Reich: Well then if we wanted to talk about "Dark Star", could you say anything about where it comes from?
Garcia: You gotta remember that you and I are talking about two different "Dark Stars." You're talking about the "Dark Star" which you have heard formalized on a record, and I'm talking about the "Dark Star" which I have heard in each performance as a completely improvised piece over a long period of time. So I have a long continuum of "Dark Stars" which range in character from each other to real different extremes. "Dark Star" has meant, while I'm playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine, so all I can do is talk about "Dark Star" as a playing experience.
Reich: Well, yeah, talk about it a little.
Garcia: I can't. It talks about itself.
- A Signpost to New Space, 1972
Dark Star was born in September 1967, while the Dead were staying at Rio Nido. One of their guests was Robert Hunter, who had recently joined up with the Dead as a lyric-writer. (Bear was also visiting, which is how the 9/3/67 show happened to be recorded.) Hunter had been living in the southwest, mailing some lyrics to the Dead; in June '67 Garcia wrote him to say that the band had set Alligator to music, and asking him to come to San Francisco to work with the band. So in July, Hunter returned, and in September he found himself listening to the Dead's rehearsals for their scheduled second-album sessions later that month.
"I was in my cabin. They were rehearsing in the hall, and you could hear from there. I heard the music and just started writing Dark Star lying on my bed. I wrote the first half of it and I went in and handed what I'd written to Jerry. He said, 'Oh, this will fit in just fine,' and he started singing it... [When] I heard the Grateful Dead playing, those were the words it seemed to be saying.... That did it for the time being. Then, a couple of days or weeks later," Garcia said he wanted another verse, so Hunter wrote the next verse sitting in Golden Gate Park.
"I was very impressed with T.S. Eliot around the time I was writing Dark Star," Hunter said, and one line was clearly influenced by a line in 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' - "Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky." "Beyond that, that's just my kind of imagery.... I don't have any idea what the 'transitive nightfall of diamonds' means. It sounded good at the time. It brings up something that you can see." [In some early '68 versions, Garcia sings "the transitional nightfall", which must have come more naturally than singing, "the - e transitive".]
Garcia also said the words and music belonged together. "The reason the music is the way it is, is because those lyrics suggested that to me.... They are saying, 'This universe is truly far out.' That's about it. You could take whatever you will from that suggestion. For me, that suggestion always means, 'Great, let's look around. Let's see how weird it really gets.'"
The Dead had wanted to create songs that were more poetic (Phil's New Potato was so far their only 'poem-song'), and here was a song that invited the listener on a transportational journey. It wasn't yet the jam-song it would become next year, more of a delicate pop song - kind of a cosmic counterpoint to Golden Road. Only now instead of "hey hey, come right away, come and join the party every day", Garcia sang in a darker shade: "Shall we go, you and I - while we can...."
In '67 the Dead were already known as a psychedelic band - probably dating from the Acid Test days (even though most of their music in '66 was pretty standard for the year). Their scary name and looks made them tempting for many young listeners, and the possibility that going to see them might (literally) get you high in some collective acid trip, was even more alluring for the adventurous. On their first album, Garcia already had his nickname of 'Captain Trips', which he disliked. He claimed, "The Grateful Dead has never thought of itself as being a psychedelic band. We've always thought of ourselves as a rock & roll band."
Other times, Garcia insisted that the band simply played dance music. "We still feel that our function is as a dance band... We like to play with dancers....nothing improves your time like having somebody dance. It pulls the whole thing together, and it's also a nice little feedback thing." He described the Dead's long jams as being very useful to play to roomfuls of zonked-out dancers who'd lost all concept of time. "When you're playing for people who are dancing and getting high, you can dance easy to a half-hour tune and you can even wonder why it ended so soon."
But at the same time, Garcia was an open champion of the psychedelic experience. As he said later, "Psychedelics were probably the single most significant experience in my life. Otherwise I think I would be going along believing that this visible reality is all that there is. Psychedelics didn't give me any answers - what I have is a lot of questions. One thing I'm certain of - the mind is an incredible thing, and there are levels of organizations of consciousness that are way beyond what people are fooling with in day-to-day reality."
Another time he explained, "It scared the shit out of me, man. It was like, 'What do you believe?' It removed everything I was certain of. And in its place was a new set of circumstances.... Cosmic is the only word for it. Nothing has happened in my life since then, man. Nothing was as climactic, as complete as that.... I can go back and visit bits and pieces of it, but it's all here, in the foreground of my mind..... I had experiences more real than anything I've experienced in this world." He concluded, "Things happened that I've never recovered from. It was definitely one of those 'before and after' experiences. What would we do without psychedelics? How gray life would be....how limited."
But Garcia was quick to add that acid didn't have a direct effect on the music. "There was a me before psychedelics, and a me after psychedelics; that's the best I can say. I can't say it affected the music specifically; it affected the whole me. The problem of playing music is essentially of muscular development and that is something you have to put in the hours to achieve no matter what. There isn't something that strikes you and suddenly you can play music."
For inspiration, the Dead didn't necessarily have to explore their cosmic existence - they needed only to look around them. At the time San Francisco was full of acid-tripping bands playing ambitious, mind-expanding jams, checking out each other's shows and jamming together. In this communal scene, the Dead's quest for a new music was shared by many other bands, with a sort of musical cross-pollenization bringing all sorts of new influences into the rock world. Part of what set the Dead apart was their diversity, since they'd all come from different musical fields than rock music, so they took ideas from a wide range of music.
I've mentioned how Viola Lee Blues was influenced by the Butterfield Band's East/West, which was a huge jump from Butterfield's usual Chicago blues covers. John Kahn later said, "Jerry told me that when he was first playing in San Francisco, Bloomfield was the one guitarist who really impressed him, because of the way he could endlessly come up with different ways of playing around a melody. I think Jerry would say he was influenced by Bloomfield a little, though Jerry had stronger country influences that shaped his tone." (Michael Bloomfield noted of Garcia in 1968, "He sounds amazingly like he's trying to sound like me, but I don't think he is. I think he came that way himself.")
In 1968 Garcia also mentioned that he listened to a lot of country guitar players to develop his skills. "I got a lot of my ideas from country fiddlers, too. Scotty Stoneman particularly."
He went into more detail: "I get my improvisational approach from Scotty Stoneman, the fiddle player. He's the guy who first set me on fire - where I just stood there and I don't remember breathing. He was just an incredible fiddler. He was a total alcoholic wreck by the time I heard him, playing with the Kentucky Colonels [in 1965]... They did a medium-tempo fiddle tune, and it's going along, and pretty soon Scotty starts taking these longer and longer phrases....and the guys in the band are just watching him! They're barely playing, while he's burning. The place was transfixed. They played this tune for like twenty minutes, which is unheard of in bluegrass. I'd never heard anything like it.... He's like the bluegrass Charlie Parker."
