March 24, 2017

Dark Star 1968-1989 (Guest Post)

DARK STAR - EVOLUTION
by Chris Forshay, 1999

If ever there were a fool’s errand in the realm of music criticism, tackling the evolution of Dark Star surely must be it. How does one apply linearity and coherence to music that so freely and frequently dispensed with both? It can’t be done, you say, as you prepare to skim this essay to see if your favorite versions are mentioned, and whether this essay’s opinions match your own. So be it; this essay asked for it. However, if this essay spurs the reader to listen to Dark Star more closely--and, in the process, to widen the circle of Dark Stars with which the reader is familiar--the this essay will have done its job, and will take whatever criticism the reader may offer with a smile on its face and a song in its heart.
It should surprise no one that a lot of listening went into the writing of this essay. It’s unclear whether it’s possible for a Deadhead to become sick of Dark Star; if it is, this essay will be the first to know. It has relied on the commercially released versions available as of this writing (Spring 1999), most of the best known and widely circulated tapes containing Dark Star, and some lesser known gems one occasionally encounters in a 2000+ hour collection. It was impossible and unnecessary to include every extant Dark Star in this analysis; the reader is urged not to interpret an omission of a given performance as some kind of "thumbs down". This isn’t a list of favorites, must-haves, or anything like that. What this essay has tried to do is, against the backdrop of the band’s history and evolution, chart how Dark Star grew and changed between 1968 and 1974. A tall order? You betcha.
Rather than bore the reader any further, this essay would like to invoke, as its template, the words of writer Michael Lydon, published most recently in Garcia (the Rolling Stone magazine tribute book). He describes a Dark Star he witnessed at Springer’s Inn in Portland, Oregon, in May 1969:

"...suddenly the music is not notes or a tune, but what those seven people are exactly: The music is an aural holograph of the Grateful Dead. All their fibers, nuances, histories, desires, beings are clear: Jerry and his questing; Phil the loyal comrade; Tom drifting beside them both on a cloud; Pig staying stubbornly down to earth; Mickey working out furious complexities, trying to understand how Bill is so simple; and Bob succumbing inevitably to Jerry and Phil and joining them. And that is just the beginning, because at each note, at each phrase, the balances change, each testing, feeding, mocking and finally driving each other on, further and further on."

In the beginning, the song--like the band itself--was no big deal. Lacking either the "ritalin-and-hashish" sound of the first album or the we-worked-on-this-for-months artlessness of Anthem of the Sun, the studio version of Dark Star--unheard by many until the release of the What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been greatest hits package, many years after the fact--sounds like an orphan of sorts. No way did it belong on Aoxomoxoa, with that album’s overly written, complex-for-the-sake-of-complexity songs. Unlike most of those songs, however, the studio Dark Star was not an end, but a beginning......

"There are certain structural poles which we have kind of set up in it, and those we periodically do away with." -- Jerry Garcia

The earliest Dark Stars are marked by an energy that ranges from crude to downright wired. Subtlety was not the Dead’s strong suit in their early years. Nor were they, as musicians, much more than high-flying neophytes on their chosen instruments. Banging it out was the order of the day, as anyone who’s listened to tapes of the Airplane, Big Brother, and (God help us) Blue Cheer from this period will attest. Nothing about the Dark Star from the 2/14/68 Carousel broadcast indicates any awareness of the song’s potential. The reading is a bit stiff, a bit fast. There’s not much of a beat; Garcia’s solos do not stray from the main theme. The unfocused intensity gives some heat, but little light. It’s obvious, at this juncture, that the band, when not putting its eggs in Pigpen’s basket, was more focused on the Anthem material, particularly That’s It for the Other One.
A month later, Dark Star reappeared at the Carousel (3/30) and at an unknown location (3/26). The percussion is more sophisticated, but there’s nary a snare or tom-tom to be heard. The beat is kept by a pair of maracas. It’s still a speedy Jerry-and-Phil show, with Bob doing little more than repeating the simple chord pattern over and over again and Pigpen somewhere on the periphery. It sounds as if the band has an arrangement they’re striving to perfect, but they aren’t swinging--their reach exceeds their grasp. Phil spends an inordinate amount of time fingering the upper reaches of his fretboard. While approximating a counterpoint to Garcia’s still-tentative lines, the technique (combined with the subdued percussion) precludes any rhythmic development, rendering Dark Star a respite between blood-and-thunder numbers like The Other One, Alligator, and Lovelight.
The Dark Star on Two from the Vault (8/24/68 Shrine Auditorium, LA) is nothing short of a revelation. Garcia sounds far more comfortable here--his playing has a ballsier, more confident tone. They’ve gotten the song away from its previous "pretty" sound and are determined to explore more ominous terrain. They’ve fleshed out the arrangement--a nascent E minor thing after Garcia’s final restatement of the melody (aka "the Dark Star riff"), a two-note Weir harmonic lead after the first chorus. The percussion is still faint, but between March & August Jerry apparently realized that he could stretch out his between-verses solo. This version is more than twice as long (and infinitely more satisfying) than the earlier versions from ‘68. By August, Dark Star had evolved from a stop-over to a destination--complete with eccentric outro vocals.

But all was not well with either Dark Star or the Dead. Pigpen and Weir were not with the program. Pigpen’s repetitive riff on the 8/24 version is maddeningly monochromatic, while Weir stubbornly sticks to playing first-position (folk guitar) chords, and damn few to boot. It sounds for all the world like he is several giant steps behind Garcia and Lesh in his development as a musician. Whether these factors were in any way connected with Pigpen & Bob’s "nearly leaving" or "almost being fired" (depending upon which story you believe) is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that the pair were conspicuously absent from a series of "Mickey and the Hartbeats" gigs in the early fall of ‘68.
The band was reunited for a the 10/12 gig at the Avalon. The Dark Star from this show indicates some further evolution. There’s much less preoccupation with establishing the leitmotif. Most conspicuously, Lesh is playing in the lower register--more typical for the bass, but a radical departure from his past approach to Dark Star. What’s more, there are the first cautious signs of drumming in the waning moments of the song--a first. These innovations give Dark Star new depth, throwing Garcia’s flights of fancy into more rhythmic relief. While Weir is still struggling to say something, he’s at least attempting to put a new spin on his contribution. Garcia adds here a series of triplets, following the more developed E minor thing, that would adorn many future Dark Stars (as well as find its way into other songs).

