SANTA CLARA, CALIF. – The undercover cops didn’t help the vibe, most of all for Moondog. They wore jeans and t-shirts and carried backpacks that made them look almost like everybody else, except not really. They wouldn’t talk to me as they scooped up the spoils of the copyright shakedown – pins and t-shirts – and Moondog, growing uglier by the second as he stood helplessly next to his camper, cursed out the Dead, mocked Bobby and Phil Lesh, then pledged to return next time with bags of heroin decorated with Jerry’s face. Ouch.

It marked a depressing start to the day, but thankfully, only a start.

This isn’t 1978. And there’s money to be made and money to be protected. That clock started ticking Saturday night when the Grateful Dead, or the Grateful Dead without Jerry, opened the first of five farewell shows that will wrap July 5 in Chicago.

“I don’t know,” Michael “Spench” French said when I asked him if he’s going to be like everybody else, complaining about ticket prices and the cops and Trey, and he smiled and took a sip of his Sierra Nevada. “It’s a little bit weird but it’s better than nothing.”

Better than nothing. Inside Levi, the mood brightened. Thousands entering were given a rose, a nice touch.

(Photo by Jay Blakesberg )

“Look at the stage, bro,” Brad Cacciatore, 31, shouted to his buddy, catching a glimpse as they walked through the concourse searching for a craft beer.

That stage was big and the lights were killer and you’re here, even though you never saw the Dead with Jerry, even though you’ve paid $120 on StubHub for a $59 ticket that lands you behind the stage, and you’re fine with that.

“This is amazing,” Cacciatore said. “I’m a part of history.”

Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart won’t play together again, though three of them might head out with John Mayer, if the jamband rumor mill is right. For this, they’ve recruited Phish’s Trey Anastasio and pianist Bruce Hornsby and are a hotter ticket than Taylor Swift.

[The strange story of the Grateful Dead’s path to this summer’s hottest ticket.]

The parking lots open at 3, the set opens just after 7:15. They start with a building version of “Truckin’” and everybody in the crowd raises their arms at the famous line, “what a long, strange trip it’s been,” because everything somehow weighs more now when the end is near. As the first set wraps, a rainbow appears, stretching over the stage. It is majestic and glowing and not part of the light show. (Billboard reports otherwise, though that’s hard to believe.)

We see Bill Walton, Hall of Fame center and Deadhead, raise his arms, smile and hit a beach ball. We see a dude, standing next to me, lighting a spliff that manages to last through at least seven minutes of “What’s Become of the Baby” and we spot shirtless guy, stage left, stopping his dance to occasionally juggle three hacky sacks.

The music flows. They’ve built this setlist to make us forget the ‘80s. No “Touch of Grey” or “Hell in a Bucket.” Instead, we get “Alligator” and “The Eleven” and “Morning Dew.”

0016_062715_dg_0019 (Photo by Jay Blakesberg )

And Kate Monroe, sitting next to me, hears another aging nugget starting up and shouts, “Cream Puff War.”
Just 33, she came from Oregon and knew all the songs, never even considered grumbling, and smiled and looked skyward when that rainbow appeared.

“I’m so grateful, so happy to experience this,” she said. “So happy. It’s really a special week.”

It feels special. Classic photos of the Dead line the causeways. The hospitality suite is open to many fans who didn’t expect they’d be in the posh environs. The band is sharp, rehearsed. The first set is marked by shorter songs. The second set is where the jams fly. “Dark Star” for a half hour, “Drums,” “The Eleven” – with the William Tell bridge and Bob Weir flubbing a line and, charmingly, winding up his hand for a perfectly executed do-over.

Back in the press room, Joel Selvin, the legendary former San Francisco Chronicle writer, brought back for one night to cover the band he’s known for decades, admits the show is going better than he thought. (Earlier in the night, when the subject of Garcia came up, Joel told me: “It’s not a championship team. They lost their starting quarterback.”)

(Photo by Jay Blakesberg ) (Photo by Jay Blakesberg )

“St. Stephen,” he says, was “a gas.”

The night’s closer is, too.

“Driving that train, high on cocaine.”

That’s Hornsby singing, not Jerry. And Hornsby sounds good, raspier than usual, closing out a night that seemed to accomplish everything the band needed to do. They came, they packed the stadium and may have even caught a little fire during “Viola Lee Blues.” Not Cornell ’77 fire, but something.