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Tarrytown/SH Fans Salute the Grateful Dead With Trek to Chicago for Final Concerts

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August 6, 2015

| By W.B. King |

Grateful-Dead-PAGE-10July 4, 2015: Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow residents gather at Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Front row: Maddy McGovern, Laura Kiss, Joanne Malandrino-Daly, Sharon Bucci-Thomas, Stella Goldstein, Heather Whitaker and Belle Gonzalez. Back row: Myles Birrittella, Kyle McGovern Jr., Tom Kiss Jr., Tom Kiss Sr., John Korzelius, Brad King, Laurie Birrittella, Kyle McGovern, Tom Shumacher, David Thomas and Bebe Gonzalez.

During Independence Day weekend, barely a breeze was felt from Lake Michigan. The Windy City, which played host to the Grateful Dead’s last three concerts, took a break yielding to sunshine daydreams and warm summer nights. Throughout Chicago’s tie-dyed streets, friends and loved ones danced and rejoiced. Smiling strangers stopped other strangers simply to shake hands—long lost cousins gathering for a final family reunion.

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“The Grateful Dead means community to me, a vast social group with as many different values as people, but tolerant to each other’s ideas and values,” said David Thomas, 58, who has seen over 500 Dead shows and co-owns Tarrytown’s Little Bs with his wife Sharon Bucci-Thomas. The couple drove 13 hours to Chicago to see the final performances. “Being part of this group is a secret handshake where people are kind to each other, help each other without question and understand the concept we are all in this together.”

From Navy Pier to The Magnificent Mile to Grant Park to Soldier Field and points in-between, the Grateful Dead’s music lifted from street musicians busking for a chance—a miracle—to see one last show. Cover bands played their iconic songs in hotel lobbies, and bars where drinks and spirits flowed like rhapsody. Amenable vendors peddled everything from t-shirts to tapestries. This wasn’t the first time the Grateful Dead’s music and vibe enveloped Chicago, home to their musical roots -the blues, but everyone reveled knowing this was the last hoorah.

Take Me to the Leader of the Band

Jerry Garcia, the band’s late unofficial leader, guitar player and singer/songwriter, once said of the Grateful Dead’s music: “We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”

On July, 3, 4 and 5, more than 213,000 lucky licorice loving ticket holders, including nearly 20 Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow residents, helped the band celebrate its 50th Anniversary Fare Thee Well swan song at three sold out dates at Chicago’s Soldier Field. When these shows were announced by the San Francisco-born band in January, an estimated one million fans world-wide scrambled for tickets via mail order and Ticketmaster.

“The Grateful Dead to me is a way of life. I was captivated by the music and never looked back,” said Bebe Gonzalez, 46, who has seen more than 60 shows since 1982 and owns Tarrytown’s Green Machine Laundromat and 22 Main Street. “When the Chicago shows came up, I wanted to share that experience with my daughter.”

Soldier Field has meaningful memories for band members and fans alike. The venue was the last place Garcia performed with the Grateful Dead in July 1995; a month later he died of a heart attack. Four years later, Gonzalez’s daughter, Belle, was born. Father and daughter wanted to pay homage to Garcia and traveled 800 miles by car to share in the happening.

“The Grateful Dead has always brought my dad a lot of joy throughout his life. I wanted to experience something this amazing and unique with him,” said Belle Gonzalez, who begins her senior year at Irvington High School this fall. “My favorite part of the concerts was dancing with my dad at Soldier Field just as I had done in my living room with him when I was a little girl.”

Who Are These Deadheads?

Minus the band’s iconic imagery, such as a “steal your face” logo, dancing bears or rose cladded dancing skeletons, there is no methodology to properly identify a deadhead on sight—he or she could be a doctor, a plumber, a teacher or a judge. The Urban Dictionary defines a deadhead as “a person who greatly enjoys the music of the Grateful Dead and particularly the genius of Jerry Garcia.” Beyond that descriptor, deadheads view the band members as they see themselves—fallible human beings with the ability to transcend space and time.

“The weekend after my high school graduation, I went to my first show up in Saratoga Springs, June 24, 1984,” said native Tarrytown resident Laurie Birrittella, 48, a financial executive who drove to the Chicago concerts with her husband, Myles. “Being a Sunday and a minister’s daughter, I of course went to the Old Dutch Church first and then headed up on the train. The feeling of community and the music was awesome. The band and the fans were one with each other.”

