May 24, 2013

Dark Star 1978-1984: A Roundtable

I thought I’d try something different for this post - it's been a while since the last one! The Transitive Axis forum has recently moved to a new location – http://www.ta.speedingarrow.net/ – so here is a roundtable discussion from the forum archives. We reviewed and rated the five Dark Stars from 1978-1984.

DARK STAR’S LOST YEARS
Contributors: Zephyr, Light Into Ashes, Nick, Dogstarz, and the Dude.

Dark Star all but dropped out of the Dead's repertoire for 15 years - half the band's existence - with the exception of five precious (or not so precious) versions, covering a total of about 78 minutes (including the sandwiched Other One from 12/31/78).

12/31/78 Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA
1/10/79 Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY
1/20/79 Shea's Theatre, Buffalo, NY
12/31/81 Oakland Aud, Oakland, CA
7/13/84 Greek Theatre, Berkeley, CA

Three of these were unusual occasions - 12/31/78 was, of course, the closing of Winterland, and Bill Graham had made a special request to the Dead. 12/31/81 was another particularly memorable New Year's Eve - the Dead played another rare three-set show (plus one with Joan Baez), Ken Kesey was there, and Garcia even married Mountain Girl backstage. On 7/13/84, apparently Lesh wanted the band to play Dark Star for the Friday the 13th full moon, while a slide show of space photos from NASA was projected on a screen. (Phil even makes an announcement beforehand: "We're gonna try a little something special tonight, for one night only.") Dark Star then fell into silence for five years.
So how do these versions compare?

RANKINGS

ZEPHYR -
1. 12/31/78
2. 7/13/84
3. 1/10/79
4. 12/31/81
5. 1/20/79

LIA –
My ranking might be:
1/10/79
7/13/84
12/31/78
12/31/81
1/20/79
But that's not really very settled.

NICK –
I guess I'd rank them like this:
1/10/79
7/13/84
12/31/81
12/31/78
1/20/79
Really, though, the last three are all kind of tied, and the gap between all of these is pretty narrow.

DOGSTARZ –
This is from memory:
1. 12/31/78
2. 1/10/79
3. 7/13/84
4. 12/31/81
5. 1/20/79

THE DUDE –
My ranking:
1/10/79
7/13/84
12/31/78
12/31/81
1/20/79


REVIEWS

12/31/78
http://archive.org/details/gd1978-12-31.fob.akgd224e.holwein.motb-0130.106102.flac16

ZEPHYR -
This one finishes first for a slew of reasons: tastiness; being the drought-breaker; that epic TOO in the middle; Phil Lesh.

They start into it with such vigor and assurance that it's hard to believe it had been four years since the last outing. Garcia tempers his tendency to skitter off into coke-fueled frenzied noodling by repeatedly slowing down and playing fat passages that are memorable. They give the theme a nice workout before singing the verse, and then, with some titanic assistance from Lesh, they torch the joint with a TOO that they slide into and out of with the greatest of ease. The delicious return to Dark Star, via something akin to an instrumental second verse, is what seals the deal for me. None of the other four versions are nearly as dramatic, dynamic, or satisfying as this roller-coaster ride.

Icing on the cake, of course, is the fact that they play another half hour of spellbinding music, wrapping up at dawn. This third set is, in my opinion, the only reason this show is so highly regarded. The previous two sets had some undeniable highlights but without this 3rd set the show would have sunk beneath the waves long ago, kind of like NYE 1977 and 1979.

LIA –
This sounds like a flat Dark Star to me, that never really takes wings, but just putters along. It's best when it builds up to the Other One after the verse - one tune dissolves into another, and the band seems to get more engaged. It's a nice trick, kind of reminiscent of earlier years, the way they just do one verse of the Other One and then head right back into an instrumental Dark Star verse. (I wish Garcia had done more instrumental verses in the '90s instead of painfully trying to sing them!)

NICK –
Blasphemy, perhaps -- the first few minutes of this are bliss with that clean Wolf tone chiming out like a bell, but it seems like they expend the initial energy fairly quickly (the telltale Jerry hummingbird runs don't take long to appear) and, imho, this one doesn't feel totally comfortable. The long transition into the Other One is brilliant, but it's such a quick little Other One that it almost feels like a waste.

