Although a number of offshoot groups have been formed and occasional full (or near full) reunions have occurred, the Grateful Dead have officially been disbanded since Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. No concert, not the ongoing Dead & Co. shows, nor the Fare Thee Well gigs, have been billed as ‘the Grateful Dead’. The band had lost and gained a number of musicians along the way, but Garcia was always at the centre of the ensemble, even if he preferred to defer leadership.
That means that the Grateful Dead have been a past tense entity for over 25 years. You would hardly be able to tell, given the glut of books, albums, T-shirts, documentaries, and aforementioned offshoots that keep the Dead enterprise running and pop-culturally relevant. It’s more widely accepted to be a Deadhead now than it ever was when Garcia was actually alive, and the number of generations who share the band’s music crosses the cultural, political, racial, and logical divide. The Grateful Dead are bigger now than they were when they were one of the biggest bands in the world.
Even in 1995, as the band were visibly and sonically past their prime, the band were in their peak of popularity. For the group’s first decade or so, they played clubs and concert halls while harbouring a dedicated cult and countercultural fanbase. As the band entered the ’80s, a new wave of fans began to wander into the Deadhead world, with their concerts becoming large-scale events that were mini-festivals unto themselves. When the band gained major chart success for the first time with 1987’s In the Dark and ‘Touch of Grey’, it would be impossible for the band to play anywhere but large stadiums. They continued to be one of the highest-grossing touring bands in the world, even up to their final year.
That final 12 months had been marred by Garcia’s health problems. Having fallen into a diabetic coma in 1986, Garcia’s demeanour in the following decade would alternate between surprising vitality and more common weariness. Garcia’s voice had become strained and reedy, while his guitar playing lacked the spark that made him one of the all time greats. It was difficult for him to travel and play as many shows as the Dead were used to, with his increased drug use and attempts to get clean leaving him fragile. Still, he wouldn’t let himself get in the way of the runaway gravy train that was the Grateful Dead, and so he soldiered on.
When the Dead pulled into Soldier Field in Chicago during their 1995 spring and summer stadium tour, they were exhausted. Garcia was notably worse for wear, but the entire band played at a lulling sag that unfortunately makes the final Grateful Dead show a bit of a slog to listen to. Tempos languished, a number of later-era additions distract, lyrics are flubbed all over the place, and some of the band’s most legendary songs like ‘Shakedown Street’ and ‘Sugar Magnolia’ are shells of their former selves. But it’s not as though the show didn’t have its occasional moments of magic.
Very few of these magical moments occurred due to how the band were playing. Most of it was simply serendipity: ‘Touch of Grey’ led off the night, giving the band one last survivalist mentality for what would be their last show. Garcia’s ‘Rosebud’ guitar was experiencing technical difficulties, so he instead used what would be his most iconic guitar, ‘Tiger’, for his final live performance.
The show’s final song from Garcia on lead was the emotional ballad ‘Black Muddy River’, while the actual final song was ‘Box of Rain’, a song about lifting burdens and facing death with gentle grace. Lastly, fireworks were set off after the band’s final encore to the tune of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner from his performance at Woodstock. For a band so synonymous with the ’60s, and now with America itself, it was a fitting send-off.
Exactly a month later, Garcia would be found dead in his bed at the rehabilitation clinic he had entered to once again attempt to kick his addictions. His death was caused by a heart attack. Garcia’s decline had been obvious to any and all who had kept up with the Dead throughout their final decade, but he still managed to wrangle instances of beauty out of the most difficult of circumstances.
You can see that in his performance of ‘Black Muddy River’ down below.
The Grateful Dead final show setlist:
- Touch Of Grey
- Little Red Rooster
- Lazy River Road
- When I Paint My Masterpiece
- Childhood’s End
- Cumberland Blues
- The Promised Land
- Shakedown Street
- Samson & Delilah
- So Many Roads
- Samba In The Rain
- Corinna >
- Drums >
- Space >
- Unbroken Chain >
- Sugar Magnolia
- Black Muddy River >
- Box Of Rain