After the Grateful Dead’s debut weekend of the Fare Thee Well shows in Santa Clara, Calif., speculation and anticipation was running higher than ever for the three dates at Chicago's Soldier Field.

“Box of Rain” opened the first set, with Phil Lesh’s voice sounding much stronger than it had last weekend. It was a significant choice of an opener. “Box” was the band’s final encore at the same venue on July 4, 1995 - their final concert with Jerry Garcia.

Bob Weir’s venerable “Jack Straw” followed, with Lesh taking the parts that were originally sung by Garcia. Trey Anastasio, who seemed tentative at times during the shows last weekend in Santa Clara, completely came alive during the first solo break in “Straw.” Throughout the night, he stepped out front, leading the band through some amazing jams with his ferocious playing, and taking the lead vocals on several tunes, starting with a raucous “Bertha.”

“Bertha” flew into “Passenger,” an uptempo tune from 1977’s Terrapin Station album that dropped from the band’s repertoire at the dawn of the '80s. With Weir on the lead vocal, Bruce Hornsby provided back-up harmonies that recalled Brent Mydland’s dusky tone. Speaking of the late, great Mr. Mydland, it was learned tonight that Jeff Chimenti is, in fact, playing Brent’s old Hammond organ during these shows.

Next up was “The Wheel,” which had always been relegated to the post-“Drums/Space” segment of the second set, so to hear it in the first set was as unexpected as it was sweet. The tune unfolded into a mellow passage that became “Crazy Fingers,” a lilting version with Anastasio again taking the vocals. His guitar utilized a warm, fat '70s style tone for the bouncy solos over Lesh's nimble bass scales and Weir's crystalline guitar tone. The anthemic “The Music Never Stopped” brought the first set to a rocking conclusion.

After a lengthy set break, the band returned with “Mason’s Children,” a Workingman’s Dead outtake that only saw a dozen or so performances in 1970, although Lesh's touring unit, Phil and Friends, often played it. While the band definitely gets points for dusting off a rarity, it seemed short on steam. The tune’s repetitive riff seemed to keep the musicians from taking it into any real interesting directions, although Jeff pulled off a fantastic solo on the Hammond.

After “Mason’s” came to a close, Anastasio launched into “Scarlet Begonias,” where he did a fine job on the vocals, but again, his guitar playing was simply incendiary, gaining smiles and approving nods from Lesh and Weir. As “Scarlet” bloomed into its transitional jam, Chimenti began to fiddle with some very cool-sounding analog synth effects as Phil’s bass weaved in and out of the guitars. Then, the opening phrases of “Fire on the Mountain” kicked in, with Hornsby taking the lead and coming in a little early as Trey was trying to nail those wah-wah pedal-inflected leads. Bruce’s voice sounds fantastic and the rest of the band sounded great as they sang the chorus together.

“Fire” finished with a flub when some members stopped abruptly while others kept on. Then came the night’s “Drums” segment, with some new percussion toys making for some seriously mind-bending moments. Mickey Hart played an electrified African thumb-piano while Bill Kreutzmann pounded away on the rack of giant drums behind his regular kit. Candace Brightman's lighting and visual effects were particularly amazing during the “Drums.” Hart used the bow on the “Beam,” creating warm, ambient waves before beating on it with a mallet like a gong, summoning the rest of the band back to the stage.

After a brief, ambient “Space," Lesh lead the band into another rarity, “New Potato Caboose” from Anthem of the Sun. Beautiful and gentle, it dripped with sunny psychedelic charm as Trey and Bruce exchanged guitar and piano licks during the outro.

“Playing in the Band” took the band into a lengthy jam. A few spritely notes of “Let it Grow” were teased, but the band veered into a long funky passage that brought to mind “New Speedway Boogie” or “West LA Fade Away.” But the jamming only got weirder and further out, thanks to more synth weirdness from Jeff, until the opening chords of “Let it Grow” finally sang out from Bob’s guitar. It was an intense transition, but the whole band arrived in the pocket.

The trio of “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower” brought the second set to a tremendous close. This trio of songs, as well as “Crazy Fingers” and “The Music Never Stopped” all appeared on Blues For Allah, the first record the band released after their short hiatus in 1975. The encore was an exquisite “Ripple,” featuring Weir on an acoustic guitar.

With such a diverse set list between this show and the second night in Santa Clara, it’s hard not to look for signs of what could possibly be played next. There is still a lot of material left to be played. What will the next two nights bring? Already the band has played almost everything on Allah as well as Anthem and Live Dead. While these shows haven’t been perfect, is there such a thing as a “perfect” Grateful Dead show?

There are two more Grateful Dead "Fare Thee Well" shows left – tonight and tomorrow night. You can get all the details about how to hear and watch them live right here.

Grateful Dead Setlist - July 3, 2015 Soldier Field, Chicago

Set One:
"Box of Rain"
"Jack Straw"
"The Wheel"
"Crazy Fingers"
"The Music Never Stopped"

Set Two:
"Mason's Children"
"Scarlet Begonias"
"Fire on the Mountain"
"New Potato Caboose"
"Playing in the Band"
"Let It Grow"
"Help on the Way"
"Franklin's Tower"


Watch 'Box of Rain' From the First Grateful Dead Chicago Show

Criminally Underrated Rock Albums

More From Ultimate Classic Rock