Lesh's background in modern classical, early electronica and avant-garde music came to the fore in '67, as he helped push the band into more challenging pieces, and came up with many of the ideas for recording and mixing the Anthem album. And once Mickey Hart joined that fall, he brought a strong interest in Indian music with its changing rhythms and flexible tempos. Garcia said, "What Indian music seems to have - the combination of tremendous freedom and tremendous discipline - really impressed Mickey, so he started right away studying with Alla Rakha. That influence got the rest of us starting to fool with ideas that were certain lengths."
The Dead were also deeply into jazz, and this music gave them a lot of guidance once they started jamming their songs. Charles Lloyd was a jazz horn-player the Dead admired and played with - in April '67 Garcia mentioned that he wanted the Dead to work with Charles Lloyd's jazz group, but it never happened. Lloyd said, "I think we probably influenced them a bit to start opening up their improvisations. When we were at the Rock Garden [in March '67], we traded sets and they'd all be hanging around in the wings when we played, really listening. Jazz has always been a music of freedom & inspiration & wonder & consolation, and the Dead definitely got something from that."
The Dead were big fans of Miles Davis, Mingus and Coltrane - Lesh was very impressed when Mingus saw their first New York show in June '67. Weir said, "We felt at that time, when we were listening to Coltrane, that we were hardly fit to grovel at his feet. But still, we were trying to get there - our aims were the same."
When Miles Davis met the Dead at the Fillmore West 1970 shows, he talked with Garcia and was surprised to find that "Garcia liked jazz, and I found out that he loved my music and had been listening to it for a long time. He loved other jazz musicians too, like Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans." Garcia would say that he learned "open playing" from Davis, something he started using more in '69: "I got part of that from Miles, especially the silences. The holes. Nobody plays better holes than Miles, from a musician's point of view. In Indian music they have what you call 'the unstruck', which is the note you don't play. That has as much value as the stuff you do play."
As for Coltrane - "I've been influenced a lot by Coltrane," Garcia said, "but I never copped his licks or sat down, listened to records and tried to play his stuff. I've been impressed with that thing of flow, and of making statements that to my ears sound like paragraphs - he'll play along stylistically with a certain kind of tone...for X amount of time - then he'll change the subject, then play along with this other personality coming out, which really impresses me.... Perceptually, an idea that's been very important to me in playing has been the whole 'odyssey' idea - journeys, voyages, and adventures along the way."
All this would be tied together in the Dead's new song, Dark Star. The band couldn't have predicted how, over the course of 1968, this song would transform into an improvisational odyssey of its own, a psychedelic ship that could take audiences on infinite voyages.
It's hard to imagine what it might have sounded like in its initial incarnation, born out of some nebulous September '67 jam - a peaceful moment among the distorted, rough & tumble jams of the 9/3/67 show. But in Dancing in the Street, Garcia's solo is in the lyrical Dark Star mode (sometimes almost quoting the melody), prefiguring the Stars to be.
There's a huge advance since the last Dancing we have from 3/18/67 - the band has slowed the song down and made room for more interaction in the jam, and Garcia is using much more space in his notes. All over this show we can hear the new strength in their instruments the Dead had found in '67, with Weir and Lesh blending into one hypnotic rhythm and Garcia reaching to a deeper level than he had before.
The Dead went to RCA Studios in LA for a couple weeks in September '67 to start recording their second album, with Dave Hassinger again producing as he'd done on their first album. As Garcia said, "We accomplished absolutely nothing." Then they tried going to American Studios in North Hollywood in mid-November '67; then they went to New York to try a couple studios there, until Hassinger quit.
(There is a tape of at least one fall session where they try running 'live' through some of their new material.)
The Dead's first album had been recorded in just four days, and they were determined not to do it that way again - Lesh called it "a turd." As Garcia said, "We felt very bad about it. We thought it was unfortunate.... We did it, and that was it. And then we had all the time afterwards, after it was released, to really regret it, because it was mediocre performances of material that we were able to do much better. It was uninspired completely. We'll never go about it that way again."
As soon as the first album was released, Garcia was already saying, "That was an attempt to try and sound like the way we do live - there's not really anything unconventional for us in there. So we're not going to bother doing that anymore... When we go and record, since the first album is doing so nicely, we hope they'll let us have a lot of time in the studio, and next time we'll do a lot more studio stuff."
One hapless New York engineer said, "I'd never seen anything like the Dead before....guitars, drums and family and children and friends and roadies and breastfeeding ladies and people sitting on the floor. It was flowers, peace symbols, beads, bells...pot was everywhere. There was so much pot the accountants upstairs used to get high from the smoke going up through the air conditioning.... Everything took forever to do. I think Dave and I spent 48 hours just on the drum sound, getting the cymbals right.... Normally I could get two albums done in the time it took to get a drum sound for the Dead."
Like many other bands under the influence of the Beatles, they decided they wanted unlimited time to discover new instrumental sounds and experiment with effects never heard before. Garcia said later, "One of the things that we built into our contract (which was unheard of at the time) was unlimited studio time. We knew we'd have to pay for it, but we wanted as much as we wanted. Our strategy was, 'We want to play in the studio. We want to learn how the studio works. We don't want somebody else doing it....' So what we did essentially was we bought ourselves an education, and the way we achieved it was to spend lots and lots of time in the studio fooling around with stuff.... It was a trial-and-error kind of thing."
Hassinger said that one time, "I went into American Recording and they had ordered so many instruments and so much equipment that you literally could not get into the studio! The whole album was that way. It was like pulling teeth until I finally couldn't take it anymore..... We'd been working a long time on that second album, and they had put down some tracks and no one could sing them. Nobody could sing the thing, and at that point they were experimenting too much in my opinion. They didn't know what the hell they were looking for....they were going from one end of the spectrum to the other."
(As a result, the head of Warner Brothers wrote the band's manager: "Lack of preparation, direction and cooperation from the very beginning have made this album the most unreasonable project with which we have ever involved ourselves. Your group has many problems, it would appear, and Hassinger has no futher interest or desire to work with them under conditions similar to this last fiasco. It's apparent that no one in your organization has enough influence over Phil Lesh to evoke anything resembling normal behavior. You are now branded an undesirable group in almost every recording studio in Los Angeles....The guys ran through engineers like a steamroller. It all adds up to a lack of professionalism. The Grateful Dead is not one of the top acts in the business as yet. With their attitudes and their inability to take care of business....they will never be truly important." Nonetheless, the label gave the band more studio time in early '68!)
Out of all this confusion came a short, delicate recording of Dark Star, released as a single in April '68 while the band were still mixing the Anthem album. The B-side, Born Cross-Eyed, was a weird and confusing blast of trippy noises, off-rhythms and strange vocals - but Dark Star in its initial guise was pretty, poppy, even pastoral. It's very fast and bouncy - the song doesn't sound ominous as it would in later, slower versions, but mysterious and inviting.