It was about this time that the band began to perform Dark Star, more often than not, as part of a suite that would be immortalized on Live/Dead. The 2/11/69 Fillmore East performance offers seeds of musical ideas--especially in Garcia’s playing--that would blossom in San Francisco a couple of weeks later. The big news is: Weir’s discovered second position chords! He inflects his playing a bit differently right from the start, though he reverts somewhat to form before Garcia starts singing.
The 2/27/69 Fillmore West Dark Star, captured (and remixed) for posterity on Live/Dead, remains the mother of all Dark Stars. The drummers finally jump in with all four feet (after hinting around at two shows in Vallejo the week before), with wonderful results. Weir’s playing has improved markedly, though it’s striking how low he’s mixed on the album, as compared to the soundboard tape. This version hits peaks and goes places before the first note is sung. The band takes a lot of impromptu detours. They were recording; they were swinging for the fences; they hit Dark Star out of the yard. This, friends, is the first full-blown Dark Star. If, perchance, you are unfamiliar with it, put this essay down, obtain a copy of Live/Dead, and get to know it. This essay will be here when you get back.
Live/Dead was recorded before (though it was released after) Aoxomoxoa. The Dead’s experimental period was in full bloom throughout 1969. They seem to have recognized Dark Star as a primary vehicle for unalloyed Deadness, non-Pigpen division. Listening to so many versions of Dark Star from 1969 makes one realize that, while Dark Star at its core is about improvisation, it is not a "completely improvised piece". Certain riffs recur more or less verbatim throughout the different versions.
If early 1969 was a time for consolidating their gains, the rest of that year was a period of using those gains as a springboard into parts unknown--unknown as recently as the Live/Dead shows. One exceptional example of a fiery Dark Star is 5/31/69 Eugene. The hyperventilating presence of Ken Babbs throughout the concert offers possible illumination as to why this Dark Star is so noteworthy.

"If it were possible for us to be able to survive playing music that was as potentially free and open as ‘Dark Star’, it’s likely we would do that or something along those lines." -- Jerry Garcia

For Dark Star, mid-1969 was a period of fruition; for the Dead, it was a period of transition. Change was everywhere: Several Aoxomoxoa tunes disappeared from the repertoire; country classics like Slewfoot and Silver Threads & Golden Needles replaced them; Garcia started playing pedal steel guitar onstage; and a collection of new, quieter original songs began to make their presence known. The Dead were undoubtedly influenced by hanging out with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, whom they credited with teaching them how to sing. (One rests assured that Messrs. Crosby and Stills learned a thing or two about playing electric from the Dead.) In the outside world, Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline changed the course of rock music overnight; the Dead--longtime Dylan admirers--were not immune from its influence. Things were changing all around the Dead, and the Dead were changing as well.
How did these developments affect the evolution of Dark Star? Not as much as you'd think. The Grateful Dead tent was big enough to include country crooning, Pigpen bluesing, and Dark Star blooming. Certain Dark Star patterns were in place by now: The melody is established. Garcia will state an idea. The band will kick it around and develop it, and Garcia will bring them back with a riff that may or may not be from Live/Dead. And all this before the first verse is sung..... Time was irrelevant. They played Dark Star long and they played it short. The Aquatheatre 8/20/69 show contains a radically short version, but this is much more the exception than the rule.

The 1969 model Dark Star peaked in November at the Fillmore West, of all places. The 11/7 and 11/8 concerts contain outstanding versions. The opening moments are a bit quieter, but Phil still states the theme and Jerry still initiates direction. The structural poles are very much there, but working the embryonic Uncle John’s Band into the heart of Dark Star was a none-too-subtle (and not terribly well executed) message that the band was headed in new directions that--overtly, at least--had little to do with psychedelia as it had been theretofore construed. Fillmorites could be forgiven for missing the message, packaged as it was within some extremely uncompromising sonic assaults on inner and outer space. But it’s an important part of Dark Star’s evolution: The musicians (Weir, in particular) would occasionally slip recognizable--and subsequently misnamed by fans--themes into Dark Star, on and off, over the ensuing years.
By now, it was a given that Dark Star was what happened between its verses. The intro, the opening notes, the lyrics, and the outro were the "structural poles" that separated the song from untitled chaos--those elements that bestowed form upon said chaos. But after that first verse, things fell apart and dissolved, to be recombined into something--or nothing--else. Form was abandoned; risks were taken. How far can we go? How do we get back?
These were not idle questions. They were points of intense interest for band and fans alike. Live/Dead had yet to hit the record stores; there was no taping scene. In order to hear Dark Star, you had to go to a Dead show. How you reacted to Dark Star--particularly one such as 11/7/69--had a huge bearing on whether you ever went to another one. If Dark Star was a psychedelic gut-check for the band--and it is this essay’s position that, in its heyday, it most certainly was--the song was also a psychedelic litmus test for its audience. At this time, the Dead’s audience was small, loyal, and unified by an intense appreciation for a type of music epitomized by Dark Star.

"...there’s a great big huge difference in form between ‘Dark Star’ and the blues, but I think that its essence is the same." -- Jerry Garcia

It’s remarkable how sophisticated the band’s sound became from, say, Woodstock (8/69) to the November Fillmore shows. They feel like bustin’ loose, yet they do so only sporadically. What was holding them back? By now, Pigpen was laying out during the spacy stuff, the drummers were totally in sync. The complex personnel crises of the previous fall were but a hazy memory. And yet.....when listening to tapes of the period, something seems out of place. What could it have been? History hints that the answer may have been Tom Constanten.
It’s not like TC held the band back, or anything like that. In a way, he was locked into his avant-garde bag as much as Pigpen was locked into his blues. Aoxomoxoa was his moment; when that album failed to excite either the band, its record company, or a significant segment of the record-buying public, the Dead intuitively realized it was time to move on. They didn’t want to be "experimental" anymore--they wanted to boogie. The bulk of the Aoxomoxoa tunes "didn’t stick" in the repertoire. Eventually, it dawned on the band that the album had been an expensive mistake. (Live/Dead, in fact, was conceived and released in order to pay for the studio excesses involved in producing Aoxomoxoa.) TC’s contributions onstage became less and less relevant. Sure, he contributed the occasional recognizable flourish, and his talent was (and is) undeniable, yet his overall impact on the music is rather like that of a hood ornament on an automobile: nice, nothing wrong with it, but ultimately dispensable. A case in point: 11/8/69, at the Fillmore West. During Dark Star, Constanten goes toe-to-toe with Garcia for a bit, then works some brief interplay with Lesh, all with indifferent results. The rest of the band is cooking, but TC sounds like he’s playing along with a record at home. Whether because or in spite of his playing, the 11/8 Dark Star is nowhere near as mind-melting as the previous evening’s onslaught. The band has to slip into The Other One to get things really moving. Perhaps the two are entirely unconnected, but the next phase of Dark Star’s evolution coincided with TC’s departure from the band in early 1970.

