Grateful Dead "Fare Thee Well" final performances in Chicago
[Note: This post is “under constructtion” at the moment] #CrankinOutTheHits had to stack up for a few days while the Grateful Dead performed their “final performances ever” at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 3rd, 4th and 5th, 2015. I was tapped to be a broadcast engineer for SiriusXM, assisting the “main dude” (Billy K) in a rather chaotic logistical nightmare. It was four days (one setup, three performance) of insanity, but it was a great experience that I’ll probably never forget. And I’m not even a “Dead Head” by any measure…
From the minute we walked in (and what a walk it was if you’ve never done laps around Soldier Field) it was a nearly constant ride on the edge of a razor trying to gather information and deploy systems. Satellite coordinates. RF coordinating. Scheduling. Who is where with what and when. A walk past the satellite trucks for coordinates - Not yet… Wandered inside and up to “home base” -
The Chicago Bears broadcast booth and coaches suite to check out the crib for the next several days. Down the elevator into the bowels of the building and came across Dezi — A bad-ass dude with way too much on his plate. A quick discussion on “who the hell do we talk to about RF?” (that’s wireless gear basically - We’ve got wireless transmitters, they’ve got wireless, the band has wireless, etc. Can’t be on the same frequencies or chaos will occur). Dezi couldn’t help, as much as I’m sure he wanted to. Having a heavy theatrical background, I’m fairly good at “walking with a purpose and looking like I know where I’m going” so, still without credentials (“backstage passes” to the layman), I marched right through an army of
“Level 1” (ALL access) guys right up the ramps and on to the stage where I spotted a particularly “stage-isn” looking dude in a small “office” tent near the back area. “Here’s a guy with a Motorhead shirt on” I said to Bill. “THIS guy knows what’s going on.” and I introduced myself. Turned out that dude was (Chris?) Charucki - Grateful Dead’s stage manager. I asked if the monitor guy (who would typically have a RF sheet) was around so we could get this info. “No, but I’d bet Matt has that…” and jumped on the radio to “
Find Matt and send him to Flak Central” (the main production trailer). Blah, blah, blah, found Matt, got frequencies. A very helpful dude (Dominic) got our feeds up and running (FOH, TV audio, etc.). Sound check was as you’d expect. Finally got our creds late in the afternoon and found out we needed to be in six hours earlier than planned the next morning.
Days 2 & 3 were pretty well crazed. Loading into the SiriusXM tent right near the box office and will-call. David Gans and Gary Lambert were the hosts, the legendary Lou Brutus (program director for SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead Channel) was in the tent, along with some rather Sirius brass (see what I did there…?) keeping an eye on things. Sent Zito out for a wireless router and I quick-set up a wireless network for the on-air talent that wouldn’t mess with the Comrex CODECS we were using to send everything to New York. Pre-show broadcasts went from about 4-6:30-ish, then a mad dash of most people to the broadcast booth while I secured the gear for the next day and then ran like hell up to the booth myself. Guest after guest after guest pre-show, a little pre-concert chit-chat, guest after guest during intermission, a little post-show chat and it was time to move. Yes - The scent of a typical GD concert hung heavy in the air. So much so that we couldn’t shake it and it’s all we could smell on the drives home every night. Picked up a bunch of memorabilia for friends and family.
Load-ins went fairly quick — Getting all the gear set up took quite a bit of time on the 3rd (first concert), but smoothed out nicely on the 4th. Set up just in time to have NY route the GD channel back to us so we could play last night’s concert on the loudspeakers while finishing up and waiting for the live broadcast to start.
The 5th (day four, third and final performance) was laid back and cool, but several days of 3-4 hours of sleep each night were starting to burn my brain. Kept upbeat though. Kept my ‘karma’ well intact… Security supervisor didn’t notice my pass and started to lay into one of my security bro’s — I corrected the situation, showing him that I had the right creds and that the security person saw them clearly. He apologized (to me *and* the guard - which was more important) and actually asked to examine the pass so he could be more familiar with it. Later in the day, when walking into the same gate, he had me “model” it for a couple new guards. Which I ever so humorously did. “Swung some deals” on getting sets of programs for people — Each day, there was a program for the concert. The 4th programs were everywhere. The 5th (that day) were relatively easy to find if you knew where to look. But everybody wanted the programs from the 3rd (the first performance). I ran across a partial box in a high-security area that would’ve undoubtedly been thrown out if I hadn’t ‘saved’ it. Made a whole lot of people with “incomplete sets” VERY happy.
