ended but the buzz we were all feeling didn't abate and will hopefully last for years and years.  The guys left the stage and Billy took the opportunity to grab a mike and gush about the delight we were all feeling, and to point out how meaningful the rainbow was, especially in light of the events of the past week (the Supreme Court on Friday had overturned state bans, legalizing gay marriage!!).

Wow, we were done and still had a long way to go before we could rest, but we were in the middle of a great experience, and a great crowd.  Holly met us at the bottom of the stairs, but then Levi's reared its poorly-designed head again and we barely made it out of the Stadium with our sanity when thousands of us were *squeezed* across a narrow pedestrian bridge.  We made it to the hula-hoop check (long line), rendezvoused again at the head of the creek trail, and then started back South.

I should point out that cell phone reception in the Stadium and vicinity was ridiculous.  Every once in a while I got a few bars and text messages started streaming in,  But one of the reasons we hadn't been able to meet up with our friends was the discontinuity in messaging.  Oh well, serves us right for depending on 21st-century technology!

Another thing I should mention is that this show was great but wasn't GREAT.  The band definitely had first-date jitters.  Trey sang only a bit and Bruce hardly sang at all ... Phil and Bobby dominated the vocals (they were both fantastic though, no complaints there).  As mentioned, Jeff was lacking from the mix; Trey was low in the mix too and the drummers sometimes sounded a bit muddy.  Bruce is a brilliant musician but did not have many opportunities to show it.

This show was incredible for several reasons: the timing as the first 50th reunion of the band, the setting of Santa Clara, the excellent production from Shapiro, Brightman, etc., and the mind-boggling setlist.  But the playing could have been a lot better.  My opinions in this paragraph are covered better in this Jambase review.  But stay tuned for the next night!

We meandered back down the San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail, passed by speeding bicycles with headlights and tinkling bells or without ... we were mere pedestrians, but were laughing more than the fucking bicyclists!  There was some danger of stoned hippies pitching headfirst into the creek, which made us laugh even more.  Finally made it back to Scott Boulevard and crossed over the few blocks through the high tech ghettos over to the environs of the Embassy Suites.

By this time we were starving!  We had had a good late lunch, but Levis's Stadium (bless its heart) did NOT have good food options (overpriced fried dogs and chicken at the end of long lines), and we hadn't had dinner.  There's a 24-hour Jack-In-The-Box near the hotel, but the line here was out the door at 1:30AM(!) and the nearby McDonald's drive-in was also mobbed.  We settled on a few microwavable hot pockets from the hotel's "convenience" store and somehow didn't die of malnutrition (it was close though).

The young guys were psyched to grab some beers and hang out with the mob of Deadheads outside the hotel and spilling into the parking lot, smoking cigarettes and joints and freaking freely.  I would have liked to myself, but my feet were just not working (I'd walked over 10 miles that day), and Sarah and I eventually went to bed at about 2:30 (which is when I wake up on a normal working weekday on the East coast!).  I could hear the parking lot scene going on outside my window, and that rocked me to sleep.


  1. GREAT JOB JON! thanks for sharing with those of us who couldnt be there-

  2. Wish you could have been Dave! MikeT and new wife G were here for last night's show!!