A lot of heavy stuff happened to the Grateful Dead in early 1970. The first serious episode occurred when they were busted en masse after a gig in New Orleans. Although nothing ever came of it--and the band was ultimately amused enough to immortalize the arrest in Truckin’--there was no way they could have known, when they played Dark Star for the first time after the bust (2/2/70 in St. Louis), that everything would be all right. Jail is a famously scary place, even if you’re just passing through while waiting to make bail, and the possibility, however remote, of an extended relocation to the New Orleans parish jail had to have been at least a bit unnerving. Perhaps that’s why the 2/2/70 Dark Star is a radically different beast than the one spotted at the Fillmore less than three months earlier. There are no pretty melodies, no swirling improvs. It’s a hell of a long way from the just-released Live/Dead. Phil is out front, a defiant survivor going for noise rather than pretty music. Eventually, Jerry comes in to give the song a more "conventional" spin. Weir’s more prominent than usual. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the wind’s been taken out of their sails, for the time being at least. They’re playing it much more cautiously than they did a few weeks ago, in Oregon. Smack dab in the heart of Middle America in a time of quasi-revolutionary political upheaval, they’d better be.
New York City was an unlikely haven, but Bill Graham’s Fillmore East had by now become their home away from home. They were able to inject a healthy dose of lyricism into one of the best-loved Dark Stars, from the 2/13/70 late show. The Fillmore East gave them the luxury of time--so often denied them on the road in that era--to develop ideas and themes, and the Dead took eager advantage. There’s less emphasis on sonic weirdness (though there surely is some). Weir instigates a variation on the Uncle John’s Band riff that, regrettably, has come to be known as the Feeling Groovy Jam. At times, the luxury of stretching out led to aimless self-indulgence; tonight, they had it goin’ on. For many, this (along with Live/Dead) is the Dark Star by which all others are measured.

Over the next few months, the evolution of Dark Star took a back seat to that of the band. The Dead had begun playing acoustic sets at their shows. They’d developed a spin-off band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage. They’d recorded an album, Workingman’s Dead, with nary a psychedelic jam to be heard. Some old-time Deadheads were horrified by this "soft Dead", but Workingman’s made them a lot of new fans, many of whom could get behind a down-and-dirty Dark Star. A prime example of the old Dead meeting the new is the pair of shows from 5/15/70 at the Fillmore East. Mickey Hart is particularly out front on the late show’s Dark Star. The increasingly country flavor of the Dead’s newer material had given him less and less to do. He makes up for that with a vengeance here. His gongs and cymbals combine with the bass for a first-class percussive freak-out. Jerry eventually intervenes to suggest more melodic directions, but he’s not above a little feedback. This type of freaking out was commonplace in Spring 1970 Dark Stars.
Other things were happening in the band in 1970. Lenny Hart (Mickey’s father), their manager at the time, had--after alienating a significant portion of the Dead’s crew--absconded with a healthy sum of money that was never fully recovered. That had to be a significant buzz-kill. They’d released their first live album--its greatness notwithstanding, it was already a year out of date. The Hunter/Garcia songwriting tandem hadn’t stopped with Workingman’s--they were on a roll. It’s hard not to feel, when listening to tapes years after the fact, that their hearts were in the newer material. To the extent they considered time, Friend of the Devil et al. were "now"; Dark Star was "then". Dark Star may have been old hat to the band by now, but Deadheads embraced it as their own almost as soon as Live/Dead was released. Compare the applause after the 5/15/70 version with that after the (superior) 2/13/70. They obviously relish the opportunity to jam out, but a "been there, done that" vibe occasionally leaks out from Dark Stars of this period. Evolution was occurring elsewhere.

A notable Dark Star, from this or any other era, occurred in Portchester, NY, on 6/24/70. It is another justly well-loved version. What’s interesting, from an evolutionary point of view, is the way the band weaves in and out, using Dark Star to highlight two newly minted originals. After a minute or so of Mickey/Phil bombast, they deliver a rough-but-quiet Attics of My Life. They pick up Dark Star again, then take a humorously abortive stab at Sugar Magnolia. This interesting, unique version was a forerunner of those later Dark Stars that would encapsulate El Paso, Sitting on Top of the World, Me & My Uncle, and other decidedly unspacy material.
Fast forward to 9/19/70, again at the Fillmore East. Dark Star’s tempo has slowed a tad. Mickey’s using the guiro--the cricket-like percussive device so prominent on the earliest Dark Stars. There’s a greater emphasis on dynamics; after the first verse, things fade to near total silence, from which Phil’s feedback and Mickey’s cymbals emerge, augmented by some Weir filigree. Bob’s playing has become more sophisticated by now, but he keeps throwing in those damn theme/riffs whenever he runs out of ideas.
In a way, 9/19 is a refined throwback to 2/2/70--the music has a dark, angry edge. Jerry, leading the way out, as usual, shows signs of this as well. Rather than facing a crisis from without, as had been the case in February, the current hassle was much closer to home: The extent of Lenny’s larceny had become painfully clear. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that, however blasé the individual band members (other than Mickey) came across regarding the whole affair, the group mind was pretty damn pissed off (they could no longer take all the credit for being perennially broke!) and expressed itself in Dark Star.
The most interesting characteristic of the final well-known 1970 Dark Star, 11/8 at Portchester, is the Jerry-led attack of the "Main Ten" theme, which would soon become the core of another jam vehicle, Playing in the Band. The progression from 2/13 to 11/8 was not as sweeping as one might guess. The Mickey/Phil combination after the first verse had developed a life of its own by the end of 1970. This gave the song a harder, almost industrial edge. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the latest phase of Dark Star’s evolution peaked in Portchester on 11/8/70. In a quirk of geographical coincidence, the next phase would begin on the same stage, a few months later.