The basic parts are there, with Phil's bass and Weir's rhythm pretty much in the lead next to Pigpen's six-note riff - Garcia's guitar takes more of a backseat as decoration, and in fact there isn't even a guitar solo, one verse heading straight into another. But part of the Dead's magic here is how the guitars and bass are intertwined - like they aren't playing separate parts, but are all connected as one instrument. On top of that, there are numerous overdubs and studio effects - Garcia's vocals are doubletracked, there's a prominent tamboura along with the organ, splashing cymbals or gongs, an acoustic guitar popping up at dramatic pauses in the first verse, electric-guitar doubling at the end (what I think of as the 'Dear Prudence' sound), and in a surprise little coda (perhaps influenced by the Beatles' 'Tomorrow Never Knows') a quick bit of banjo from Garcia in the fadeout. And under all this, Robert Hunter, in his only appearance on a Dead record, recites a Joycean 'word salad' under the gongs at the end: "spinning a set the stars through which the tattered tales of axis rolls about the waxen wind of never set to motion in the unbecoming round about the reason hardly matters nor the wise through which the stars were set in spin."
There's an outtake, labeled as being from 11/14/67 American Studios - obviously not all recorded that day, but perhaps the date of that mixdown or an overdub. This is the basic track of the song, minus the vocals and almost all the overdubs I mentioned - we do have a couple Garcia guitars playing off each other in the second verse, and there's also a conga part (buried in the final mix) in place of Pigpen's riff - and also a longer section in-between verses, which they later decided to trim. (You can also hear Garcia shouting near the end, "It drags like that!")
The single flopped and promptly disappeared. Garcia said years later: "The single that we recorded at the time was a very poor exposition of the idea that I had in my mind. I wanted it to have a lot more depth, but I had no idea how to make the band play that way. I especially didn't know how to speak to drummers then. I didn't know how to tell them what I wanted. For me, the single of it is a blunder - it didn't work.... I wanted it to have more power. I wanted the bass figure to be more powerful.... As always with Grateful Dead stuff, my version usually just dies somewhere and the Grateful Dead version takes over. I've learned to trust that process. At the time I was panicked a little because I thought, 'Well, what happened to my song? What happened to the thing that I wanted to have happen here?' But as it opened up and we got really risky - when we started to drop the rhythm and just go all over the place - then I realized that the Grateful Dead version was way more interesting both to me as a player and also to me as an audience."
Opening up and "dropping the rhythm" was the key to how the music would develop over the next year. The Dead in '67 were spending hours in rehearsals every day opening up their music, feeling their way to a new style. Over the past couple years they had learned to fit together in a symbiotic way, blending their instruments in a tight mesh of sound, responding to each other with the instinctive quickness of countless hours of practice. As Lesh put it, the band now played "electric chamber music", where they could all play counterpoint to each other rather than staying in traditional roles.
Garcia described the band: "It's a string band fundamentally, even though it's electric.... It's a kind of mutated bluegrass group on a certain level. Bluegrass is a conversational music and I thought it would be nice to have an electric band that was conversational - where the instruments talked to each other. It's a way to organize music."
In 1966, with everyone still learning their instruments, Garcia had been the musical leader in the solos, taking frenetic leads while the others backed him. But they were becoming more a group of equal parts, and were confident enough to leave their R&B roots and give themselves a diet of ambitious jam-songs. They threw themselves into the goal of constantly improving technically - Garcia and Lesh in particular were ceaseless self-improvers, and had visions of untapped horizons of music like nothing they'd played before, free of the usual rock conventions.
Garcia said in 1967: "We're trying to think away from the standard routine of, these members comp, this member leads. We're trying to think of ensemble stuff - not like Dixieland ensemble, but something else which we don't yet know anything about.... The problems we're having with all this, because of all of us still think so musically straight, really, that it's difficult to get used to not hearing the heavy two & four. It's difficult to think rhythmically without having it there all the time, but we're starting to develop that sense better. There's not that feeling of the big rhythm going because we do a lot of tricks within a bar, and the tricks we do are like eliminating the beat entirely and all of us just not playing it. Like we're starting to use the space, rather than the time."
Especially after Mickey Hart joined in September '67, they started working on polyrhythms and odd time signatures like the Eleven, the Seven, the Main Ten, the Other One - practicing until they became so instinctively familiar with the tricky patterns, they could maneuver inside the jam without all playing the 'time', yet could come back to it at any moment. Garcia remembered, "We'd spend hours & hours every day, just playing groups of eleven, to get used to that phrase, then we started working things out in seven, [and so on] - patterns, phrases, and licks that were those lengths, and play them over & over again.... You can't play confidently and fluidly in those times without really knowing what you're doing."
As Hart put it, "We were doing a lot of acid then, so linear progression was distorted. So we would just drop the one.... We would go on the pulse, all of a sudden, the pulse would lead us to a place, and we were completely lost, we didn't know where the original one was, so instead of struggling with the one, [Billy and I] would establish a new one.... And they would catch on to our telepathic one, and they would latch on - when the third person went to it, it became legitimate.... We would be able to fly or float on the pulse, and there was no need to sound the one or recognize it - sometimes the one was known, and we'd let it go untouched - other times we all pounced on it."
Garcia described his role in this: "Rhythmically, our policy is that the one is where you think it is. It's a kind of zen concept, but it really works well for us. It makes it possible to get into a phrase where I can change into little phrase spurts, spitting out little groups of notes....and then turn that into a new pulse. Then I'm inside of a whole irregularly rotating tempo in relation to what the rest of the band is playing, when they're playing the original common time. It produces this ambiguity, but all I have to do is make a statement that says, 'end paragraph, and one...,' and they all know where that is. We all have that kind of privilege - it's partly something we've allowed each other, and partly something we've gained confidence to be able to do just by spending a lot of time playing together."
Here he was talking about the Eleven, but you can already hear this kind of tempo-shifting in '67 New Potatoes and Viola Lees - and it would start to enter Dark Star in later '68, as the Dead started playing spiralling passages in the jam. Their rhythm practices were initially for specific structured jams, but they paid off later when the Dead started playing freeform jams, and were able to follow each other over a constantly changing pulse that any player could push in a new direction. Though Dark Star started out with a tight structure, over the year more freeform parts would slip in as the music became untethered and floated free - but in an instant it could return to the theme, so tightly were the band locked together. Dark Star is a song with a very steady pulse (almost a musical heartbeat), but over time it would become loose enough that all form could disintegrate and any number of counter-melodies could be introduced inside the space.... But that's getting ahead of our story.
It's been said that the Dead intended Dark Star from the first to have an open-ended jam between verses, but this is in hindsight. When they took it on the road in early '68, it was still extremely close to the studio version - Garcia had a guitar solo worked out, but as we'll see, it was a 'composed' solo that was pretty much the same from night to night. I suspect that at the time, the Dark Star>China Cat>Eleven suite was one of the pieces being considered for the Anthem album, so they tried to play it consistently without too much variation - my guess is that listening afterwards, either there wasn't room for everything, or they decided it didn't work the way they wanted, and China Cat and the Eleven needed more work; so they were scrapped, and the Dark Star studio version was set aside as a single.
