Behind The Scene: Don Sullivan Revisits Fare Thee Well

Dean Budnick on September 14, 2020
Behind The Scene: Don Sullivan Revisits Fare Thee Well

Sully and Shappy (photo credit: Jay Blakesberg)


“I can’t think of anything else like it,” promoter Don Sullivan says, while looking back on Fare Thee Well from a distance of five years. He could apply that comment to many aspects of the highprofile event, which brought together the “Core Four” members of the Grateful Dead (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann), Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, and keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti for shows at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on June 27-28, 2015 and Soldier Field in Chicago, on July 3-5, 2015. But, in this particular context, Sullivan is referring to the wide array of friends and acquaintances who reached out to him because of the shows. “I was put back in touch with people I hadn’t seen since my high-school prom, people I hadn’t seen since I graduated from college. Fare Thee Well touched so many people, bringing back memories of all the good times and helping us think ahead to the good times yet to come.”

Sullivan grew up in New York and attended college at Evanston, Ill.’s Northwestern University. While still a freshman, he encouraged his brother, who served on the school’s student-run programming board, to book General Public at the Welsh-Ryan Arena. Emboldened by the success of this show, Sullivan joined that board and, shortly after graduation, he took a job with preeminent area promoter Jam Productions. After nearly a quarter-century at Jam, he moved over to Madison House Presents, where he worked on Fare Thee Well, alongside Madison House’s Mike Luba and Relix publisher Peter Shapiro.

Fare Thee Well took on an additional resonance for Sullivan, a longstanding Deadhead who saw his first show in 1982. Following college graduation, but just prior to taking his job with Jam, he marked the transition with a Dead run at Alpine. Years later, he even named his daughter “Cassidy.”

What are your memories of the first Grateful Dead show that you worked?

It was the World Music Theater in Tinley Park in 1990. I was so excited, only to have it be one of the low points of my career, which was just starting. It’s the first time where, instead of being a fan, I was on the other side. I ended up being on the back of the lawn, holding an attack dog while people were rushing the fence. It’s just nothing I would have ever done as a fan.

I can remember driving to Tinley Park from Deer Creek that summer, but the problem was…

You might have had to park 10 miles away.

We parked on the side of the road, really far from the venue. I recall thinking there were so many other abandoned cars that they couldn’t tow all of us.

That was in the heyday of the parking lot, where we sold 40,000 tickets and 60,000 people showed up. That was a problem everywhere. The scene was becoming too big and taxing the infrastructure. It made it difficult for people who had tickets. And some people who didn’t get tickets would storm the gates.

In the summer of ‘95, I took some time off and went to Deer Creek. I had been working at Jam for a while, and whenever I had vacation time, I would go see Jerry Garcia Band or the Dead. This time, the Dead were heading out from Deer Creek and, eventually, ending the tour in Chicago. I remember experiencing the same thing— driving the three hours to get to Indianapolis, getting within a mile and waiting in traffic for five hours. By the time they let me park my car, the show had started and I had this bad feeling that something was going to happen. So we hopped back in the car and went home. When I turned on the news the next morning, I heard about the rioting at Deer Creek [on July 2].

Did that vibe carry over to Solider Field? What are your memories of the final shows in Chicago on July 8 and 9?

I do not recall a similar experience in Chicago. I recall that we sold out the shows but, otherwise, we didn’t have problems. Nothing particularly stands out. We were just doing our job, producing the show as safely and properly as we could.

Musically, I remember the “Visions of Johanna” [from 7/8/95].

Jumping ahead to Fare Thee Well, can you recall your initial thoughts as it started to come together?

 There were a number of ideas floating around in 2014. Someone approached us about a big festival in Golden Gate Park. The idea was to film it and have all these special guests. I wasn’t sure if all the proposed guests made sense but Mike and I thought it was worthwhile to keep going down that path. Then we got wind of what Shappy was staring to put together and that seemed really interesting as well. In the meantime, I had held Soldier Field on the anniversary of the last show, which fell on a weeknight.

What happened was the band turned down the idea of the festival, and then Shappy came up with the idea of July 4 rather than July 9, which was a Thursday. I think his idea was “God Bless America. God Bless the Grateful Dead.” That’s when I went in and held those weekend dates, which is where it all started for me.

Was there anxiety in Chicago about the city being overrun?

