On July 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia stepped off the stage after the Grateful Dead’s performance at Soldier Field in Chicago, little knowing that he’d just completed what would prove to be his final concert as the band’s frontman.
In truth, Garcia hadn’t been in the best of health for some time - indeed, Phil Lesh observed in his memoir, Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead, that Garcia’s physical and mental acuity were both far less than 100% at the time of his death - and, although Garcia had been clean for several years, he’d returned to using drugs to help numb the pain, leading to a stint at the Betty Ford Center not long after his final show with the Dead.
After leaving Betty Ford, Garcia moved to Serenity Knolls, a treatment center in Forest Knolls, California, and that’s where he was when he died on August 9, 1995, after suffering a heart attack. But for heaven’s sake, everyone already knows that our man Jerry is no longer with us, so let’s instead focus on what he gave us during that last performance with the Dead.
July 9, 1995 was a Sunday, and the band kicked off their Soldier Field show - their second at the venue, having played there the previous night as well - with the single that had helped bring a new generation of Dead fans into the fold: “Touch of Grey,” from their 1987 album In the Dark. From there, the band launched into their cover of “Little Red Rooster,” after which they performed a song that never made its way onto a studio album: “Lazy River Road.” (Not that the band didn’t try to record it, but... Well, if you’d like to know more about this LP that would’ve been the band’s actual final album, give this a read.)
Next up was “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a Dylan tune which regularly popped up in the Dead’s set lists but was probably chosen in particular because The Band was their opening act. After that came “Childhood’s End,” a Phil Lesh composition which was debuted in ’94, followed by “Cumberland Blues” from 1970’s Workingman’s Dead, and then the first set came to a conclusion with the band’s oft-performed cover of “Promised Land.”
The band kicked off the second set with the title track from Shakedown Street and followed it with “Samson and Delilah,” from Terrapin Station, after which they shifted into “So Many Roads,” another one of those songs that would’ve appeared on their next/final album if they’d ever gotten around to finishing it, but unlike most of the tunes from this particular performance, an official version has been released, so you know we’re going to slip that in here...
Another new track followed: “Samba in the Rain,” a song with lyrics by Robert Hunter and music by Vince Welnick. There weren’t many Welnick compositions in the mix for Dead set lists during his tenure with the band, and - with all due respect to the former member of the Tubes - the few that did make the cut were never terribly well received by the fans. That said, if you’d like to hear the song performed by Welnick’s post-Dead band, Missing Man Foundation, have at it!
From there, the band performed one of Bob Weir’s more recent compositions, “Corrina,” after which they eventually made their way into “Unbroken Chain,” a tune from 1974’s From the Mars Hotel which - somewhat surprisingly, given how many performances the band had delivered over the intervening years - had never been played live by the band until that year!
And so it came to the final song of the second set proper, a little ditty called “Sugar Magnolia,” and after the requisite applause break concluded, the band returned to the stage to encore with “Black Muddy River” and “Box of Rain.”
It’s not impossible that we could someday see this Soldier Field show officially released in its entirety, but...it’s unlikely. Based on most reports, Garcia was definitely not at the top of his game, and there’s a reason why the lone track released officially from the show was “So Many Roads”: even this late in the game, Garcia’s performance was one for the ages.
“The main body of the song was exquisite, the vocal climax unbelievable,” wrote Patrick Russell in a review of the final Soldier Field performances. “I haven’t heard Jerry sing with that much soul for a long time.”
Nor would any of us again.