Yeah, I saved a couple sets for myself. Donated one to a local performing arts foundation that will use it and a couple other chunks of stuff at a charity auction. Gave a set to my cousin (the biggest GD fan I personally know) that couldn’t make the concerts. Gave another set to a friend who I found out was waiting all day to get a “Grateful Dead Miracle” (going without a ticket and actually scoring one onsite). He never got his miracle, but at least he had a pretty cool and minty-fresh set of programs from the concerts. More karma.
Even more karma points were scored at intermission on that last show — The merchandise trucks were lined up on the west side of Soldier Field loading up whatever was left from some of the merch booths. There was a streetlight out behind the last trailer and the guys were working in the dark except for one lone (and not too bright) head-worn LED light. On my lanyard, I had one of those tiny little flat, round squeeze lights that someone gave me when I had lost my flashlight. I had three lights on my person at the time — “Hey, bro” I said to the guy near the end of the trailer “Take this and strap it to your belt or something - You need it more than I do…” He was “Grateful” for it, took it to the front of the trailer and set it up on top of some boxes giving a mild glow to the whole front end.
Karma points were cashed in also — Had to make a mad dash to the booth with some gear. That guard I helped earlier had a line of a couple hundred people in front of him. He saw me with a bunch of cables in my hand in an obvious rush and head-nodded me to ditch the line and run in behind him — saving several minutes and getting everything hooked up mere seconds before the concert broadcast went live. Went back down to the tent to secure the gear and bring it back to our vehicle — all the way on the other side of the property. Two trips with two hand carts were on tap. Dezi (you remember Dezi…) walked in while I was in the middle or tearing it all down. “What’s up, buddy?” “Oh, just tearing it all down and bringing it to the north lot.” “THE NORTH LOT?!?” he says. He gets on his radio and says what sounded like “Murder for hire” or something like that. Several minutes later, a golf cart with a cargo bed shows up. On the front, the name of the
driver: MERDER. Dezi was THE MAN. and MERDER was mine for one trip to the Mc Fetridge lot. I can’t believe how I fit all that gear into that little cargo bed, but I did it.
And while it's still fresh -- Four days at can take a lot out of anyone. But I have to say that the people there - The security people, people who have to stand in one spot watching a door for hours on end, elevator operators, ushers -- These folks were just amazing and I'd bet they aren't recognized for that as often as they should be.
Sean at Gate 14, who had to deal with my quirky humor and speedy attitude was a blast. I'm sorry I *almost* got you in trouble and I'm glad I was within earshot to clear that up when your supervisor misunderstood the situation. Asia the elevator gal -- Poor thing was probably sick of seeing me as often as she did but always had something to say during the probably 30+ 12-second conversations. Kayla too. The guy at the service area door near 14 - Didn't get his name... "Pops" would be a good nickname. I'll bet people call him Santa around the holidays. Right beard and just cheery and smiley enough to earn it. "Big Guy" at the security post outside the broadcast elevator on SL - Hope your partner shared that chair with you occasionally. The guy at the garage entrance that insisted on opening and closing the door for me when I was hauling gear -- Even the guys and gals at the merchandise booths. Great folks all around. I don't think I ran into a 'bad attitude' from anyone there all weekend.
And the 'cast' and crew? Come on -- Desi, Scott, Zito, Lou Brutus, Dave Gans — John Meyer of Meyer Sound was up there in the booth for a bit — And the crowd…. Holy cow… 3 days of absolutely perfect weather (upper 70’s / low 80’s during the day, low 60’s overnight) was the cherry on top of this absolutely exhilarating weekend gig.
I’m still not a “Dead Head” per se, but there’s little doubt they have some of the best fans anywhere and I was proud to be among them.