DOGSTARZ –
12/31/78 has accompanied me on many personal journeys, which puts this one on top. The memories I have from this are pretty great. Along with the emotional response is the actual playing. I have always been a fan of this one. The mentioned jam into TOO was pretty sweet, but DS has its own voice. The playing was pretty stellar and I always felt the band was on for this one.


1/10/79
http://archive.org/details/gd1979-01-10.sony-senn.wagner.miller.113114.flac16

ZEPHYR -
Ten days after NYE78 they uncork yet another Star, this time an uninterrupted one with an even longer lead-in to the verse and a scorching jam-crescendo a few minutes after the verse. This is undeniably a deeply satisfying Dark Star, but it comes up short of 12/31/78 for two reasons: Lesh isn't providing the same level of vigorous power-punctuation, and the last four minutes before drums devolve into listless noodling. So at about the same time the NYE version is morphing into TOO, this version is cooling off on its way into drums. Nice, but no cigar.

LIA –
Better to my ears: it has more teeth, more sense of purpose. There's a long intro jam, and after the verse it builds to a little frenzy. Unfortunately, when it feels like it's time for the second verse, instead it trickles slowly into drums, and things deflate. Nice up to then, though.

NICK –
1/10/79 has always impressed me. At 18+ minutes, it doesn't really develop as most prime-era Dark Stars do, but it always felt just exactly right to me. This one still feels the best to me: long, flowing, and laid back, this one felt like it had less of an "agenda" than the 78, 81, and 84 versions which were all trotted out for special occasions. This one feels the most organic, I suppose, like they're all listening and leaving plenty of room for each other. I like the climax they hit after the first verse, but unlike some other people, I don't have any problems with how this trickles out before the drums: any way you slice it, 18+ min is a long stretch for a single pre-drumz song, and I'd rather hear them slowly disintegrate than just end it. I do wish the drummers didn't do their knee-jerk "turn up the intensity" thing towards the end, but that's the way it went.

DOGSTARZ –
01/10/79 seems to have a sweeter and much more planned out intro jam. I have a feeling that 12/31/78 was really just a warm up for this one. The playing once again is pretty good and the band puts in a nice effort. Keith pulls out some nice licks and Phil stays on track for this Dark Star.


1/20/79
http://archive.org/details/gd1979-01-20.fob.nak700.moore.miller.99385.sbeok.flac16

ZEPHYR -
This puppy sucks in so many ways, but, even so, it presages, and is better than, most versions from 92-94. Presages how? By being just another song in a set that basically sucks. How is it better? No Vince!

LIA –
This one gets big surprise points for coming when least expected, out of the Other One near the end of the show. It starts out promising with a mysterious feel - so far each Star seems to have built on the one before. Keith sounds more involved in this one, and they get into some interesting atonal wanderings after the verse. But I can't get over my great disappointment when, just as they seem to be arriving at a peak, they suddenly back out into a perfunctory NFA, making this one of the shortest Dark Stars until the '90s. (The whole thing could fit into the preverse jam on 1/10/79!)

NICK –
I've actually always kind of dug the 2nd set jam from this show (admittedly, the recording quality plays a part in that), and I didn't feel any of the negative traits about this DS that others pan it for. I've got nothing bad to say about it: it's the shortest, but for what it is it's still pretty good. I do like how it segues out of the Other One rather than starting cold like the rest do, and I also like how they flirt with some darkness at the end (before, unfortunately, cutting it short for NFA).

DOGSTARZ –
Hmm...is it really fair to comment on this one? After the greatness of 12/31/78 and 1/10/79 the band seemed to be warming up for a Dark Star revival. Then came 1/20/79. I wonder if this was the last straw for Dark Star. Perhaps this was played as a farewell for Keith and Donna, then again I doubt it. This one has some moments, but they aren't worth the upkeep of the entire 10 minutes it takes to digest this one.


12/31/81
http://archive.org/details/gd1981-12-31.sbd.gans.33660.sbeok.flac16

ZEPHYR -
This version, along with 1/20/79, is in a race for the bottom. Both versions, unlike the three reviewed above, are basically lame, but this version is a little less lame than the other.