After Hassinger split in December '67, the Dead were left with various unfinished studio pieces and no prospect of finishing them. But they had the idea that they could record some shows and simply mix the live & studio songs together - of course, the mixing itself would require months more in the studio (Anthem wasn't released til July '68). But as a result of their plan, we have recordings of almost the whole tour from Jan/Feb '68. Dark Star was probably played live in late '67, but the first recording we have is from 1/17/68.
January '68 saw a breakthrough in how the Dead approached their music. A strong jazz element had entered the music, and new tunes like Clementine and the Spanish Jam were directly influenced by jazz tunes; others like Born Cross-Eyed and the Eleven could be seen as a marriage of rock guitars with jazz techniques, soaked in acid. The whole idea of a suite of songs linked together by improvised jams, or dissolving into a period of 'space' or free noise, was foreign to the rock world, but natural in the jazz realm.
The Dead wanted to create an album which would be one long continuous piece, where the songs all blended together - so in this tour, they started to play shows 'symphonically', or as a series of segues in which various songs (mostly jams themselves) could all be jammed together. As late as November '67, the only two songs the Dead had tied together this way were Alligator & Caution - in October they debuted the Other One>Cryptical medley, which was always meant to be played as one unit.
But at the start of '68, they'd fallen in love with the idea of segueing everything. A few early setlists speak for themselves:
1/17 Dark Star>China Cat>The Eleven>New Potato Caboose>Born Cross-Eyed>Spanish Jam
1/20 Clementine>New Potato Caboose>Born Cross-Eyed>Space>Spanish Jam>Caution Jam>Dark Star [>probably more]
1/22 The Other One>New Potato Caboose>Born Cross-Eyed>Feedback>Spanish Jam>Dark Star>China Cat>The Eleven>Caution Jam>Feedback
Of course it wasn't just random wildness - most of the songs were connected in a certain order and stayed that way, so I think the Dead had prearranged some sequences to use on the album. One of these was Dark Star>China Cat>The Eleven. I've posted a bit about China Cat before - at this time it was indivisible from the Eleven, and they weren't separated til the spring. Though it was totally unrelated to Dark Star, musically, the Dead must have liked the effect of slowing things down with the quiet, contemplative ending of Dark Star, and then suddenly charging into China Cat like a locomotive. (I especially like the whistle-blow that Garcia sometimes makes on his guitar!)
Dark Star still closely follows the format of the studio version - fast & peppy & filled with Pigpen's repeated organ riff. He actually fits in well in these early versions, since he's more integrated with the band's sound. One interesting touch is that in the pauses of the verse ("while we can....diamonds...."), Pigpen plays a sort of 'chicka-chicka' on the organ to give it some extra rhythm.
One change is the intro riff - Phil & Jerry played it in unison in the studio, and ever after; but for some reason, on this tour alone, they stagger the riff, with Phil starting it and then Garcia echoing him. Another change is that there's much more guitar playing than in the studio - this isn't a song like Born Cross-Eyed where they have to stick with a rather inflexible structure, but they're able to stretch it out during the solos. However, the solos all follow the same pattern; and at this point, Garcia's bag of riffs is not very large, so pet phrases of his keep getting repeated, and he only hints at themes that would be expanded later.
In the intro, Garcia riffs around for a minute or two on the Dark Star theme. Then in the solo, he'll start with a short series of 'steps' down from the main riff (this is also on the single); then he plays the melody of the verse, over the dropping chords; this leads to what I think of as the 'falling-star' note, which he repeats a few times; then he plays a kind of staccato variation (short, clipped notes) on the Dark Star theme. (Sometimes, these last two sections are reversed.) These were the basic elements of the solo that he'd gradually expand over the next year.
1/17/68 - On our first live Dark Star, the intro is cut - in fact, I have to mention that fully half of the Dark Stars of the year are missing the opening because the tape starts late! Part of this is because they usually started the set with Dark Star, but it's still peculiar, and it's so common I won't mention it again, except where we're missing more than a minute of music. This embryonic Dark Star is about the shortest ever played (about five minutes), very basic with a brief solo.
1/20/68 - The Dead meander out of the Spanish Jam into a short Caution jam, then Garcia decides to launch into Dark Star at breakneck speed. At the very start we get an interesting glimpse of the Dead's change in plan: Phil & Jerry play the intro in unison, then remember they do it differently now and stop, then they play it in the new staggered way. Unusually, they groove on the intro riff for quite a while, with Garcia doubling Pigpen's riff for a minute while Pigpen tries to find his place in the rhythm! (Pigpen is lost for a while, but they stick with it till he recovers. Perhaps this reminds us that the riff wasn't Pigpen's fumbling attempt at an idea, it's what the band wanted him to play.) Finally, Garcia plays a short intro solo; unfortunately, the tape cuts in the first verse.
1/22/68 - Once again, the Dark Star comes out of a faltering Spanish Jam. Well-done, this is one of the more introspective versions - Garcia's guitar is rather quiet in the mix, blending in with the other instruments more, and his vocal is very distant, which adds a sense of mystery.
1/23/68 - The bonus tracks on the '68 Road Trips revealed that this was one of the great shows of the tour. This is the best, and longest, Dark Star on this tour (almost eight minutes). The Dead are revved-up and go into it very fast - Phil is high in the mix, and Garcia's really into his playing - the intro is especially long. After the verse, you can hear Garcia go "ahh" as he starts his solo - not going straight into the usual melody, but playing freeform for a bit. He plays around with the rest of the solo, even throwing in a bit of the Eleven.
2/2/68 - Played as the encore, this is a sloppy version, with some extra drums inappropriately crashing in. This is one of the very few Dark Stars that don't segue into anything, but simply stops quietly - Weir is ready to start China Cat, but the others are finished.
2/3/68 - A strong, flowing version, almost perfect except that the solo peters out at the end. The percussion is mixed high enough in this show that you can hear it well, unlike most the shows on this tour. Garcia says, "Leave the lights on, will you," at the end.
2/14/68 - Standard.
2/22/68 - This show couldn't be used for the Dick's Picks since the vocals accidentally weren't recorded, but it's still a nice high-energy segment, and it's interesting to hear an instrumental Dark Star>China Cat. The solo has new melodic variations of the Dark Star theme.
2/23/68 - The mix is excellent tonight, and so is the Dark Star. Finally, Phil & Jerry realize that changing the intro around wasn't such a good idea, and revert to playing it in unison. The staccato section has been developing through the tour, and now we can hear it turning into one of the most famous Dark Star figures - almost the same notes as the basic Dark Star theme, but rearranged a bit so that it sounds uplifting or triumphant. Of course it doesn't have a name, but to identify it later, I'll call it the 'bright star' theme. (One well-known example would be at 20:30 on the Live/Dead Dark Star, which turns into the 'falling-star' notes.)