I sat in on so many meetings with the head of OEMC [Office of Emergency Management and Communications] and other major departments and merchants who were concerned that it might be just like Tinley Park and that we’d be slammed. There was a good chance that thousands and thousands of people were going to come to Chicago over the holiday weekend. Soldier Field is pretty impressive; it would be a challenge to storm those gates. But there was some concern that Chicago would be overrun, which was a factor in adding Santa Clara.

There were many meetings. We had great partners at the venue and the security team was great. We came in hot from Santa Clara with zero problems, other than trying to figure out who created the rainbow. [Laughs.] It was well-planned and it was executed flawlessly.

I mean, can you believe the parking lot didn’t even sell out? And that’s only, I believe, 1,500 cars. However, when I go to Soldier Field, I don’t drive there either. I take the train. It’s so easy.

Was it a challenge to land Santa Clara on relatively short notice?

No, the only tricky thing was that when I was 99% done at Levi’s Stadium, we decided to take another look at Golden Gate Park. As I recall, there were some logistical problems with a conflicting event but the woman who worked for the park couldn’t have been more rude. I was like, “Really? You’re representing the city.” It was nothing like what I had experienced in Chicago. It was weird.

I remember mentioning that we were also thinking about Levi’s because that would also pretty much be a hometown show. And then she started screaming a geography lesson at me, telling me how Santa Clara is not San Francisco. And I was like, “I think Palo Alto is even closer to Levi’s Stadium than San Francisco.” Oh, and by the way, nice job representing the city…

You mentioned the rainbow. What are your memories of seeing it in Santa Clara on opening day?

I remember texting Shappy about it. I asked him, “What did we pay for that?” [Laughs.] Did you notice the broken peace sign in the sky just prior to the show? I have a story about that. I get up super early, so when we were working on the show, I’d be on the phone with Peter at 6:30 a.m. my time and he’d say, “All right, this is the list of what we’re going to do today.” And one day he was like, “OK, Sully, let’s get a sky writer.” So I called this guy and he wanted like 20 grand to do a lightning bolt. So I was like, “Give me a break.” I put it on the back burner. But, of course, that was on Shappy’s checklist and he was persistent so, eventually, I took care of it.

Sure enough, it was the classic moment to start the show. We were all out there with Jay Blakesberg—taking pictures with the skywriter over our shoulders—when he missed that line. That was our one miss. I had tried to blow it off but Shappy wouldn’t let me. Once a year, Shappy will send me some goofy text and I’ll just shoot him back that picture.

Did that feel like a bad omen or just something goofy?

At that point, the show was about to start. It was opening night, so I was ready to drop my radio and run in.

Were you able to see much music over the course of the five shows?

We had so many people involved that, once the doors opened, I was able to play a bit. I watched all of the first sets. Also, I named my daughter Cassidy, and that was on the setlist the last night. So we were out there making sure she was witnessing the moment.

What other non-musical memories jump out at you?

At the very end of the third night in Chicago, after “Attics,” everyone kind of teared up. Then Trixie [Garcia] gave me a wooden engraved pick and said, “My dad would have been so proud.” I just completely lost it. I locked myself in my office and started bawling. It was just a very emotional release to have someone like that come up to you and say, “Good job.”

Five years later, how would you characterize the impact that Fare Thee Well has had on your own life and career?

For me, it was a chance to work with my favorite band and to be involved in such a tremendous project that made so many people happy. That was just incredible. I’ll also pat us on the back and say that I think we did a really good job.

I had a wonderful partnership with Peter and, hopefully, our paths will cross on another crazy adventure like this one day.

I think it’ll be tough to top the 50th anniversary celebration of a band whose song I named a family member after. However, there have been a couple of events I’ve done where I’ve had the same satisfaction of promoting something very big and complicated. Mike and I work closely with Mumford & Sons. They do these events called the Gentlemen of the Road, where you go to a small town and you quadruple the size of the population with the festival. Sometimes, the scale is even larger than that.

In fact, the day we confirmed Fare The Well, I was in Salida, Colo., pitching a town council on why I should bring 35,000 Mumford & Sons fans through their town of 5,000 people. While I’m sitting there, I’m getting texts from Shappy, sharing a message from Phil.

It’s very challenging, as a promoter, to work on something like the Gentlemen of the Road. So I get satisfaction being behind the scenes, putting my head down, doing my gig and producing a great event.