First off, where the fuck is Phil? Lesh decides to go all dainty on us at exactly the wrong moment. Then there's the feeble kick-off, to say nothing of the overall vacuity of the everything else. Jesus! They unleash Dark Star for the first time in three years and then they play it as though they might break it if they got serious. Argh!!! The final insult, since this is a third set, is feebleizing the proceedings by punting a Bertha at 2:30 in the morning. Oh well.

The 1981 DS is the only one on the list that has steadily dropped in my esteem. I remember being blown away by the tape back in '82, but successive listenings have served only to highlight its inadequacies, primarily because it really has almost no strong points to recommend it other than its overall ambiance and the cool thing that happens, all too briefly, at about the 12-minute mark.

LIA –
Another keyboard player, another New Year's revival... This one's speedy and pretty; it has a nice sheen, but not much drama. It's a Star for people who don't like much hairy intensity in their Dark Stars! Brent is more upfront than Keith was, but I don't think he adds a whole lot to these two Stars except a more smooth & soporific sound. Garcia's style, on the other hand, has more variety and punch now, and I think is better-suited to Dark Star than it was in the post-Egypt era when he was entranced with speedy noodlings that tended to close off other musical possibilities. So this Dark Star shifts gears now and then (like around the 12-minute mark, though it doesn't go anywhere particular). The second verse is delivered with a lot of punch; and unusually, the Dark Star jam continues for a little bit after the verse while they figure out what to do - Bertha is a novel choice, kind of inspired.

NICK –
Very pretty, light and floaty -- much like the improv elsewhere in the show (which I like a lot), this reminds me of flickering city lights in the distance. Totally pleasant, but very linear. Again, bonus points for the 2nd verse (first time he sang it since 7/26/72!), which ties the Dark Star up nicely, making the shift to Bertha a little less jarring.

DOGSTARZ –
Brent's first Dark Star. Really at moments he seems to be the only one having fun with this song. Jerry seems to mindlessly noodle while Weir and Phil are on vacation. If it wasn't for the drummers this would be a decent piece of space and not a Dark Star.


7/13/84
http://archive.org/details/gd84-07-13.sbd.ferguson.353.sbeok.shnf

ZEPHYR -
I just listened to 1/10/79 and 7/13/84 back-to-back and 7/13/84 wins. I love this Dark Star. It comes at us from out of nowhere, it has really nice playing from Lesh, it features that scrumptious full-bodied '84 sound, and it provides living proof of the interconnectedness of Dark Star and Bird Song. I can't really explain the Dark Star/Bird Song thing, other than to say that each tune, to me, is like an alternate reality version of the other. Throughout '83 and '84 I kept hearing Dark Star in Bird Song, so it was great to hear a Dark Star that radiated a heavy Bird Song vibe.

Mydland is clearly jazzed to be playing the tune (for his second time); he clearly helps fuel a lengthy lead passage from Garcia that runs, basically uninterrupted, for a solid ten minutes. Lesh, who as I understand it was the main instigator for this one-off version, keeps his end of the bargain by laying down a robust, warm, embracing bed of bass. He is my favorite ingredient in the final two minutes of velvety thunder-lizard end-jam. I invariably find myself turning the amp up to 11 for those last two minutes. Gorgeous! It must have been bliss to be there.

I take a few points off this version for the feeble kick-off and the brevity of the intro jam.

LIA –
Hopes for glory are dropped somewhat when the band heads immediately for the first verse. They make up for it, though, with a lengthy middle jam where they go the extra mile. This is a more hard-edged Star, which reaches more mystical heights than the '81 version. The drummers are active throughout; and Garcia keeps the jam going - he has more of that aggressive '80s rock sound here. They almost go off the rails in the last verse, but retrieve themselves with a very unique metallic ending. (This is one of the only Stars with an actual ending, and it's a good one too.)

NICK –
A little speedier and more "aggressive" than the rest; no surprise, given the year, but paradoxically what I don't always like about the 80's, I do like about this Dark Star. Everyone seems really engaged, and this one felt the most Bird Song-ish to me, which is no bad thing. And it also gets bonus points for the second verse and that cool ending.