"...all I can do is talk about ‘Dark Star’ as a playing experience."
"Well, yeah, talk about it a little."
"I can’t. It talks about itself." 
-- Jerry Garcia, interviewed by Charles Reich

That the Dead switched gears in a major way in the winter and spring of 1971 has been amply documented elsewhere; it’s obvious to anyone with even a modest tape collection. There were no Dark Stars that we know of between 11/8/70 and 2/18/71. Several new songs were rehearsed and debuted (and a series of Portchester shows postponed) during this period. Draw your own conclusions.....
The 2/18/71 Dark Star differs markedly from the version that prowled the same stage a scant three months earlier. Much of the weirdness has been squeezed out. Phil offers a short burst of feedback, but Mickey is nowhere to be heard. The song ultimately serves as an elaborate set-up for one of Garcia’s new tunes, Wharf Rat. (As with 6/24/70, this Dark Star is a showcase for promising new material.) The new tune segues back into Dark Star with a beautiful instrumental passage. With this performance, lyricism supplants sonic weirdness as Dark Star’s main ingredient. Tonight’s Dark Star is almost literally a snapshot of a band in transition.
The Dead’s continued infatuation with simpler song structures meant a concomitant deemphasis on polyrhythms and percussive esoterica--in short, less Mickey. In a 1969 interview, Mickey referred to 4/4 (common) time as "the box" from which the band was determined to escape. By early 1971, the band seemed all too happy to spend most of their onstage time within the confines of that box. Mix in lingering, intense embarrassment about his father’s chicanery and it’s little wonder he left the band after the 2/18 show.

If, by 1970, Dark Star was a bottle of fine cognac--broken out on special occasions, or sometimes just for the hell of it--then, by the Spring of 1971, Dark Star was an eccentric uncle--locked in the attic, seldom inflicted on the public. The Dead played Dark Star exactly three times on an April tour of the Northeast. The Boston 4/8/71 performance marked the first time that Billy had to carry the percussive load by himself. He plays it safe here, keeping things relatively close to home, while Phil--seldom a shrinking violet in Dark Star--achieves a new prominence that foreshadows the European developments of the following year. The net effect is an exercise in extended, amiable riffing that never strays too far from the main theme--Bob hitting a D chord is about as weird as it gets. That the Dead chose to break out Dark Star in Boston during this "drought" can be most likely attributed to the affection they had for that town’s audiences.
Such noble motivation can’t be ascribed to the Fillmore East Dark Stars. The first one, 4/26, shows an effort to recapture some of the magic the song had created there the year before, with mixed results. They quest, they seek, but they never quite find. That would come two nights later. The well-known 4/28 version has an almost New Year’s Eve air about it. It’s more brightly textured than the 4/26. One is tempted to wonder whether the band would have bothered in the absence of special guest keyboardist Tom Constanten. They give him space and a profile he’d never enjoyed during his stint with them. The extent and depth of the changes they’d gone through since TC’s departure are on full display here. At times, it sounds like an exercise in nostalgia. In retrospect, though, it’s a fond farewell--not only to the Fillmore East, but to Dark Star as a crucial, central element of their repertoire. Although they couldn’t have known at the time, they were about to begin saying goodbye to Pigpen as well.

You can’t keep a good song down. Dark Star spent most of 1971 in eclipse, neglected in favor of newer material that would show up on American Beauty, Skull & Roses, and Garcia and Weir’s solo albums. But there was still a hunger, both onstage and in the audience, for those moments of inspired jamming best provided by a righteous Dark Star. "DAAAAAAWK STAAAAAW, JERRY!" had entered the East Coast Deadhead lexicon by now, as had divisions of opinion regarding the relative merits of "hard" and "soft" Dead. (Jerry was quoted as saying, "They can call it ‘vanilla’.") The next stage of Dark Star’s evolution most definitely coincided with the arrival of Keith Godchaux as their new pianist in the fall of 1971.
Keith was born to play in the Grateful Dead. He was an impact player whose contributions were essential to the flowering that Dark Star, the band, and the band’s popularity began to experience in 1972. Keith was the bridge between Spring ‘71 and Europe ‘72.
His input on Dark Star was evident right from the start--he leapt into the fray. Billy would go to his cymbals early and often. Tempos were more relaxed; the band found new avenues in the pre-verse jamming beyond the occasional minor chord from Weir. (It must be noted that Bob had blossomed as a guitarist around the time Keith joined the band.) They hit peaks at the beginning that they’d previously not accessed until well after the first verse. Above all, the fall ‘71 Dark Stars showed a renewed emphasis on dynamics: Softly played, pretty passages alternate with moments of frantic loudness. All of this was delivered with a mature self-assurance that bordered on--egad!--polish.

Travel broadens the mind, or so they say. The Europe ‘72 tour affected all aspects of the band’s playing. Weir, in particular, continued to shine. If the Europe Dark Stars have anything in common, it’s the confidence, the poise with which the band delivers the goods. By now, the band had perfected Dark Star as a vehicle for the development and expression of multiple, complex ideas within a relatively confined framework. When the ideas achieved critical mass--as they did routinely in Europe--the band dispensed with the framework entirely. Thematic recapitulation, second verse, and coda--all of these structural poles were done away with. The band continued to explore contrast and dynamics, going from whispers to screams. Europe Dark Stars featured much more pre-verse instrumental activity. By the song’s "end"--more accurately, the point where it segued into something else (most notably Morning Dew)--any resemblance to Dark Stars past or future was purely coincidental.
By the end of the Europe tour, Dark Star had become a vehicle for stunningly free-form creation. More than at any other period of its history, each version was radically different. This fact makes listening to ‘72 Dark Stars so enjoyable, even as it renders attempts at coherent analysis futile. Dark Stars of this period seem to take on characteristics of the venues at which they were played: hot and sticky (Roosevelt Stadium), intimate and friendly (Berkeley Community Theatre), familiar and spacy (Veneta). The Dead were on a roll, dealing from strength, using their instruments as a painter uses a palette.
This essay would probably not be published if it failed to acknowledge the Dark Star from the Springfield Creamery Benefit in Veneta, Oregon, on 8/27. While the course of human evolution may or may not have been mere prologue to this event, there’s no denying that the Dark Star from this show is mellower and happier than the one from, say, Roosevelt Stadium. (In fact, 7/18 is yang to 8/27’s yin.) This might be a function of the respective sets and settings. If nothing else, the Veneta Dark Star was a prototype for the wonderful Dark Stars the band performed in the fall of 1972.
Each version from this period has its own personality. Overall, they’re somewhat less dissonant (7/18 was a peak in that regard). Sometimes there are drum solos; sometimes there are bass solos. The 9/27 Stanley Theatre performance (captured on Dick’s Picks XI) offers 25 minutes of instrumental pleasure before the first word is sung.

