The first installment of the ScoreBoredSports Stadium Series doesn’t involve a sporting event, but revolves around a cultural phenomenon that took place in historic Soldier Field on 4th of July weekend, 2015. Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of The Grateful Dead was an event for which thousands and thousands of people traveled from around the world to witness. For one fateful weekend in the city of Chicago, the spirit of the 60’s was alive and well as the greatest American Rock band took the stage one last time for 3 magical nights of music.
This was my first time attending an event at Soldier Field and I must say that the stadium itself was quite impressive. The Greco-Roman architecture that comprised the original stadium before its 2003 renovations and still surrounds the outer walls is quite breathtaking, with Doric columns that tower over the grounds and create an imposing façade that immediately catches the eye, even from miles away. With the renovations, the stadium now looks like some intergalactic spacecraft landed right in the middle of the Roman Forum. You’ve got to respect that they were able to preserve the original stadium, the oldest in the NFL, while adding some modernity to the scene.
The grounds surrounding the stadium provided a perfect setting for the freaks of all shapes and sizes that attended the show to set up shop and sell their wares or just relax and enjoy some pre-show libations. Once inside the stadium, Solider Field continued to impress, with friendly staff and service, and a field that allowed you to get an amazing view of the entire record breaking 70,000-plus crowd that was in attendance.
On the approach to the stadium you could see the hippies and music lovers flooding the streets of Chicago, and every venue had become ground zero for jam bands that came to play the city on the same weekend as the guys who started the whole jam scene some fifty years ago. On every street corner there was a multitude of tie-dyed shirts and long hair. Everyone had a smile and a kind word for passers by, and the feeling in the city was palpable. A nervous excitement was overtaking the crowds as the final performance by these legendary musicians came nearer.
The long trek from the hotel to the stadium provided the opportunity for all types of trouble and fun. The first order of business was to find the infamous Shakedown Street, the historic semi-sanctioned marketplace famous for popping up in the parking lots of whatever stadium or venue the Dead happen to be playing at. It’s the perfect place to buy a much-cheaper-than-stadium-price beer, handmade Dead-themed crafts and shirts, or whatever illicit substance might tickle your fancy.
Aside from the music, Shakedown Street is what the Dead show is all about. It’s the shining example of what this community is all about. In the days that Jerry was still with us, The Grateful Dead did hundreds of shows a year and there were people who literally lived on tour. Moving from parking lot to parking lot and setting up shop in a centralized location were everyone could meet, have fun and earn a living by working whatever hustle they wanted. All while being close to the music they loved and lived for. The band and authorities turned a blind eye to the unlicensed selling of Dead related merchandise with the understanding that no one was getting ripped off and it was free promotion for the artists.
The current Shakedown Street is a shadow of its former self, as those old-heads who ran things have moved on or passed on, but that doesn’t mean the spirit of Shakedown is dead. Vendors were allowed to go about their business for the most part, that is until the final day when I heard rumors of vendors having all of their stuff seized by what was described as the copyright police. There was less of a centralized Shakedown Street at Soldier Field this year, and for the first two days we hung out at the walking path between the Stadium, the parking garage and the south parking lot (Where we finally discovered the other, larger Shakedown Street on the final day). There were people everywhere and the familiar smells filled the air as we sat on a grassy hill drinking, smoking and watching all of the beautiful people.
This is where you meet all of the interesting characters that define the experience of going to a Dead show, and there were people from all different walks of life congregating in the same place and bonding over this special music and experience. Whether a sixty-year-old biker, a forty-five-year old accountant, or a nineteen-year-old dreadlocked runaway who smells like he hasn’t showered in a month, everyone is here for the same reason. To have a good time and listen to some music.
Almost twenty years to the day since Jerry Garcia last played with the Grateful Dead in this very same venue, many people claimed that this was the closest feeling to being at those shows with Jerry. It was a real Grateful Dead show. Not Furthur, not The Other Ones, but The Grateful Dead. Strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hands and everyone loving everyone. The collective individualism of the community was going strong, as everyone flew their own special freak flag but accepted one another as members of the same wild fraternity. Like we were all on the same side, regardless of where we came from before this weekend, or where we were headed after.
As the start of the show approached on that Friday July 3rd, the stadium was absolutely electric. People discussing which songs would be played and when, people sharing memories of shows passed, people being people. No pretension, no judgment, just love.
And when those lights went down, and The Grateful Dead finally took the stage and began to perform Box of Rain, the crowd exploded and everyone could feel what a special weekend we were all in for. Chills went up and down my spine and I got goose bumps as that familiar feeling began to take hold. Everyone began to dance and sing aloud. People sang along so loudly that you couldn’t always hear the band members singing. But that didn’t matter. These songs weren’t just the band’s to sing. They belonged to all of us. In someway or another, every one of these songs had affected our lives and they were uniquely special to each and every one of us.
For a venue that is normally home to adversarial events such as football games, this one weekend was all about harmony and love for your fellow man. I can imagine how great football would be in this historic building and would certainly love to go back for a game, but I don’t know that anything can equal the feeling of what this weekend was. Young and old, rich and poor, all these people on the level and completely immersed in what was happening around them. It was a truly beautiful experience, in a truly beautiful city, in a truly beautiful stadium and I think I can speak for everyone who was in attendance when I say thank you to the City of Chicago and to The Bears organization for making us all feel at home for three fateful days in July 2015.
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