DOGSTARZ –
The "hail mary" of all Dark Stars. Brent's second Dark Star, not his best (see fall 89 for some of his best Dark Stars). I have always enjoyed this one. Phil really holds this one together and the end gets down to business.


OVERALL COMMENTS

LIA –
After another listen, I found it hard to rank these... Despite the differences in treatment & keyboardists, these five versions have a lot in common: they're Dark Star Lite, rather unadventurous, often quite rusty or clumsy, and kept grounded by a lead guitarist not nearly as imaginative as he used to be. (I didn't find Phil very prominent in any of these; and Weir's usually difficult to notice.)
Still, though they're pretty dull for me compared to the Stars of Yore, I try to listen to later Stars on their own terms!
It's pretty obvious that the band wasn't very engaged with Dark Star during this period. It was something to be trotted out on rare special occasions; though audiences were happy with the nostalgic trip, the band sounds more uncommitted. No excursions into weirdness or cosmic noise & feedback here! (Like they were doing in Space.) Nope, they played it safe... And, by playing it so rarely, each time the band has to start anew & rediscover the piece, in a hesitant way - so it doesn't get taken very far, or get a chance to grow from one performance to the next.

NICK –
Listening to all of these today, I enjoyed all of them but didn't have any particularly strong feelings about them. I certainly don't think any of them really trumps the others. I also don't think it's fair to really call any of them "mediocre" or to compare them to the monster versions of different eras: the band (or Jerry, at least) clearly seemed to feel that Dark Star didn't have much of a place in their current scheme of things, and there isn't another defining song in the group's history that was cut from the rotation for such a long stretch but was brought back for a few select special occasions, so I think these have to be treated both as special treats and as anachronisms. Only the two 79 versions really seem to appear without any fanfare or particular sense of occasion.

THE DUDE –
Frankly I don't think any of these are stellar, although I do like the Nassau one – nice jam then it hits a major “x-factor” moment before trailing off. The Shea's Theatre one is completely unmemorable and and the 81 NYE version has some nice Jerry noodling, but Zephyr is right – no Phil, which is not surprising since he was in the middle of his lost "Heineken Years" so you were fortunate to have a background thump, let alone him taking charge.
I rank the 84 one above the 78 one - trust me, I used to listen to that third set of Winterland all the time back in the day - but now it seems like an appetizer sampler plate of both TOO and Darkstar. Enjoyable but you still want more. Fortunately the rest of that 3rd set kicks major ass.

ZEPHYR –
You guys are going to force me to listen to 12/31/78 and 1/10/79 back-to-back again! True, these puppies aren't 72-74 caliber, but they're enjoyable nonetheless. One reason to give a close re-listen is to try and hear the differences you are hearing between the two. Other than length, the jam before the verse for these two versions didn't seem all that different to me. Thus the post-jam proceedings took on a greater importance for me. I'm a big fan of Garcia's ability to create elaborate musical structures on the fly, so 12/31/78, with its seamless, and seemingly effortless, transition into and out of The Other One, really appeals to me. I have to reluctantly concede, however, that when the coolest part of a Dark Star is the part that's not actually Dark Star, there's a problem.

LIA –
True, the intro jams on 12/31/78 and 1/10/79 are not hugely different; but I did feel the playing on 1/10 was a lot sharper. And that one had, as you mentioned, the "scorching jam-crescendo" in the middle. (I don't think it's that scorching, but it is one of the highest peaks in this batch of Dark Stars.)
The transition into (and out of) the Other One on 12/31 was very well-done, too. (But note: it's actually Weir, not Garcia, who guides the band into those transitions!) I can see how the complete "shape" of this medley might make it more satisfying than 1/10, which slowly dribbles into drums instead.
1/20/79 is much shorter, but comes so close to being a good one - Phil & Keith sound more perky, the spirit seems to be there, and right at the end they're really heating up and reaching for it, when bam, they throw it away. (Weir's the first culprit here.)
7/13/84 really stomps all over 12/31/81. I think the best thing about the '81 version is the way Garcia switches tones now & then for a different feel, which adds a bit of variety not heard in '79. But the playing in '84 is a lot heavier, and I especially like how in the middle jam a couple times they'll return to the theme, as if it's time for the second verse, and then Garcia will restart the jam again! So it ends up having the longest continuous jam of all of these. I'd probably bump 7/13/84 up to #1 today...

