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Review: The Grateful Dead, 'Fare Thee Well'

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Cover art for <em>Fare Thee Well.</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist.
Courtesy of the artist.
Cover art for Fare Thee Well.

You either get The Grateful Dead or you don't, to the point where it's virtually impossible to explain. So why bother?

For starters, because history was made over the summer, when the band played three 50th-anniversary "Fare Thee Well" concerts at Chicago's Soldier Field. For fans who've lived and breathed this band — and perhaps especially for those of us who couldn't be there in July — a new compilation of highlights has provided a chance to look back, reflect and celebrate.

The Best Of Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years Of The Grateful Dead, a double-length collection of recordings from the group's summer shows, demonstrates how these songs can actually live and breathe when the conditions are right. It happens when the crowd is in one place emotionally, whether in joy or introspection; it happens when the Dead is in the pocket musically; it happens when a magic combination of songs creates a resonant narrative for the evening.

The performances here feel familiar and new at the same time, and it's a pleasure to revisit these songs' subjects: people who hope and dream and see and think and fail and win and want. Losers, lovers, gamblers, mystic guides. They're all here, in this collection as in The Grateful Dead itself — communal and eternal.

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Felix Contreras
Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.