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Grateful Dead Plays Final Shows With Record-Breaking Audiences

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

From "Oklahoma!" to Chicago - that's where the surviving members of the Grateful Dead played their final concerts together this weekend; three nights, 200,000 people in the stands. NPR critic Will Hermes was one of them. He says for Deadheads, the shows were a pilgrimage.

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: For those of us who grew up with the Dead, who laughed and loved and danced and, well, let's just say partied hard to their music, the band's farewell concerts have been like a World Wide Web-wired tent revival meeting. Fans gathered in bars and living rooms around the world to watch the simulcasts. And those of us lucky and-or crazy enough made the trip to Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUCKIN'")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Truckin' got my chips cashed in. Keep truckin'.

HERMES: I came for all three shows, but with trepidations. I'd seen the band a dozen times back when virtuoso leader Jerry Garcia was alive, mostly in theaters and field houses. And I wasn't sure about this ginormous, over-marketed stadium deal or how well they'd play with Garcia's stand-in, Trey Anastasio of the band Phish, also a guitar hero in his own right. Like the old days, there were times when the band's music caught fire and other times when it seemed lost in the woods. But when it worked, it really was like rock 'n' roll church as always. People danced all night, every night. The concrete and steel deck where I stood all weekend churned like a waterbed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Fire, fire on the mountain.

HERMES: I came to this show with my friend Matt, who joined me at my first Dead show in 1977. But part of the magic of the weekend was befriending strangers, like a Santa Monica children's book writer, a Wisconsin college professor and a Los Angeles vapor pen manufacturer. When the final show ended last night, I got a little teary, but it didn't actually feel sad. I realized it wasn't so much about the specific musicians - Jerry Garcia will have been dead 20 years next month - but about the pleasure and love the music communicates and the community around it. Sorry to get all sentimental, but sometimes the spirit just takes you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIPPLE")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Let there be songs.

MCEVERS: Critic Will Hermes is author of the book "Love Goes To Buildings On Fire."

(APPLAUSE)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.