Grateful Dead co-founder plays epic set in SF’s Stern Grove

Like watching an extra-inning game at Candlestick or driving across the Bay Bridge in under 30 minutes, seeing the Grateful Dead for free feels like a San Francisco experience lost through time. But that’s exactly what happened to a few thousand lucky fans on Sunday when the band’s founding member, Phil Lesh, and his band Phil Lesh and Friends performed for the final episode of the Stern Grove Festival’s 2022 concert series.

All the hallmarks of a Dead show were to be found: tie-dye was everywhere, songs lasted 15 minutes, and you couldn’t go to the bathroom without wading through groups of gyrating hippies.

And let this be known, nearly 30 years after Jerry Garcia’s death and seven years after the Grateful Dead’s last official tour, the Deadhead community is still going strong. The turnout was especially impressive considering that a team of Dead alums performed for Jerry Day at McLaren Park on Saturday.

Phil Lesh performs with Phil Lesh and Friends at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.

Magali Gauthier/special for SFGATE

“I’ve been going to concerts before I could walk,” said Sophia Vox, a second-generation Dead Head who was born five years after Garcia’s death at age 22.

“After my first show, I was pretty hooked and now it’s my whole community,” said Sean Sequoia, who estimates he’s been to 175 shows of Grateful Dead or related acts.

The chance to see one of the founding band members for free has been a special experience, even for veteran Deadheads like Berkeley’s John Stefenhagen, who has been to over 100 shows.

Ross Allard dances with his daughter, Frankie Allard, on his shoulders as Phil Lesh & Friends perform at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.
Ross Allard dances with his daughter, Frankie Allard, on his shoulders as Phil Lesh & Friends perform at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.


Magali Gauthier/special for SFGATE

Tess Sims, center, dances as Phil Lesh & Friends perform at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.

Tess Sims, center, dances as Phil Lesh & Friends perform at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.


Magali Gauthier/special for SFGATE

Cheryl Provost, center, dances as Phil Lesh & Friends perform at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.

Cheryl Provost, center, dances as Phil Lesh & Friends perform at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.


Magali Gauthier/special for SFGATE

An onlooker smiles as she sees Phil Lesh & Friends perform at the final concert of the year at San Francisco's 85th Stern Grove Festival on August 14, 2022.

An onlooker smiles as she sees Phil Lesh & Friends perform at the final concert of the year at San Francisco’s 85th Stern Grove Festival on August 14, 2022.


Magali Gauthier/special for SFGATE


Grateful Dead fans of all ages will enjoy Phil Lesh & Friends’ performance, at Stern Grove, on Sunday, August 15, 2022. (Magali Gauthier/Special to SFGATE)


“It’s fantastic fun. Free is always the right price,” says Stefenhagen, who was amazed at the show’s cross-generational nature.

This mixing of generations was represented by the artists themselves. Midnight North, led by Phil Lesh’s son Grahame, opened the afternoon with a 35-minute set. Grahame returned for guitar and vocals when Phil Lesh and Friends took the stage.

Not that the concert was a socialist paradise at all. While admission was free, luxury tables, complete with valet service and a catered meal, were available for a minimum of $5,000. (Those tables were part of the Big Picnic, the Stern Grove Festival’s annual fundraising event, which subsidizes the free festival.)

I’ll let the cognitive dissonance of a Bloomberg table at a Grateful Dead show speak for itself.

Phil Lesh and Friends perform in the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.
Phil Lesh and Friends perform in the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.

Magali Gauthier/special for SFGATE

The slight commercialization didn’t detract from Phil Lesh and Friends’ excellent 2-hour set. The nine-piece band, including a violinist and harpist, captured the magic of the Dead in their 10-track performance that mostly stuck to Grateful Dead songs.

The band opened with three Dead hits, “Dark Star”, “St. Stephen” and “Shakedown Street”.

By the time the intro trio of songs was done, 45 minutes had already passed.

From there, the band mixed more Grateful Dead hits, such as “Playing in the Band,” with a few covers, including a haunting instrumental version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

Stevie Cole, left, and Katie Barlow, right, dance at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.
Stevie Cole, left, and Katie Barlow, right, dance at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.

Magali Gauthier/special for SFGATE

At least 70% of the concert was instrumental, but when the vocals were incorporated, Lesh often let his fellow band members take the lead.

Considering he’s been playing shows in San Francisco for the past six decades, it was shocking to hear Lesh tell audiences that this was the first time he’d ever played in Stern Grove.

If any audience member wasn’t fully transported, they certainly were by the time Phil Lesh and Friends closed with a 10-minute rendition of “Uncle John’s Band.”

Phil Lesh and Friends perform in the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.
Phil Lesh and Friends perform in the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.

Magali Gauthier/special for SFGATE

The coolness of hearing the famous song more than 50 years after it was written but less than 8 miles from where it was recorded is hard to overstate.

“I’m Phil Lesh and I’m still the happiest man in the world,” Lesh said with a nod to his illustrious career when he signed. After seeing the living legend for free, Stern Grove’s audience felt equally happy.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 1:15 PM on August 15 to clarify details about the Stern Grove Festival Big Picnic.

A spectator wears a shirt that reads “Goodbye,” as Phil Lesh and Friends perform at the final concert of the year at the 85th Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco on August 14, 2022.

Magali Gauthier/special for SFGATE

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