Dick's Picks 22
3/16/68 - The Dark Stars we have from March aren't much different from the winter tour, but there is some development in Garcia's playing. His solo is starting to get longer - he noodles for a bit at the start - and then in the 'bright star' section, we see him starting to play more with the dynamics, as he quiets down and then becomes loud again, then tears into the 'falling-star' notes. This is perhaps the first precursor of the emotional journey later Dark Star jams would take.
http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-03-16.sbd.vernon.9388.sbeok.shnf (also So Many Roads box)
3/26/68 - This show is the first great AUD recording of the Dead. (There had been a couple in '67, which sound quite dire.) One thing it makes clear is how different Garcia sounds in "room recordings" versus the soundboard - he just jumps out and seems to be using the theater echo - as he put it, "I aim notes for the room that I'm in." On audience tapes like this, he almost sounds like a horn-player more than a guitarist. (When his mother went to see the band in March '67, the first thing she asked him was, "How do you get the guitar to sound like a horn like that?")
Once again, the solo starts freely before going into the 'composed' sections. This is the other Dark Star that just ends quietly with no segue, just like 2/2.
3/30/68 - Another great Carousel AUD (almost as clear as a soundboard); this is the longest Dark Star yet, at nine minutes. Garcia starts it coming smoothly out of a hot Cryptical reprise, but he seems to have some trouble with equipment static. Garcia is on a roll though, and he improvises for quite a while at the start of his solo, which then follows the same pattern as the 3/16 Star. A beautiful performance, and the last Dark Star>China Cat>Eleven.
After March, we enter the Black Hole of 1968....a mostly silent gap from April to mid-August in which almost no recordings survive. Dark Star (and the Dead's whole show) would emerge from the other side of this hole sounding very different, but we have few clues about the kind of transitions they went through. If the recordings of 6/14 and 6/19 are any indication, this was a time of wild experimentation, and the August shows would be more sedate and predictable in format (however wildly played).
'67 and early '68 saw most of the group's collective compositions come together in their constant rehearsals. In May '68, one of their last 'collective' songs appeared, St Stephen. (Later in '68, Garcia would become essentially the lead composer in the Dead, bringing in most of the songs for the others to learn, and he would keep that spot for several years.) Now that China Cat was out of the picture, soon St Stephen would follow Dark Star as surely as day follows night - but for now, it floated loose in the set. The early Stephens are different from the August Stephens in that there's much more jamming - they reprise the last verse and end the song with a long jam and a few returns to the Stephen theme before drifting off to another song. It wouldn't be connected to the Eleven for another month or two.
On Disc 4 of the "Mystery Reels", the second show fragment has the longest Dark Star of '68 (sixteen minutes) - but far from being a late-'68 Star, it comes from sometime in the summer, as we can immediately tell by the St Stephen. When you first hear the two Stephens on disc 4, they seem to be really fast and clumsy, Garcia handles most the singing himself, and their structure is quite different from the August '68 Stephens. So we could narrow them down to May-July 68 - but in fact, if you're familiar with the 6/14/68 Stephen, these Stephens are practically note-for-note identical in style and structure to that one. (The earliest Stephen fragment we have, on disc 1, has a similar final chorus before veering off, since they haven't settled on an ending.)
So I'd say these are mid-June '68 shows....not only that, but since a soundboard reel of the 6/14/68 show was discovered, we know the Dead must have recorded that run, and apparently our stray fragments are all that remains from a whole stash of June '68 recordings. Could this Dark Star reel be from a lost Fillmore East show after all?
That said, it's not nearly as intense as 6/14/68. One of the ironies of having the soundboard fragments of these and the Disc 1 Carousel show, is that they don't come close in energy to the AUDs of 5/18 and 6/14. In any case - at this show, Weir asks the audience before Dark Star, "Whoever stole our scratcher, please give it back....we need our scratcher for our next number." (Apparently some honest soul then returns it.)
Pigpen is very quiet in the mix, so he's not distracting. Garcia, on the other hand, is right up-front with a very clear, distinct tone - he almost sounds like he's using a different guitar. He solos at length - in fact they don't even get to the verse for five minutes! Garcia seems a bit withdrawn - this is a very noodley Dark Star, but also a subdued one, since they never really turn on the heat. Weir and Lesh are starting to play differently now, though - they're much looser, able to slide around with little counterpoints - Weir in particular echoes Garcia quite a bit. In the solo, after finishing the verse melody, Garcia plays the 'bright star' theme and finishes it with the quiet falling-star notes - then he starts a new riff on the low strings which he repeats over and over obsessively, then turns into a high arpeggio which the others spin around in a climax, before they return to the staccato Dark Star theme. This is an early version of a technique they'd develop much more later on.
A couple parenthetical notes - one, in earlier Dark Stars, Garcia went from the staccato theme into the second verse, but here he starts using a few rhythmic bass notes (in time with Pigpen) to introduce the verse, which he would do for the rest of the year. Also, this is our first Dark Star>St Stephen.
(We almost get another Dark Star on disc 4 - after the first St Stephen, they start to go into Dark Star, change their minds, and enter Cryptical instead. This Other One medley is still in its early phase, without the extra jamming we'll hear in August.)
In August we get Dark Stars from four days in a row. They aren't much slower in pace yet, but they find the band sounding tougher than they did in March. Garcia is playing harder, more sharply, bringing more out of his notes - when he plays the verse melody in the solo, for instance, it's much more dramatic than it used to be - and new melodies are pouring out of him. Lesh is a lot more free in his lines, often playing in duet with Garcia. Pigpen is still carrying on his riff almost non-stop through the song, which is less charming than it used to be because Dark Star is now twice as long, and the rest of the band is clearly in a different zone - and he's also very loud in the mix in these shows. (The percussion is also mixed high, so the cymbals in the verses are much more prominent now.) With Lesh playing like a second guitarist and bobbing off after Garcia, and Pigpen doing so little, Weir is mostly left playing chords (or suggestive bits of chords) to hold down the base - but when Garcia plays a pattern or changes direction, Weir is always right there with him.
Dark Stars for the rest of the year would range from 10-15 minutes. By now they'd settled into a regular format for the song sequences: almost every night it went Dark Star>St Stephen>Eleven>Death Don't Have No Mercy. Something about the changes in mood must have clicked for the Dead, for they stuck with this sequence. By November they would start alternating Lovelight with Death at the end of this medley - so well into '69, when a Dark Star started, you knew the road you were going to take, but didn't know quite where you'd end up.
8/21/68 - The intro is cut by a minute or two, so we enter in the middle of the intro jam. Garcia is playing on a more complex level than a few months ago - rather than riffing around the theme, he's improvising more and inventing new melodies. After the verse he pauses for a while and starts the solo slowly, cautiously placing his notes. Though the solo still has much of the same structure, Garcia has taken it out into jam territory by improvising more in-between the sections - he'll play the verse melody in each solo this year, but now it's surrounded by longer jams. This isn't one of the more dramatic Stars, as he never really commits to a theme or builds up the intensity, but keeps heading back to loose jamming.
