By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Grateful Dead gave what they say will be their last group performance on Sunday, playing to some 70,000 singing, dancing and tearful fans in Chicago's Soldier Field.
The four surviving members of the band ended their 50-year-run this weekend with three Chicago concerts. The shows come 20 years after the death of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who played his last show in the nation's third-largest city in 1995.
Known for their poetic lyrics and constant improvisation which can turn a three-minute song into an 18-minute experiment, the Grateful Dead emerged from the San Francisco Bay area to become one of the longest lasting and most influential bands of the era.
Inspired by blues, bluegrass, country and jazz, the band became the model for groups such as Phish, Blues Traveler and others in the "jam band" movement. The band's colorfully-dressed followers, known as "Deadheads," often attended multiple concerts on a tour.
Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio filled in for Garcia at the Chicago shows, joined by original members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman who have toured, along with other musicians and under various names, for years. Jeff Chimenti and Bruce Hornsby played keyboards for the Chicago shows.
The seven musicians started and ended the show with group hugs. They started the show with one of the group's most psychedelic early songs - "China Cat Sunflower," paired with the folk blues standard, "I Know You Rider."
The second half included extended jams on crowd favorites "Truckin'" and "Cassidy," and ended with Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away;" the Dead's biggest popular hit, "Touch of Grey;" and the elegaic "Attics of my Life."
Those who couldn't get tickets to the sold-out concerts followed simulcasts on cable television around the country. At a "watch party" on Chicago's northwest side Chris Wainscott, 42, of Milwaukee, said the time was right for the band to end its run.
"After 50 years, you've had your chance to take what you wanted to take from it," said Wainscott, who had seen dozens of concerts since 1994.
Heidi Kehler of St. Louis said she felt lucky for what the band had brought her, including lifelong friends.
"This music has given me a lot," she said.
Before the last songs, bass player Lesh told the crowd, "God bless you all, and thank you for listening."
"Be kind," said drummer Mickey Hart. "Be kind."
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Nick Macfie)