NICK –
Re: 12/31/78 – did Garcia or Weir guide the transition from Dark Star to the Other One?
This is hairsplitting, but I think Bob and Jerry get to share the credit on this one. Here's how I heard it: at 10:46 (on the official release) Jerry starts playing that run of triplets that often signals the Other One, the rest of the band begins regrouping, and at 11:05 Bob hits the first telltale Other One chord. The rest of the band starts thinking "Other One!" but Jerry keeps playing like it's half Dark Star, half the Other One, leaning more towards Dark Star, so much so that by 11:50ish it sounds like Bob is starting to back off and the rest of the band is leaning back towards the Dark Star jam. Phil starts dropping some pointed Other One notes at 12:04, and at 12:16 it sounds like Jerry finally shifts into the Other One scale

Part of the reason it's a great segue is because Jerry at first is playing notes that are common to both "modes" (i.e., the scale he predominantly uses to solo/noodle in Dark Star and the scale he uses in the Other One), which lets everyone readjust and allows Bob to start playing chords that are particular to the Other One. But then after Jerry sets all this up and Bob has everyone else moving in one direction, Jerry pulls back towards Dark Star, creating a kind of playful tension for a minute or so, which is what makes the segue that much more seamless. It sounds totally improvised, but I don't think any of this is by accident.


GARCIA'S COMMENTS

When interviewed for the Grayfolded CD liner notes, Garcia was asked why the Dead stopped playing Dark Star after 1974.
“We burnt out on it. What happens to me is all of a sudden I feel like I haven’t got a thing to say in this context. I really believe I have played as much of this as I possibly can and I feel very empty. I feel if I have to play this song one more time, I’m just gonna break something. I get bored. That’s what that was all about. I wish I didn’t; I wish I could stay on top of it forever. The thing is, it has to be good. That tune, it isn’t quite satisfying. If I were writing it now, I would go for something else in it. I would challenge myself a little more.”
The interviewer pointed out that “it would seem as if the tune was just an excuse for the explorations.”
“But it doesn’t include the imperative that you must explore beyond these places. In other words, you could screw around in the diatonic kind of space forever with that, and you can daisy-chain any number of modes through it, and it’ll still have perfect vigor. It will do that nicely. I want for it to plug in as successfully to things that are really out the door, things that are like tone poems or tone rows, something bizarre.”

In a 1987 interview, Garcia was asked about songs the Dead had abandoned, and he mentioned things like Viola Lee Blues where “we did it to death, and we stopped doing it because we’re done with it.” As for St Stephen, “People who missed it, that's too bad, you know? We may never do it again. It's one of those things that doesn't perform that well—we were able to make it work then because we had the power of conviction. But I don't think that our present sensibilities would let us do it, the way it was, anyway. We would have to change it some.”
“What about Dark Star?”
“Dark Star we could bring back, but—Dark Star is so little, you know? I mean, Dark Star is only like three or four lines. Really, Dark Star is a little of everything we do, all the time. So what happened to Dark Star was, it went into everything. Everything's got a little Dark Star in it. I've never missed it, because what we were doing with it is everywhere. I mean, our whole second half is Dark Star, you could say. But I have nothing against Dark Star, except that like I say, really it's a minimal tune. There's really no tune. There's just a couple of lines and that's it. So it's hard for me to relate to what is it about Dark Star that people like, apart from the part that we get weird in it. Because that's what we did with it, we got weird in it, we didn't dwell on the lyrical content, certainly... So Dark Star is an envelope for me, not really a song.
But we may bring it back sometime. In fact, I won't say that we won't bring back St. Stephen, or Cosmic Charlie for that matter. But it's much more interesting to me now to think in terms of well, let's write new songs. I mean, if I have a choice between resurrecting old tunes and writing new songs, it's going to be new songs. Because it's essential that we stay interested. And there's only so much you can rub up against your own past, and keep loving it. It's fragile; finally it breaks down. Ultimately you can use it up.”
http://www.yoyow.com/marye/garcia3.html

