The Wall Street Journal’s Jim Fusilli writes of the Grateful Dead’s recent Fare Thee Well tour, that “With the highly capable Messrs. Anastasio, Chimenti and Hornsby on board, perhaps there would be flashes of magic. And there were, with surprising frequency.”
Far from flawless, the band’s two sets confirmed its strengths and weaknesses: good, diverse songs that built to exhilarating heights when the machine functioned as a unit; and aimless meandering by the band that bordered on self-indulgence. At this late stage, there’s little point in addressing the latter, especially since the majority of the 70,000 tribal members in attendance cheered the best and worst with equal vigor, but there was a touch of regrettable self-sabotage in the program.
The Dead tapped into its classic period to launch its farewell. It opened with “Box of Rain,” an “American Beauty” song that was the last one it performed with Garcia here prior to his death, and then moved on to “Jack Straw” and “Bertha,” which were introduced back in the early ’70s on live albums, and “The Wheel,” a song from Garcia’s debut solo disc that was released in ’72. Neither Mr. Lesh, who sang Garcia’s parts in “The Wheel” and “Jack Straw”—the latter a curious choice since Mr. Hornsby released a powerful version of the song in 1991—or Mr. Anastasio, who sang “Bertha,” attempted to invoke Garcia’s vocal style, and their readings gave the familiar songs a fresh bloom. At one point in “The Wheel,” four voices rang in air-tight harmony, an effect that could elude the band at times during its five decades together.
Following an intermission that was about as long as the opening set, the Dead regained its momentum after the break with “Scarlet Begonias,” a Garcia-Hunter song from the mid-’70s, and the late-’70s Hart-Hunter composition “Fire on the Mountain.” During an instrumental interlude, Messrs. Anastasio and Weir played stinging lines that wove around each other as the drummers rattled away.
Then came the staple that’s become known as “Drums/Space,” a pointless discharge of percussion and what might be called free rock that must be much more fun to play than to listen to. Later, a jam rising from Mr. Weir’s “Playing in the Band” failed to coalesce, but a galloping “Franklin’s Tower” brought the music back to a satisfying groove as Mr. Hornsby issued a deft, dancing solo.