Things were going relatively well for the Dead in late ‘72. Their records were selling, their audience was growing. Their shows from this period--especially the Dark Stars--often convey sheer glee, a happiness to be playing this particular music at this particular time. This self-assured tone carried Dark Star into early 1973, but things would begin to change. The biggest and saddest change was the death of Pigpen. Although, as a practical matter, he hadn’t been a factor since the Europe tour, he was a member of the band until the very end. A case can be made, in fact, that Dark Star developed as it did, at least in part, to fill the vacuum left by the absence of Pigpen and his wealth of material.
Another change the band went through was the formation of their own record company. Jerry was quoted as referring to record companies as "a mindless juggernaut" and saying he didn’t feel like he had "a brother at Warner Brothers". (Europe ‘72 and Bear’s Choice were conceived and released, among other reasons, to hasten the band’s departure from Warner Brothers.) Grateful Dead Records forced them to divide their energies between their business and their art; it’s no surprise that both were affected. It’s even less of a surprise that they were much better at one than the other.
Nineteen seventy-three was not a good year to be a touring rock band with its own fledgling record company. Touring and recording required petroleum products. Petroleum was suddenly scarce and expensive. Their first release, Wake of the Flood, though much loved by Deadheads, did not have the impact on the world at large that their previous two studio albums had had. As for touring, they were playing for more people, for more money, and they *still* couldn’t make ends meet. A Rolling Stone article published around this time hinted that the band was consistently dissatisfied with its performances. They were unhappy about the larger venues their popularity was forcing them to play. Their audiences--particularly at outdoor East Coast shows--were growing ever rowdier. Grateful Dead Records was beginning to look like a bad (and questionably managed) idea. Taking some time off--a long time off--was starting to look like a damn good idea.

"....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...." -- Jerry Garcia

How did all this tumult affect Dark Star? Any exercise in collective improvisation is the sum of what the improvisers bring to the exercise. As we’ve seen, Dark Star was a funhouse mirror, a psychedelic gut-check, a peek into the group mind. It served as an escape from mundane hassles, as well as a chance to vent about those hassles. To that extent, their approach to Dark Star had to be greatly affected by what was going on around them. It is this essay’s position that Dark Star’s evolution from Europe ‘72 to Fall ‘73 was greatly affected by the circumstances within and without the band described above.
The ‘72 and ‘73 Dark Stars, as groups, are like two different forests. The ‘72 Dark Star forest is, for the most part, safe and inviting, warm and bright, a place you want to tell your friends about. The ‘73 Dark Star forest is, overall, darker and more foreboding, not for the faint of heart. A great setting for spooky stories, it’s a place to warn your friends about.

It’s fascinating to hear Dark Star progress from February to December in a year that many Deadheads consider to be among the band’s peaks. The 2/15/73 Madison Dark Star is a joyous continuation of the lyrical playing that marked most late ‘72 versions. Phil merrily solos away, as he was wont to do in fall ’72. In fact, his solo dominates the post-verse festivities. As the year went on, of course, his more melodic solos would gravitate to The Other One.
By June, Dark Star’s pace had slowed. The 6/30/73 Universal performance finds the Dead in a transition of sorts. Phil is relying on bomb-like chords, and Jerry is turning more and more to wah-wah and feedback. Our old friend dissonance has reappeared--a more sophisticated (and much better amplified) form, to be sure, but far removed from the lyrical prettiness that characterized the Dark Stars from earlier in ‘73. Perhaps the renewed emphasis on terrifying noise was a gradual reaction to unpleasant circumstances--as it had been after the New Orleans bust.
The Dead were as much "in the mood" for Jerry’s birthday (8/1/73) at Roosevelt Stadium as they had been in Veneta the previous August. The Dark Star from this show doesn’t lie. The music builds up from next to nothing to a shrieking crescendo. Billy goes from lightly tinkling bells to wailing away, unrestrained by anything resembling conventional rhythm. This is one of the more breathtaking examples of Dark Star dynamics from ‘73 or any other year.
Late ‘73 versions all too often featured Weir throwing in chord progressions (often one that regrettably has become known as the "Mind Left Body Jam") whenever he ran short of ideas (cf. 12/2/73 Boston). This is the only flaw of the dense, uncompromising 10/25/73 Madison (what was it about that town in ‘73?) Dark Star. Phil’s playing had evolved by now into dark abstractions and thundering chords. Jerry’s playing has moved in this direction as well, making heavier use of wah and feedback. Their styles achieved an apotheosis of sorts before the hometown crowd at Winterland on 11/11. (Compare Phil’s 2/15 solo to his playing on 11/11 for a measure of the extent to which his approach to Dark Star had changed.)
The 12/18/73 Tampa Dark Star is the end of this particular line--the last stop on the tour, with no New Years shows, it has a dosed-on-the-last-day-of-school feel. It’s a dark, aggressively emotional reading. One pictures vast segments of the audience scratching their heads and wondering, "What was that all about?", while the rest of the crowd grins helplessly. Even as one marvels at the stunning power of this Dark Star, one must admit that the Dead sound a lot more tired and a lot less happy that they did at Madison in February.

The exact moment the band decided to quit touring remains unknown; Weir has indicated it was sometime in the latter half of 1973. It’s therefore conceivable that the end was in sight during the February Winterland shows. It’s tempting to say that the 1974 shows were devoted to playing out the string, but that would be an overstatement. While fatigue is occasionally noticeable on concert tapes from the period, there is no question that the Dead had their moments during this time.
Dark Star, unfortunately, provided relatively few of these moments. The Dead, for whatever reason, played it more sparingly in the last few months before the hiatus than at any time since 1971. Perhaps this was because the Dead were burnt out on performing, touring, and (in all likelihood) each other by this time. As mentioned earlier, Dark Star expressed the Dead--or allowed them to express themselves--better than any other song they did. It can therefore be inferred, or at least contended, that in 1974, the Dead were burned out on Dark Star.