8/22/68 - Bill Graham introduces them as "clean-cut but morally corrupt." The Archive source is in mono, and unfortunately Pigpen is the loudest player, right up-front with his constant little riff - so this version can be hard to listen to.
The band is meshed together, constantly pushing ahead, notes crashing in a headlong tide. After the verse melody, Garcia plays a series of revolving notes, spilling into each other - then they quiet down before playing an unusual variation on the Dark Star theme, as Garcia lingers in the jam a little longer before the second verse. Afterwards, they go into Cryptical, having played Stephen earlier in the show.
Beware early copies of 8/22/68 - they are actually fakes of 8/24/68 with the songs shuffled around! (Only one complete version of 8/22 is on the Archive.) Overall this show seems to be the runt of this run anyway, with scrappier playing than the other shows.
8/23/68 - This is one of the longest Dark Stars of the year (15 minutes). Garcia plays a long solo in the intro, with lots of new themes, and after the verse they head straight into a free jam. By now it's difficult to take all the players in at once, but they're able to meet at any point in an instant, and can build up or drop down in volume on a dime. Garcia concentrates on straight melodic riffing, and we hear the first of his little violin-like 'volume swells', which he wouldn't do very frequently this year. At one point Lesh stops playing briefly, so we get a rare duet passage between Garcia & Weir. Garcia gets into a groove playing some repeating notes that circle round each other - as he heads into the 'bright star' theme the others kick up the intensity, so when he hits the falling-star notes, they're pushing him harder and it turns spontaneously into a wailing climax, which he carefully brings back to the Dark Star theme.
8/24/68 - This is the shortest version of this run, but perhaps the most lyrical and powerful in its compression. They reach the verse quickly, but even in a 90-second intro, Garcia has passed through several themes and variations, changing his tone in-between phrases. The solo starts with a new song-like melody - after the verse melody there's a section where Garcia's sharply hitting a low string while the others charge up - then they take it down to a quieter section where Lesh is playing a dual-lead with Garcia while Weir drops in little fills. Garcia will find a note and suddenly a melody will blossom out of it - half-songs spill out of his guitar and are left behind. Finally he starts hanging onto one chiming note, and repeats it steadily for half a minute while the band tears back into the chords, an amazing moment. After another jam they return to the 'bright star' riff, but tonight it leads straight into the Dark Star figure and verse.
Two From The Vault
8/28/68 - This tape is either a decent AUD or a terrible SBD, and is not the easiest listen. This short Dark Star closely resembles the ones from last week, but it is not a standout version - the jam is flowing, but it just sort of trickles to the second verse without any highlights. There is one point when they quiet down and Garcia plays some soft chimes, then they bring the volume back up in a burst of loudness.
9/2/68 - A rowdy show starts with a giddy announcement: "The people that started it all, the Grateful Dead!" The mix is rather grungy, with Weir up-front, Garcia's levels changing now and then, and Pigpen barely audible, but this is easy to listen to, and the Dark Star has continued to grow from just a week before. The intro is the longest yet, five minutes until the verse - they're ready to play right out of the gate. Nice, driving jamming here, which flows almost unconsciously - near the end, we have the first brief appearance of what Jim Powell called the Sputnik jam, an eerie overlapping-note figure which is still undeveloped, but would be a prominent section in many Stars to come. (An early version also appeared on 8/28, but it's hard to hear. As an example of a Sputnik, you can find one full-blown later version at 11:40 in the Live/Dead Dark Star.) Then we have a quiet bright-star theme, played in the staccato way like in early '68, which heads back into the song. Unfortunately, this is our last live Dark Star for a month....
We have a studio version of Dark Star, usually dated Nov or Dec '68. Although a date of 11/6 is said to be confirmed, I think it's doubtful - why would they have such trouble with a stop-and-start rehearsal of St Stephen>The Eleven so late in the year, when they'd been playing it for months? It's clearly before December since Constanten isn't there; but the Dark Star and St Stephen sound like they're from August or later. So I think this comes from the start of the Aoxomoxoa sessions, probably September, when they were spending time jamming around in the studio seeing what came out. (Other studio sessions we have are the 8-13-68 jams on the Aoxomoxoa CD reissue, and the Hartbeats 9-21-68 Clementine jam.)
The session starts with a loose Lovelight, notable for Garcia singing a verse. Then they try out Dark Star - I think not as a rehearsal or to record it, but just as a warmup. They take it at a very slow pace - Pigpen's organ riff is (distressingly) right up front in the mix, and Garcia doubles his riff for a while (just like on 1/20/68), which is unusual to hear. (Pigpen keeps changing his organ sound, with no improvement.) Garcia sounds very relaxed, and nobody's stretching themselves here - this Dark Star stays pretty laid-back, with no fireworks. Near the end of the jam, there is an early Sputnik, which is interesting because we can clearly hear Garcia & Pigpen playing it in unison, while the others join in this time, hinting at what it would later sound like after Constanten joined. This heads into the bright-star figure, and they quickly wrap up Dark Star.
Afterwards, they move on to some exasperating attempts to get down St Stephen and the Eleven - the transition is especially troublesome.
As this studio session might show, Garcia and Lesh were getting impatient with the band's progress - they were starting to feel that Weir and Pigpen were holding the others back, and without them the Dead could advance even farther into uncharted weirdness.
Rock Scully recalled, "Bobby wasn't progressing - he was still playing the electric guitar like an acoustic guitar, and Jerry was trying to get him to loosen up.... I don't think that Pigpen, without being high on LSD, could quite understand the direction the music was taking. And their music did change a lot in that period. Jerry spent a lot of time trying to describe and explain where he thought the music was going, and so did Phil."
At the time, Scully told them, "It seems like the music is being carried to a certain level, then staying there.... You guys tire of music that has much more potential, many more possibilities, too soon....it never gets any better. [You play] too fast for the material, because the material is complex and groovy and much further out than most music is these days."
Garcia was blunt: "You guys know that the gigs haven't been any fun, it hasn't been good playing it, it's because we're at different levels of playing, we're thinking different thoughts and we just aren't playing together."
So in late September, Mickey & the Hartbeats came into being - a loose group of Garcia, Lesh, Hart, and any other San Francisco musicians who felt like jamming with them. In early October they started a series of shows at the Matrix (we have recordings of a few nights, but not all). The purpose was to explore various instrumental themes and the outer limits of improvisation (and, whenever Elvin Bishop showed up, the well-trod road of the blues). Sometimes familiar Dead themes would appear, sounding very skeletal and stretched-out - lacking the intensity and direction of Dead shows, but full of invention. Dark Star was played several times.
10/8/68 - Dark Star is taken at a slower pace here - without Weir's chords, it becomes basically an instrumental duet between Garcia & Lesh (the verses are never sung). This version is not very Dark Star-like - they stay away from the usual themes and noodle around on new riffs. This goes into the first Cosmic Charlie, which is a very fun and exciting version.
