Formed in 1965 in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Grateful Dead toured almost nonstop for 30 years. Its live performances were showcases for lengthy, LSD-fueled improvisations that changed radically from show to show, and its hardcore fans, the Deadheads, followed them from city to city, in the hopes of hearing how tonight’s version of “Dark Star” would be different from last night’s.
It all came to an end in 1995 when the group’s iconic singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack. The Grateful Dead disbanded, dealing a mortal blow to the Deadhead lifestyle, and disenfranchised jam band fans have had to make do by watching Phish.
The results were not the same.
In January, almost 20 years since Garcia’s passing, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, bassist Phil Lesh and guitarist Bob Weir announced that the group would reunite to play three shows at Soldier Field in Chicago from July 3rd through July 5th. Known as the “Fare Thee Well” shows, the dates commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary, and according to the website, ticket prices range from $60 to $200. The reality, however, is quite different.
According to Money.com, tickets to the Soldier Field shows were averaging $876 before they had even gone on sale. When they finally became available, online scalpers were asking for more than $100,000 per ticket. But woe to the fan who actually forked over that kind of money, because as June drew to a close, there were Soldier Field tickets for less than $200.
StubHub, the secondary-market ticket site owned by eBay, now shows only a precious few seats in that price range, all described as “Obstructed/No View.” Meanwhile, at their most expensive, StubHub shows ticket prices exceeding $20,000.
Despite ticket prices exceeding the average mortgage payment, demand was so great that two further shows were added in Santa Clara, California on June 27th and 28th. Taken together, Billboard estimated that the band stands to earn $50 million in ticket sales, just from these five shows alone. So anyone who thought the Deadheads had gone away when the band did was sorely mistaken.
The people going to the shows this time around are in most cases the same people who went to them before. Andrea Dunn, a 48-year-old social worker from New York City, went to her first Grateful Dead show in 1989 and has seen them “45 or 50 times.” She went to the Santa Clara shows and estimated that between tickets, parking, airfare and hotels, she had spent approximately $1,300. Despite the outlay of cash, she observed that the unavoidable presence of commercialism was far less crass than it could have been.
“It seemed like commercialism has bent toward the Deadhead way,” she said. “There were tons of red American Beauty roses given out, courtesy of FTD.” She added that each rose came with a placard that read, “It must have been the roses,” a tribute to the Grateful Dead song of the same name. If anything, the only real change she observed was in the crowd’s more subdued demeanor, which she attributed to the aging process.
“We all got jobs and haircuts,” she said.
Dunn was unable to attend the Chicago shows, but her friend and fellow social worker, Jill Wechsler, who had accompanied her to the Santa Clara shows, is on her way to the Windy City to hear the band’s final, dwindling notes. The 43-year-old took a break from unpacking her Santa Clara luggage and packing her Chicago luggage to speak to Fortune.
“I’ve seen them at least a couple hundred times, and have spent tens of thousands of dollars since my first show in 1987,” she said of the band. “Between $80 daily parking tickets and my hit on tickets, I dropped about $800 this weekend, excluding travel expenses,” she said. She considered that a small price to pay.
“I’d spend $8,000,” she said. “I’d never miss these last five shows. I’m honored and humbled to be there. I really mean that.”
Dunn echoed these sentiments.
“I would have paid twice what I did,” she said. “It was really the experience of a lifetime.”
On Sunday, the shows will end and the performing history of the Grateful Dead will be over. However, that doesn’t mean that the memory has to fade. Fans wishing to re-live this tour will have the opportunity to do so when all three Chicago shows are released in their entirety in a 19-disc box set called the “Fare Thee Well Complete Box July 3, 4 & 5 2015.” At a price of $174.98 for the 12-CD and 7-DVD set or $189.98 for the 12-CD and 7-Blu-ray set, it will be released on November 20, 2015, in a limited, individually numbered run of 20,000 copies.
Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.