There’s little doubt that Dark Star had lost a step between December and February. Things don’t get nearly as out of hand on the 2/24 Winterland performance as they routinely did in Fall ‘73. There’s an unsurprising, Mars Hotel kind of politeness afoot, as if they’ve refined their ‘73 excursions and reigned in the beast. Everybody sounds more laid back here; they would sound even more so as the year went on. Keith is much more prominent in the mix. Weir’s attempt to bring in the so-called Spanish Jam is met with complete indifference and quickly abandoned. Jerry explicitly tries to recapture his 11/11 sound. In listening to the tape, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve heard this before. No new ground is broken; no new ideas are expressed. Perhaps Dark Star has grown up, which is another way of saying that it essentially has stopped growing.
It’s obvious from tapes of the ‘74 shows that the jamming action was happening elsewhere--Other One, Playing, Eyes, Weather Report, even the Phil & Ned segments, all contained healthy portions of that Dark Star energy. Dark Star, by comparison, had begun to recede. The 6/23/74 Miami version (incorrectly referred to in some quarters as "Dark Star Jam") captures the band in a listless, uninspired mode. This version is noteworthy for the absence of any lyrics (cf. 12/5/71 for a similar phenomenon), but the most telling detail is their use of the Spanish Jam theme as an escape route, rather than a detour. It takes them out of Dark Star and into the then-fresh environs of U.S. Blues.
Our analysis ends with the 10/18/74 Winterland Dark Star. This one’s a keeper. Perhaps they were smiling for the cameras, believing that this could be the last time. Whatever the case, this one is, for all intents and purposes, as much a swan song to Dark Star as the Winterland shows were to the first phase of the Grateful Dead’s existence. This is as close to sentimental as Dark Star ever got. They’re tired, they have solo projects that interest them more, and they’re being filmed--not a good mix. But the Dead crank it up once more, for old times’ sake.

This essay’s intent is not to rate the Dark Stars, nor is it to push personal favorites. This essay gladly leaves the myth-making and rewriting of history to the self-styled experts who, it fears, will always be with us. However, if this essay has given the reader a framework for a deeper appreciation of Dark Star--and, in the process, the beginnings of an understanding of why the music sounded like it did when it did--then this essay is satisfied, and it will sleep well at night.


http://web.archive.org/web/20030821082705/http://www.elizabundledee.com/star.htm


* * * 


DARK STAR - DEVOLUTION 
by Douglas Ferguson, 1999

Q: Are there any old Grateful Dead songs that you would like the Dead to start doing again?
Garcia: No.
Q: None?
Garcia: Not really, no.
(The Golden Road/Fall 1986)

As with any retrospective evaluation, the temptation to split the period of study into definable parcels is admittedly great. With the GD, this inclination is encouraged, somewhat obviously, by the two, roughly equal-length, periods that frame their so called 'retirement' in 1975. That the two periods were separated by nearly the exact middle of the GD's career as a band practically begs for all manner of division and classification. While this way of thinking necessarily excludes the fundamental 'continuum' of their 30-year history, there are nevertheless many transformations, changes, and full-scale philosophical shifts that slowly and inexorably drifted across those 30 years, rarely acknowledged, but there nonetheless.
While it is far too simplistic to imply, or claim outright, as many veteran heads in fact do, that the post-retirement GD all but abandoned their 'canon' (quite literally, as it turns out, but more on this later), it is not so fantastic to observe that through necessary adaptation and, yes, further development, the GD of the eighties and nineties was, in many ways, a far different organism than the one of the preceding decades. In many ways a veritable lightning rod for these claims was the literal choice and rotation of the GD's repertoire, most specifically the appearance of the canonical focus, Dark Star. What was usually missing from such debates was the actual definition of the song, its place, its meaning or, conversely, its occasional irrelevance, in a period bridging four decades.
Rarely in any artistic endeavor is it so apparent that the work produced so directly reflects and boasts attributes of the organization that worked to produce it. Organization is this case referring to the entire GD family, the blurring of distinctions between performers, managers, roadies, office staff, family (rarely has any band ever been burdened by such massive egos on the part of technical staff). The period of the expanding Dark Star was also the period of nearly exponential organizational expansion, the band's vision, musical prowess, and ambition developing at a pace that required similar experimentation and expansion in the organization that managed and supported it. As has been documented, by 1973 the cracks had begun to show. The GD organization, personified in their own fan club literature by Ouroboros, the dragon eating its own tail, had become a huge and unwieldy beast.
The initial experiment in chaotic, laissez-faire self-management had taken on a dehumanizing corporate pattern that cruelly undermined the initial premise and, increasingly, offered severely diminishing financial returns, if not musical ones. When the GD stepped off the treadmill in 1974, they had literally reached the point of saturation, and the circumstances borne of this expansion began to highlight the nagging ironies and musical/stylistic contradictions. Forced to play a steady cycle of 15,000+ arenas to meet overhead, notions of further musical expansion and experimentation were becoming much less feasible, as evidenced by the baffled reception that greeted the 'Seastones' segments on the summer ‘74 tour. American stadium and arena-rock dynamics were at this time just codifying, and the GD, never a band to perform "at" their audience, especially couldn't be exempted from these new expectations.

“But there have been nights--not so much recently as before we knocked off in '74--we got so musically inbred that we were playing some fairly amazing stuff, but almost nobody could hear it or relate to it except us. That's one of the reasons why we knocked off and went out and did solo projects. We were speaking a language known only to us, using a musical vocabulary that was really pretty damned esoteric at some points.
Q: You don't think the crowd was picking up on it?
A lot of them didn't--I know they didn't.”
(Weir in an interview with Blair Jackson, 1981)

It is probably not altogether surprising that what many consider to be the last genuine Dark Star occurred in a smallish arena on home turf, October 18, 1974 at Winterland, during the farewell stand that was more a culmination/celebration of the first ten years than an avowed retreat from performance. Paradoxically, what some consider to be the last true version is, in many ways, the most organic rendering. Emerging from the inactive silence of intermission through the gradient electronic progress of the 'Seastones' segment, gradually joined and tentatively directed by Garcia and soon followed by the rest of the band, eventually shedding the cerebral electronic tones and gliding towards an elegant and austere transition into and through the 'song' itself. Virtually stand-alone and arriving formless, this was perhaps the last non-premeditated version, wholly organic rather than designed or simply occasioned. The culmination of the first version of the Grateful Dead and of the theoretical boundlessness of the era during which the song emerged and developed, this 'Dark Star' perhaps more than any other version best exemplifies the process of exploring and building upon an infinitely expandable improvisational vehicle.