10/10/68 - The Dark Star this night is much better than on 10/8, very mellow and relaxing, with Garcia finding some interesting parts to play. In the nature of improvisation, some of the best things he plays tonight don't appear in the Dead's versions. He touches on the Dark Star theme with Lesh a few times, and then drifts into further bouts of jamming - since they aren't tethered to the song structure, they can quickly change direction. Tonight, they go into an Eleven jam.
10/30/68 - Two Dark Stars are played tonight, the first with Lesh and the second with Jack Casady. The first version is perhaps the best of these Matrix Stars, and the most similar to a typical Dead version since it sometimes comes back to the usual structure. It's very inventive, with Lesh right on top of Garcia whenever he makes a turn, and they head into Death Letter Blues, a unique Garcia blues cover of a Son House song.
The second version is somewhat different from the other Dark Star jams since this time Garcia is playing with Jack Casady. There is a Sputnik riff, and a forceful entry back into the Dark Star theme, but mostly this jam courses in uncharted waters. Casady is very familiar with the tune, and his style is quite close to Lesh's (there's a dispute in the Archive reviews over who's on bass here), but I find his playing to be 'heavier' and more forceful than Lesh. He and Garcia jammed together a number of times and they're quite at home with each other (they even talked about starting their own Cream-type group). This Dark Star seems like it could go on endlessly - it has that 'lonesome' late-night tiny-club feel, and you can imagine them playing in a dark corner while a few people at the tables slump over their coffees....
Meanwhile, the Dead's regular shows continued....
10/12/68 - Garcia assures the audience as the show starts, "Everybody just cool it, everything's gonna be all right, we're gonna play here until we drop." Pigpen was not at these Avalon shows, and his absence makes quite a difference - without his riff, the Dark Star is slower-paced, more meditative. It's a long one at 15 minutes, with a long intro that gracefully unfolds - and it's also beautifully recorded. (On the other hand, Mickey Hart's scratcher is mixed very loudly at this show, swooping across the channels, which can be distracting.)
Garcia's guitar has just the right amount of echo, making his notes ring - sometimes it shades over into little bursts of feedback, which still seem perfectly placed. His style is becoming more varied each month - he keeps throwing in unexpected twists and graceful little riffs all over the frets, and is starting to use more 'noise' and overtones in the jam. Lesh pushes him at every point, playing fascinating lines of his own - they're so close as they ebb and swell in the jam, it's hard to believe it's all improvised. The verse melody has an especially dramatic entrance, as Garcia builds up to it with insistent repeated notes. Later he quietly enters the bright-star theme and lifts it up into the falling-star notes - afterwards we have a very nice, spooky Sputnik jam, done much more fully than a month ago, which heads back into the Dark Star theme.
10/13/68 - The 12th is one of the most famed shows of the year, but the Dark Star from its often overlooked sibling show on the 13th is equally amazing. At least a minute of the start is cut, but right away we can tell this is another hot, dense Star, with the band almost building to a climax even before the verse. The intro is full of anticipation, and Garcia jumps into the jam right away - this is a more exuberant Star than the night before. Lesh is especially bouncy tonight; and Weir is mixed louder, so we can hear his interaction with Lesh - tonight they're so tightly bonded they sometimes seem to be pushing Garcia to the side, and in turn he pushes right back. The start of the jam is remarkable - with Garcia and Lesh bouncing notes off each other and Weir following right after them, the three of them sound like they're spinning in circles. The bright-star theme is more energized tonight, with Weir playing jagged chords and Lesh doing a counter-melody. The Sputnik jam is explored by the group, and once again heads back to the Dark Star theme.
10/20/68 - The Dead seem to be in a hurry in this short show, rushing through their setlist (perhaps other bands were waiting to go on), but this quickie Dark Star is still very nice with an amazing climax. Pigpen is back (in fact, Dark Star doesn't start the set as usual but comes after a couple of his numbers) - but his riff is unobtrusive in the mix. It's more effective this way, when it's faintly heard at the edge of things.
After a moody intro, there are heavy gong crashes in the verse, and the jam picks up speed as Garcia's melodic phrases come flooding in. Garcia has the same piercing tone as at the Avalon, twisting his notes, barely pausing in-between phrases, and jumping from one register to another. At the end of the short jam, Garcia plays a Sputnik which is already more developed than it was the week before, with gongs and feedback, and keeps it going as Lesh plays a simple but stunning riff, into a fast, triumphant bright-star theme that goes straight into the verse.
11/1/68 - An announcer tells the audience, "This is the Dead's last set." We don't have the first set, where apparently they played a Viola Lee (and a big chunk of the second set has gone AWOL) - I think if the full show survived, it would be considered one of the great '68 shows. Anyway, the mix levels are being set at the start, and it takes a couple minutes to balance out. Pigpen still plays his riff throughout, but again he's quiet in the mix.
By now Dark Star has noticeably slowed down since August, though this version still seems rather brief. The opening solo is short but wide-ranging. In the jam, Garcia and Lesh are intertwined - with Weir mixed low, it sounds like a Matrix-style duet. Garcia swoops up the frets, teasing little riffs, and finally edges into the climactic bright-star theme over Lesh's chords, which abruptly drops back into the Dark Star theme. This Dark Star goes into an explosive Cryptical (I guess Stephen>Eleven had been in the first set), starting a long medley in which unfortunately the recording goes haywire.
11/22/68 - This is a very echoey AUD recording, but Garcia pierces right through like a thousand bells; Pigpen is very quiet. (Also, Bill Kreutzmann wasn't at this show, being sick, so Mickey Hart is the only drummer.) Only three weeks since our last version, we see Dark Star jumping by leaps & bounds into the '69 style - time flies by and contracts, and the jam seems to swim and dissolve too rapidly to take in - sometimes it almost seems like it's going to burst into a Live/Dead passage. There's a dramatic point near the beginning of the jam when Garcia switches to an even more piercing higher tone, and the drums unexpectedly come banging in, leading into a passage of swirling feedback and an almost Hendrix-style Garcia solo. This drops into a wild Sputnik, which quiets down for a little spacy feedback (sounding almost like a '72 space), which then goes right back to Sputnik and a very fast, ringing bright-star theme; then they bring the energy down for the Dark Star theme. The audience holds its breath - this is one of the finest Stars of '68.
This was the last Dark Star in which Pigpen played. For an entire year, while the band made a huge jump in the jams, he'd played the exact same keyboard part without any changes. Garcia said, "We just didn't want him playing keyboard, because he just didn't know what to do on the kind of material we were writing. It seemed like we were heading someplace in a big way and Pigpen just wasn't open to it."
But a change was around the corner. On Nov. 22, Lesh's old schoolmate Tom Constanten got out of the air force; and on the very next day, he flew to Ohio and played at the Dead's next show. He would probably have joined the Dead in their Anthem days had he not been stuck in the military, but he'd kept in touch and was looking forward to playing with them. "I'd heard the albums, I knew the changes, and knew I could land on my feet in improvisatory situations," he said.
