Twenty years after the Grateful Dead wrapped up their 1995 summer tour at the same venue, the group took the stage at Soldier Field for the second of three Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago. The band showed they'd come a long way in just one week.

Joined again by guests Bruce Hornsby, Jeff Chimenti, and Phish's Trey Anastasio, the Grateful Dead was tighter, brighter and more dynamic last night (July 4) than their tentative start in Santa Clara. Anastasio continued to impress in his role as lead guitarist, but everyone in the Grateful Dead got their chance to shine, especially Bob Weir.

The "core four" of Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Weir kicked off an energetic first set with the funky groove of “Shakedown Street.” Weir nailed the vocal while Anastasio emulated Jerry Garcia’s old “Mutron” guitar sound. “Liberty” was an obvious choice, considering the date. A much later entry in the Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia songbook, “Liberty” was one of the new batch of songs that the Grateful Dead played in 1993-1994. Weir’s vocal delivery was strong as the band delivered a near-flawless backing.

The Jerry Garcia ballad “Standing on the Moon” was next. Anastasio took the lead vocal, and while very competent, it lacked the emotive weight that one of the elder statesmen could have brought to the delivery. After “Moon,” the Grateful Dead dipped into its road-tested songbook with “Me and My Uncle,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Friend of the Devil” and the first repeat from last weekend’s shows in Santa Clara – “Cumberland Blues.”

Bob Weir led the band through an impressive rendition of Willie Dixon's “Little Red Rooster,” a staple of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire that did their host city proud with a sleek slide guitar from Weir and bluesy licks from Anastasio. Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti then stole their thunder as he lit up the crowd with a smoky organ solo.

Watch the Grateful Dead Perform 'Bird Song' and 'Golden Road'

The second set opened with a sublime version of “Bird Song,” a song that Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter originally wrote upon the death of Janis Joplin. Phil Lesh changed the original lyric – “all I know is something like a bird within her sang ...” – to the masculine pronoun for the entire song. There was a brief jam in the center of the tune, comprised of rolling guitar notes over Lesh’s bass and Hornsby’s delicate piano.

The band’s 1967 party hit “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” followed. The entire band were grinning ear to ear as they harmonized the classic “Hey hey! Come right away!” refrain. Bruce Hornsby and Anastasio took the lead vocals and the band fired on all cylinders until its spacey finale.

Bob Weir’s two-parter “Lost Sailor” / “Saint of Circumstance” followed. Weir quickly swapped guitars for the custom Stratocaster design that he’s been using for the majority of these concerts. The dour “Sailor” had been booted from Grateful Dead setlists in the mid-1980s (others in the band reportedly hated it), but its sister composition – the joyful and upbeat “Saint of Circumstance” – stuck around.

In the hands of Bob Weir’s longtime Ratdog project, “Lost Sailor” would have been just a fan-service curio. On this night, however, “Sailor” became nothing short of mesmerizing. This was the tightest we have heard the band yet. The Grateful Dead dropped into “Saint of Circumstance” without missing a beat. While it wasn’t played with the frenetic pace of shows in the 1980s, it still had plenty of power and drive.

Bruce Hornsby took the reins on a snarling rendition of “West L.A. Fadeaway.” The Grateful Dead had stumbled across the riff the previous night coming out of the “Playing in the Band” jam, but tonight’s payoff was an absolute delight – punctuated by Hornsby hammering the piano keys and Chimenti following with that funky Hammond sound.

Before the “Drums” and “Space” improvisations of the night, the band launched into another later-period Garcia song, “Foolish Heart” from 1989’s Built to Last.

Watch the Grateful Dead Perform 'U.S. Blues' on July 4

Coming out of “Space,” Bob Weir tried several times to get the rest of the band to follow his lead into “Stella Blue,” but it seemed like everyone else was having way too much fun utilizing their guitar-effects boxes. Finally, “Stella” began with Weir at the lead. If Trey Anastasio shone the night before, July 4th was Bob Weir’s turn. His voice sounded fairly ragged, but he delivered this beloved Garcia ballad with so much emotion and grace that it was hard to find fault.

The show-closing “One More Saturday Night” and “U.S. Blues” encore weren’t surprises to anyone, but both songs were bursting with energy. As “U.S. Blues” reached its climax, fireworks filled the night sky over Soldier Field just as they had done 20 years prior.

Grateful Dead Setlist, July 4th, 2015
"Shakedown Street"
"Standing on the Moon"
"Me and My Uncle"
"Tennessee Jed"
"Cumberland Blues"
"Little Red Rooster"
"Friend of the Devil"
"Bird Song"
"The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)"
"Lost Sailor"
"Saint of Circumstance"
"West L.A. Fadeaway"
"Foolish Heart"
"Stella Blue"
"One More Saturday Night"
Encore: "U.S. Blues"

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