Thirty-eight years after first seeing the Grateful Dead perform in his home state of New Jersey, Jay Blakesberg was hired to capture the band’s 50th anniversary and farewell shows in California and Chicago this past summer.
“This was definitely a peak moment for me, without a doubt,” says Blakesberg, who parlayed an early interest in concert photography into a prolific career shooting greats like Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Carlos Santana, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Neil Young and, of course, Jerry Garcia and the Dead.
In December, he released a book of photographs, Fare Thee Well: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Grateful Dead. It documents the band’s five farewell shows in Santa Clara and Chicago.
“I was a 15-year-old kid who first saw the Dead in 1977 and 38 years later, I was the guy standing on stage photographing and documenting them,” Blakesberg, who tallied about 250 Dead shows in his life, tells Revue. “It’s a pretty remarkable career arc, for one.”
“Remarkable” is also a fair enough description of the planning, preparation, anticipation, anxiety, performance and conclusion to last summer’s Fare Thee Well shows, arguably the concert event of the year.
Blakesberg said he was approached right around a year ago, in December 2014, to photograph the two shows in Santa Clara (June 27-28) and three at Soldier Field in Chicago (July 3-5).
He fell in with the band professionally in the late 1980s after working with Dead guitarist Bob Weir on one of his solo ventures. Blakesberg had been getting work published in Rolling Stone and his early career as a professional, credentialed photographer began to grow.
Blakesberg, who also producers film content for bands and festivals, has always approached photography as a “technology-based art.”
“Early on, it was a different time in terms of shooting photos. You couldn’t shoot and look at the back of the camera,” he says. “You needed real skills — creative and technical skills.”
His advice to aspiring photographers today? “Think differently,” a mantra either deliberately or coincidentally taken from the ethos of the Grateful Dead.
“As an artist, it’s got to be interesting to you and fulfill you creatively and at the same time solve the problem for whoever assigned you to take that photo,” he says.
For the Fare Thee Well book, Blakesberg said he spent “a lot of time” editing to give the finished photos a “unique look and feel.”
Blakesberg can be seen in YouTube videos of the shows snaking around the stage at various points, capturing each of the members: Weir (complete with shorts and Birkenstocks), bassist Phil Lesh, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and Jeff Chimenti and Bruce Hornsby on keys.
You see the chemistry between Anastasio and Weir as they trail off together on winding jams, as well as the cronyism of Hart and Kreutzmann, who shared space behind hulking drum set-ups.
Blakesberg also had a technician and extra photographer working for him on crowd shots — including the first night in Santa Clara where there appeared to be a staged rainbow over Levi’s Stadium.
The crew also had to work quickly, Blakesberg said, making sure photos were out on the Associated Press wire that same night.
Following the shows, Blakesberg went to work “immediately” on putting the book together, which is his 11th coffee table book.
“Within a few weeks (of the shows), I was really able to grasp it all and say I hit a home run with my photos and the promoters hit a grand slam,” he says. “I still feel that way. I don’t think there’s anything I missed.”
Despite the anxiety among fans leading up to the shows — over ticket prices, venues and the lack of more (specifically East Coast) dates — Blakesberg’s book captures the pure joy of not just the band, but also the massive crowds that came from across the globe to celebrate the Dead.
“This book serves to nurture and activate our finely tuned senses and bring the Fare Thee Well celebration back to life,” Bill Walton, a former NBA basketball player and “proud and loyal Deadhead,” writes in the book’s foreword.
While the “Core Four” members — Weir, Lesh, Hart and Kreutzmann — continued performing shows this year in varying capacities and likely will in 2016, the finality of July 5 at Soldier Field means looking for new chapters, Blakesberg included.
“For me, it was a very peak moment in my career,” he says. “I gotta figure out my next act now.”