CHICAGO — The Grateful Dead is closing the lid on its storied half-century of concerts this weekend in Chicago, where a museum has captured the band’s prankster heart by displaying its artifacts, skeletons-and-roses iconography included, in the shadow of a world-famous dinosaur.
Soldier Field, which was the last place legendary guitarist Jerry Garcia played with the band before his death in 1995, is hosting the final three shows of the short “Fare Thee Well” tour in what the remaining core members — rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — say will be the last.
The lakefront stadium, just south of the Field Museum and the bones of Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex, will be a sea of tie-dyed shirts, and the sounds of bootleg concert tapes will fill the air in the parking lots. Certainly, there’ll be young people who never saw Garcia play among the tens of thousands of fans, but they’ll likely be outnumbered Deadheads who display more than a touch of grey.
Many of those who followed the band around decades ago — and can recite the exact number of shows they’ve seen as easily as they can their Social Security numbers — have become lawyers, accountants and, in at least one case, a member of the U.S. Senate.
“Yes, my wife and I are coming for the Saturday and Sunday shows,” said former comedian and avowed Deadhead Al Franken, who now represents Minnesota in Washington. “To me they represent a big part of my life, they are a touchstone for a long time and they still are.”
The Democrat began seeing the Dead about the time he was getting out of college in the early 1970s, and later became friends with Garcia and other members of the band when they appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” on which Franken was a cast member.
“I still listen to them pretty much every chance I get,” he said.
That so many older fans are coming in may help explain why the city heard few complaints after it nixed the idea of overnight camping sites near Soldier Field.
“I would not even have a car back in my San Francisco State days (and) I would find people to hitch rides with and find homes to sleep on the couch or on the floor,” said Rick Wolfish, a 59-year-old partner in a large accounting firm in Burlington, Vermont. “This trip I’m flying to a concert and staying at a Hilton hotel five blocks from Soldier Field.”
Deadheads are shelling out for one more Saturday night — from $100 Dead-themed dinosaur posters at the Field Museum created and signed by longtime Dead artist Stanley Mouse to pricey hotels. Hotel bookings are up more than 120 percent from last year’s July Fourth weekend, and the rates are 77 percent higher on average, according to travel booking website Orbitz.
The centerpiece of the Field Museum’s exhibit is Garcia’s favorite guitar, “Tiger.” On Tuesday, fans wore the same look of wonder on their faces as one sees in the people looking at the skull of Sue.
“This is history,” said Rebecca Ostrega, a 49-year-old Deadhead who brought her 10-year-old son. They both wore tie-dyed Dead shirts she bought at the museum and she had purchased several of the Mouse posters.
Tickets for the main attraction — where Trey Anastasio of Phish will tackle Garcia’s guitar parts alongside keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti — were no higher than $199 at face value, both through the old-style mail order system or Ticketmaster. For those seeking to get into the sold-out shows, tickets on the secondary market StubHub ranged from $295 to $5,000 for one night, with an average price of about $600. Wolfish paid $200 total for three nights behind the stage — a “miracle,” he said.
No matter the price, fans say it’s worth the chance to reconnect with both an important band and the family-like community.
“More than anything this is going to be a celebration of the whole Grateful Dead thing, the camaraderie, the outlook of life,” said Bill Stanley, who is a director of the Gantz Family Collections Center at the Field Museum.
He’s attended more than 100 shows, including Garcia’s last one. He not only recalls those “magical” experiences, but the loneliness he felt when he was in the mountains of Tanzania in August 1995 and received an airgram from his girlfriend that read, “I hope you are sitting down. We lost Jerry.”
“Everybody here was able to call the person who turned them onto the Dead (but) I had no one to reach out to,” he said.
This weekend, though, he expects all those old feelings a Dead concert used to elicit to return: “People are going to be walking past, thinking, ‘Look at those old hippies. I’ll be grateful when they’re dead.’”