Among the legion of deadheads (past and present) are Steve Jobs, Walter Cronkite, Phil Jackson, Joseph Campbell and Bill Walton. The band even crosses political party lines; fans include Bill Clinton and Barack Obama plus conservative pundits Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson. In Chicago, celebrities like Woody Harrelson, John Mayer, Senator Al Franklin and Bill Murray were in attendance.

“I’ve always been a fan of the Dead, but only in the past couple of years have come to fully appreciate the depth, variety and spirit embodied in their work,” said Stella Goldstein, 32, an attorney who splits her time between Tarrytown and Forest Hills, Queens. She too drove to Chicago to see the finale. “I wish I would have seen Jerry before he died, but I feel lucky to have snuck in at the tail end of the trip.”

Surviving band members Phil Lesh (vocals/bass), 75, Mickey Hart (percussion), 71, Bill Kreutzmann (percussion), 69, and Bob Weir (guitar/vocals), 67, were joined for these concerts by pianist/singer Bruce Hornsby, who played more than 100 shows with the band when Garcia was alive, Phish’s front man Trey Anastasio, who stepped in for Garcia on guitar and vocals, and Ratdog/Furthur organist, Jeff Chimenti.

“Seeing the sea of tie-dyes and the excitement in the air was enough to give me goose bumps,” said Bebe Gonzales. “I think it is difficult to pack 50 years into five shows, but they did a tremendous job.”

The three final concerts in Chicago were preceded by two sold out dates in Santa Clara, Calif. When the initial three shows were announced nearly one million fans tried to get tickets with most being rejected. Soon secondary market companies like StubHub featured ticket prices at an astounding $116,000. But due to the two west coast shows, which allowed roughly 160,000 fans a chance to share the spirit with the band one last time, secondary Chicago ticket price averages dropped to roughly $200 to $500—a fee concert goers might pay to see contemporaries like The Rolling Stones.

A Band Beyond Description

Over the course of their career, the Grateful Dead played more than 2,300 live concerts, including Woodstock and Egypt’s Gizah Sound and Light Theater in the shadows of the Sphinx and Great Pyramid, recorded 13 studio albums and released countless live albums. Never playing the same show twice, their style is a mélange of blues, country, folk, psychedelic rock, jazz and rock and roll. At the heart of many of their songs themes like hope, perseverance, redemption and love emerge.

David and Sharon Thomas don’t intermingle the words “family” and “Grateful Dead” lightly. In 1984, during the band’s spring tour, they met at a concert in Las Vegas. Over the course of the summer tour, flirting and hand holding led to a relationship. Two years later they were married in Yosemite National Park. And nearly 30 years later, life came full circle for the couple in Chicago. The soundman for the Fare Thee Well concerts, Derek Featherstone, was the soundman at their wedding.

“The Grateful Dead was a major part of my journey of moving to California in 1981, which set my entire future in motion,” said Sharon Bucci-Thomas, who kept journals from her experiences seeing the band more than 150 times. She intends to write a book about her days with the Dead, tentatively titled: You Can’t Get on the Bus.

“My first entry was June 5th, 1980 on my way to the Dead’s 15th Anniversary in Boulder, Colorado with my two best friends, Brenda and Ilene. I was also at their 20th anniversary at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, Calif. It was a no brainer to be at the 50th! I needed the last chapter,” She continued. “The Grateful Dead is where I met my husband, made many friends and travelled to places in the country I would never have gone had it not been for the band.”

The Thomas’ love and support of music is apparent for frequenters of Little Bs, lauded for their build your own burgers, wings and specialty sliders. Every Saturday night the restaurant/bar hosts musical acts. David Thomas understands the role of the troubadour. Before moving to Tarrytown from San Francisco in the 1990s, he played guitar in a popular Bay Area band, Buffalo Roam. Today, he plays bass in Crazy Chester, a Tarrytown-based group that primarily interprets the music of the 1960s and 1970s.

“The Grateful Dead brought good people together through great music, and that is what we are trying to do on Saturday nights—providing different genres of music in a relaxed atmosphere for people to enjoy,” said David Thomas.

The last song the Grateful Dead played with Jerry Garcia at Soldier Field in 1995 was “Box of Rain.” In a tribute to their friend, the reformed band opened the Chicago Fare Thee Well shows with the same song. The July 4th show was capped off by an amazing fireworks display during the band’s song, “U.S. Blues.” However, for many fans, the first night’s encore, “Ripple,” written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, who were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in June, spoke to the band’s relevance and legacy. As the notes rang true, nearly 71,000 deadheads joined in harmony; some wiped away tears others hugged while many just swayed to the music smiling ear to ear singing:

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine…And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung…Would you hear my voice come through the music…Would you hold it near as it were your own?

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