Rob Bowman wrote for Grayfolded, “When you listen to the five versions the band did attempt between October 1974 and October 1989, none are particularly inspired. One notable difference, of course, lay within the band’s sound. Even the 1978 and early 1979 versions feel palpably different due to the overall high-tech sheen... In general, there is less overt counterpoint in the later versions, and although everyone is a ‘better player’ by this point, one feels sometimes as if, especially for Garcia, it comes too easily. Rather than groping for the right pathway to explore, he seems to effortlessly spin out extended line after extended line.”

After Dark Star returned in 1989, Garcia wasn’t sure if it would become an interesting challenge again. “The thing is, I feel that we oughta look into it every once in a while, and we oughta try it up and down lots of different corridors to see if it coughs up anything that is truly new. It hasn’t done that yet, but I feel that it’s going to. I feel it’s gonna break off into something completely bizarre. I feel it coming out of the ground.”


TIMINGS

12/31/78
0:00 intro
6:49 verse
8:02 jam
10:40 starts to sneak into the Other One
13:45 Other One verse
14:45 jam
16:15 Dark Star reentry
17:22 ends > Wharf Rat

1/10/79
0:00 intro
9:10 verse
10:30 jam
13:50 starts to disintegrate
18:30 ends > drums

1/20/79
0:00 intro
3:57 verse
5:15 jam
9:23 ends abruptly > NFA

12/31/81
0:00 intro
3:59 verse
5:01 jam
13:06 verse
14:53 ends > Bertha

7/13/84
0:00 intro
1:28 verse
2:33 jam
13:47 verse
14:54 outro
16:28 ends

7 comments:

  1. While not comparable on any level to their predecessors all 5 versions have a little something.I think the 1/20/79 version comes closest in spirit to what Dark Star was meant to be which is a group interaction and improvisation.Around the two minute mark and after the first verse you can hear all the players doing something different and blending together as opposed to standing about and occasionally feeding off Jerry.How successful is not important.It's funny and a sad commentary all at once how Weir neuters the song at a point where it might well have taken off again to go into a rocker.

    It seems like the right choice when they returned from the hiatus to not play Dark Star.They were a far different band than the one that played it so beautifully in their heyday.It did not fit the post hiatus persona of the band.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really dug this post...I'm really behind all five of these Dark Stars. They each have goods to offer. Sure, nothing compares to earlier times & to each their own (some say 69...72...I say 73), but take em as they are! More roundtables!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Next post: Dark Star 1989 - 1994 :)

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  4. Great blog! Is there a way to follow? Thanks for the wealth of information. I also operate a rock blog, check it out if you like. Thanks again!

    http://thefrodisroomrockblog.blogspot.com/

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    Replies
    1. There's a "subscribe to" thingie at the bottom of the side column. Perhaps it's out of date. I know other blogs have the "Google Friend Connect" gadget, but personally, I feel the fewer google gadgets on here the better. Each one slows down the page-loading.

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  5. from my unpublished files:
    Phase 7 DarkStar ages 12-31-78 through 07-13-84
    The life of DarkStar runs parallel to that of many people, nothing much happens after
    you've settled down, the spark goes and things become somewhat ordinary and
    predictable. Gone are the days of exploration and excitement. Life's river just oozes
    away.
    After 2 1/2 years of constant touring after "the retirement" the audience demand for "it"
    matched with a special event: the closing of Winterland on 12-31-78. None of the 4
    renditions after this revival has any real intensity. Jim Powell: "Nassau Coliseum 01-10-
    79 and Greek Theater 07-13-84 are the 'best' of this sorry lot, but 01-10-79 is disco Dark
    Star, pretty pathetic beside nearly a literal hundred of its predecessors or any of the
    new ones, and the Greek Dark Star is Dark Star in a frame in a museum - well played,
    nice and tidy, but a Dark Star without adventure ..."

    ReplyDelete