But as much as he added in the studio, Constanten wasn't very assertive in a live setting, and seemed tentative in his first couple months with the Dead - as he explained, "I wanted to be able to stay out of their way." They didn't leave much room in their playing for him - nor did he get much chance to practice, being left to fend for himself behind the wall of guitar notes. And on top of this, he is all but inaudible on most of the tapes - in December '68, it's often impossible to tell what he's doing since he simply can't be heard! Constanten might not have minded though - when he could hear himself, he was struggling to get used to his own sound.
"I didn't like the Vox sound at all.... The Dead's guitars were these strands of gold and filament, but the Vox was like a hunk of chrome. I had terribly mixed emotions about everything I was playing because the sound didn't please me." He switched to a Hammond organ and would keep trying to find a place for himself in the music.
12/7/68 - This is the most psychedelic Dark Star of the year. At least a minute is cut from the start, but we can soon hear a difference in Garcia's approach in the intro - his notes are bending and sliding in very trippy fashion, melding into Lesh's lines, and he repeats a high chime before the verse, as if calling the spirits. (Constanten is pretty much inaudible.) After the verse, Garcia drifts gradually into the jam, placing notes carefully, and even doing a short volume-swelling piece. His playing is changing, not as loud and dramatic but more subtle. After the verse melody, his notes trickle away as Lesh rumbles, and they find a new Dark Star variation, which Garcia intensifies and distorts - then it ebbs away as Garcia circles around one note, and falls into a Lesh-dominated Sputnik. For the first time, the Sputnik gives way to metallic chimes from Garcia's guitar - then he strikes shimmering harmonics from the strings (similar to the revolving plucked-notes section in the Cryptical reprise). Lesh starts up the Dark Star theme again, and they quickly go back to the verse. You can hear the audience clapping as Garcia sings!
12/29/68 - We come to our last Star of the year - unfortunately this is a brief, rushed Star at one of those festival sets where there was a long lineup of acts. Though Dark Star usually starts a set, here it comes after the opening Lovelight. The band introduces it - Lesh: "We once put this song out on a single - that's interesting." Garcia: "One of our obscure singles." Weir: "For you ethno-musicologists."
Constanten is completely inaudible. But Garcia is powerful and compressed, with a particularly howling tone. His soloing in the jam is very original, taking unexpected directions and using new sounds. There's a mild Sputnik near the end of the jam, but otherwise they stay away from the usual themes, striking out for new paths. The Dark Star theme isn't far away though; they rush back to the verse and it's all over very quickly.
Before we leave '68, I should note that Disc 2 of the "Mystery Reels" has an isolated four-minute fragment of the end of a Dark Star, which is impossible to date. There's no Pigpen or Constanten; it has a muscular '69 sound, and they play it slower than most '68 Stars and head back into the verse in an odd way, without the usual themes, so this sounds like it's from '69 sometime.
On 12/31/68 they played a Dark Star>St Stephen>Eleven>Lovelight suite, and taped it in the first live 16-track recording. Unfortunately the tape seems to have turned out distorted, so they taped over it at the January '69 Avalon shows. (And, when some of those recordings were screwed up too, they taped over a few of those 16-tracks at the Fillmore the next month.)
They had decided to record a live album in late '68 - with the Aoxomoxoa sessions going nowhere fast as they overdubbed and re-recorded and redubbed and remixed, a live release was an obvious, quick and easy solution to get the record company off their backs for a while. They'd never been able to match the excitement of their live show in the studio (despite trying on the first two albums), but with a live album they could show the world what they really sounded like.
When asked way back in April '67 about capturing the Dead's live sound, Garcia noted, "You can't do it in a studio." But he theorized: "If you recorded us live, like at the Fillmore, maybe after two or three months....we'd start to get good cuts, good enough for an album in terms of how clean they were and how much we liked the performance on them. It would be such an expensive undertaking, and long...."
Recording shows for the Anthem album in early '68 had given them experience in mixing and selecting live material, and proved to be far less long & expensive than studio work - so by the end of the year they felt ready to put out a show on its own. They were well aware of the difference between 'flat' soundboard recordings and the huge echo of the guitars bouncing around the theater, so on the Anthem tour they'd set up 'roomsound' mikes to capture the full sound (I think on Live/Dead they added echo as well).
Garcia said in December '68, "What would be nicest would be to take one complete show with no editing and just say here it is, man.... And on the chance that the perfect night might happen sometime, we record." (Weir added, "And invariably the really good, perfect performances are never on tape. Which is, of course, the way it should be.")
This brings us to the end of 1968 and the dawn of the Live/Dead era. I can't leave you hanging there though, so I'll mention some of the changes Dark Star went through in January '69 before Live/Dead was recorded.
Garcia: "You can't play the way the Grateful Dead plays without working at it. It's not something that just happened to us. It didn't happen overnight, either. There was a long, slow process that brought that into being."
Dark Stars continued to be very diverse - they all follow the same structure established in late '68, but each one is handled differently. The tempo was slowed down considerably, which gave Dark Star a heavier, more reflective feel - with more room for Weir and Lesh to play in, it became more like a classical chamber piece. Late '68 Stars tended to be very dense, as the music rushed by - now musical thoughts are extended longer. Constanten is sometimes too quiet to be heard well, but when he's there, he contributes a delicate baroque-gothic mood unique to early '69. He still plays Pigpen's riff in the first few bars (it would stay there until summer '69), but then leaves it for freestyle accompaniment. (As for the drummers, I don't hear much of that scratcher, but I do hear congas which I don't recall from '68 - maybe it's Pigpen?)
Garcia pursues his new echo-drenched style - he doesn't rely so much on the constant stream of run-on notes that characterized '68, but uses more space in his playing. His technique has expanded, and he draws from a wider palette of shifting tones - the Sputnik jam, for instance, has been built up until now it can pass through several phases of fingerstyle chiming. Garcia thinks 'outside the notes' more, and uses more extraneous sounds like feedback - sometimes he enters these pure abstract sheets of sound.
The dynamics in the jams are more pronounced, and they can drop from a very loud passage to a quiet one, and shift back again. They frequently dig into tense, explosive passages, as Garcia hangs onto one note for life as Lesh & Weir churn up and burst beneath him. But they can also use pauses, as they hover in dramatic silence for a bit. Sometimes there will be long periods where Garcia doesn't play while the others groove on the theme, then he screams back in - a jazzy technique.
January '69 Stars are about the same length as in late '68, generally about 12-15 minutes. The breakthrough comes in the Philadelphia shows of February 14-15, when suddenly Dark Star breaks the 20-minute barrier....
But that is a story for another day. A lot more could be said about Dark Star, but I'll have to leave it at that.
Special thanks to Blair Jackson for the interviews he's collected - his books are invaluable.