Far from retiring or disbanding, within three months, the Dead were ensconced in Weir's home studio, only this time intent upon building songs from the ground up, having entered the studio without any pre-written material or conceptions as to how the music should proceed. When steady touring resumed a year and a half later, this material was emphasized along with revivals of older songs that either echoed the economical ethos of the new approach (High Time, Candyman) or closely matched the complex structures of the new 'Blues For Allah' material (Cosmic Charlie). When the GD returned to the road, the organizational egress had been remedied through a similarly philosophical paradigm shift that, although not openly acknowledged, came to be implemented all the same.
The production of shows and the concerts themselves reflected this reduced scale, the "comeback" tour of 1976 concentrating on intimate theatres, returning later that year to mid-size arenas and college auditoriums. However, the return to larger arenas did not necessarily mean a return to pre-retirement musical form. When the Dead at last returned to regular touring, concision and economy was the norm. Modest and deliberate was the musical approach, evidenced by the often leaden, groaning tempos and newly mannered treatments given older material ('St. Stephen' for example). The re-integration of Mickey Hart into the band was in part to blame for this, and if one follows this example and re-visits tapes of this period, it becomes obvious that the deft fusion and elasticity that characterized so many versions of Dark Star since late '71, would have been nearly impossible to recreate with two drummers.

From 31 appearances in 1972, to 13 in 1973, and 5 in 1974, Dark Star would only appear five times between 1975 and most of 1989. When it did appear during that period, it was almost always occasioned by a special event, or practically coerced into performance through the psychic demands of the audience; versions reluctantly submitted and only wearily echoing their predecessors. The failure in reintroducing the cumbersome and intentionally difficult Aoxomoxoa 'Baroque era' material in 1976 may have humbled the band, although 'St. Stephen', after many somnambular offerings during this year, did enjoy a genuine resurgence in both vigor and frequency during 1977 when it rather conveniently morphed into an arena-scale monster usually appended to 'Truckin', which was fast approaching its apex in this genre. 'Cosmic Charlie' and, later, 'St. Stephen' after its 1983 dusting, fared little better, the latter a prime example of the level of reluctance in bringing back old material simply to meet the demand, as anyone who witnessed the abysmal final recitation at Berkeley on 10/31/83 can attest.
By 1978 onward, the band was at once becoming accustomed to arena performance conventions and dynamics, adjusting to (some might say accommodating) revised audience expectations, putting the final touches on the institutional set format, and were struggling with the rapid and startlingly persistent decline of Keith Godchaux, whose fluid jazz runs had so brilliantly underscored so many pre-retirement Dark Stars, but who was increasingly withdrawn from the proceedings. With so many uncertainties within and without the band, it is perhaps not surprising that they chose to play within familiar confines and not stretch themselves to the point where the stress would come to define the performance, which, in fact, it already had done during most of 1978.

The 'Dark Star' that was trotted out on 12/31/78 was in many ways solely a combination tribute/concession to Bill Graham and those who went to the trouble of calculating the exact number of days since the last appearance. By this point, its mythology had become taken for granted, the very possibility of its occurrence becoming an obsession with touring Deadheads. Its absence fueled anticipation and further mythmaking, rather than rational speculation or sympathy on the part of those same Heads as to possibly why it had stopped being performed entirely.
Befitting the occasion, and setting the pattern for most of the future occurrences of Dark Star, the utterance of the opening phrase is greeted with a swell and release so forceful that it drowns out the first minute or so. Here, what is being celebrated in the audience reaction is not what is actually being laid out onstage, but rather circumstance and matching occasions: the closing of what was possibly the GD's most venerable home venue being bade farewell by the appearance of the most vaunted "song" in the GD repertoire. It is perhaps a good thing that the actual music is secondary, as it is a rushed and circumspect version, clinging to the middle and resisting any dissolution or transformation with all eyes straight ahead. What is perhaps most striking about this version is that it represents the re-classification of 'Dark Star' from a transformative piece within and of itself to a hemmed and proscribed transitional piece, a distinction that nearly guaranteed its omission during most of the eighties as the previously embroidered pathways between songs were abandoned for abrupt and often impatient transitions.
Along with the increasing "ossification" (as Lesh put it) of the standard first and second sets, it was at this time--in fact simultaneously with the development of the 'Drums' section--that a free-form compartment developed that bridged the drums segment with the latter half of the second set. These segments, usually lumped together as 'Space,' re-introduced a familiar element (free-form, often atonal, electric tone experiments) that, while suitably formless, were still bookended by entrenched second set fixtures. By the late ‘70s, free-form exploration had become effectively relegated to a somewhat redundant transitional bridge to more conventional songs rather than an endeavor in itself.

After the New Year's dusting, two further performances followed over the nearly three-week ’79 tour immediately following Winterland's closing. Ostensibly a make-up tour to reschedule dates cancelled the previous November and December due to Garcia's illness, the metro New York, Springfield and Providence shows evidence a surprising degree of enthusiasm, while some nights appear little more than desultory run-throughs, namely Utica and New Haven. The very pairing of 'Dark Star' and 'St. Stephen' at the Nassau Coliseum on January 10 was enough to ensure setlist infamy, regardless of the actual submission. The next appearance (and last performance for 232 shows) on the penultimate date of the tour, January 20, again seemed occasioned, this time by the palpable absence of Donna.
While the two ‘79 versions don't vary much from the Winterland version, the Buffalo edition benefits, and takes much of its definition from, a smoldering and exploratory 'Other One'. The 'Other One' being the third in the perennial troika of exploratory vehicles (Playin' being second) developed during the improvisational peak years, it is perhaps not surprising that Dark Star should, in its subsequent rare appearances, begin to pattern itself after its siblings. While admittedly more volatile and open-ended than just about anything in the GD repertoire at this point, The Other One was still a transitional piece, rarely straying and fairly adhering to the approach>peak>quick decline pattern that usually ushered in the allotted Garcia ballad. Similarly, Playin' had by this time taken its place along 'Estimated Prophet' as the primary second-set jam vehicle, abandoning--like the 'Other One' with its 'Cryptical Envelopment' bookends'--its status as a stand-alone exploratory vehicle. The incongruity of a stand-alone 'Playin' became evident on the return tour of 1976, appearing all the more an anomaly amidst the designed and economical structure of the immediate post-retirement shows.
The dispatching of Keith & Donna after the January tour heralded optimism that the GD could and would now shake things up, freed as they were from Keith's incessant plodding and the cold wash of the always tenuous male/female vocal mix. What the GD referred to however, was the lean and fast approach of late ‘71 when, not ironically, Keith was first introduced into the band, rather than the expository bend of ‘72-74. If it can be argued that these years were defined and indeed propelled by the emerging individual and group dynamics, how were the GD to be defined, in their new start with Brent, during the Eighties? As commercially isolated as they always claimed to be, the 1970s GD were at least considered emblematic of whatever countercultural identity and theory that still lingered from the Sixties, be it drug culture or nouveau organic American antiquity ("good ol' Grateful Dead"). As the GD worked their way into the Reagan era, they found out what it was really like to be isolated.

Before the tumult of October 1989, the 1980s Dark Stars (all two of them) were less than notable save for the curiosity of their inclusion. The New Year's Eve 1981 version is surprisingly graceful if not very engaging. The 7-13-84 version is simply desultory, fifteen minutes of sheer absence. What deadheads should have taken as an insult, the cruelly offhanded throwaway of perhaps the most cherished event in the GD concert experience, was again orgasmically heralded by its mere appearance. Coming as it did during the height of Garcia's 1980s opiate indifference, perhaps one shouldn't have expected much more. Still, it was as if it was enough to know the song still existed, to be casually acknowledged by the band every few years, enough to partially re-affirm the GD as a performing unit and touring experience in one of its darkest and most dislocated periods.
10-9-89, however, is a different animal altogether. If the decade's previous versions were either sops to constant audience expectations or offhanded attempts at dismissing the myth, the version of Dark Star unveiled at the Hampton Coliseum 'Warlocks' show was at once the enthusiastic embrace of the prodigal song and a ringing affirmation of the Grateful Dead's commitment to its past and present. That the same show also contained purposeful versions of 'Attics of My Life' & 'And We Bid You Goodnight' (as well as the return of 'Help On The Way>Slipknot' the previous night) also seemed to suggest that the GD might be confronting their mythology in one massive therapy session. Rather than attempting to exorcise this mythology, the Hampton shows mark a point at which the first period Grateful Dead catches up with and takes its place alongside the second.
In the years following, Dark Star would again be dismissed from rotation for months at a time, only to be revived for occasions, usually a guest musician of the caliber of Branford Marsalis or David Murray. And while it was understood that in accordance with the illogic of all things Grateful Dead, each appearance may be the last, Dark Star appeared in a fairly regular manner up until March of 1994, its disappearance from the repertoire more or less coinciding with Garcia's relapse into drugs and the band into a corresponding torpor, this time even more desolate than the eighties stretch. 
If any contained history can indeed be divided into broad periods, what enjoins those periods are not grand or sweeping gestures but the measured accumulation of individual actions and the cycles those consequences set in motion. As a unit, the Grateful Dead was as democratically vulnerable to internal and external pressures, to the increasing weight of history combined with the consistent demands for maintenance and progress. As perhaps the song most central to the Grateful Dead experience, the development, contraction, and progression of Dark Star most closely reflects that same history.


5 comments:

  1. This is the first in a series of fourteen Guest Posts I’m adding this month.

    These essays were written in 1999 for a now-dead webpage meant to accompany the Deadheads’ Taping Addendum. The Addendum concludes, “For those readers interested in reading more from our team of crack contributors, check out our lyrical and musical essays on the Grateful Dead’s most illuminating songs.” A variety of Compendium writers contributed essays on various songs, but their webpage was only up for a short time before it was taken down some 13 years ago.
    The essays haven’t been reprinted elsewhere (as far as I know), so they’re little-known today. I thought they should be revived in a more accessible presentation for readers who might be interested in them.
    I’m not including here the essays on song-lyric interpretations, or (with one exception) songs written after 1974, since those are of much less interest to me. The full contents are still linked on the Web Archive for those who want to read more in those areas.
    Obviously some performance histories are a little incomplete or out of date, since fewer shows were available then, but I haven’t updated or revised them [except for a few minor corrections]. The date of writing should be kept in mind.
    I don’t always agree with the authors – these are their opinions, in their style! – but including these essays here doesn’t preclude me writing my own posts about some of these songs in the future.
    More guest contributions on early songs, shows, or Dead history are always welcome, of course.

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  2. Great articles, thank you. I don't think I'd seen either of these before. For completeness, there's another analysis of extant Dark Stars on the Deadlists Project site http://www.deadlists.com

    Unfortunately, I can't include a link directly to it as it doesn't have a unique URL but it can be found from the main page by selecting 'help & resources' from the left-hand menu, then 'Dark Star Document' under Resources (about halfway down the page on the right). The first part documents all know recordings of Dark Star, those known to have been played but never surfaced, etc (I don't know how up to date this section is); the second part documents the Evolution Of Dark Star, with acknowledgements to Jim Powell, the author of the piece. (I tried to copy/paste it into this Comment but it says it's too long).

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes, that's an indispensable guide - I think a lot of people know that list since it's been on deadlists for many years, so I never felt the need to copy it here.
    The direct link is http://www.shallwego.net/deadlists/darkstar.htm (updated 2008)

    The wikipedia article on Dark Star links to an older version of the list (updated 2003), which is a bit more out-of-date than the 2008 version.

    Jim Powell did another update in 2012, which isn't directly linked on the site but is on their mail archive (you can also find the Mail Archive in the "help & resources" section).
    http://www.mail-archive.com/deadlists@nemesis.cs.berkeley.edu/msg04158.html - 2012 update
    (There are also a few corrections, in the replies at the bottom.)

    Come to think of it, if deadlists isn't updating anymore, perhaps I should put the most current version of the list here?

    I have 13 other Guest Posts up this month too; there's a list of them in the right-hand column here, both in the monthly archive and at the bottom of the site index.

    ReplyDelete
  4. For me, the greatest versions of 'Dark Star' were during 1971-74, from when Keith Godchaux joined the band up to the band's holiday from touring. I've not heard them all by any means, but the ones I've heard have been for me some of the most inspiring pieces of improvisational music. The one recorded in Düsseldorf in 1972 seems to dredge up around the 20-minute mark some very murky things from local history, truly disturbing, even frightening. The one recorded in London in October 1974, on Dick's Picks 7, with Godchaux on electric piano throughout, goes into a very bluesy feel at about 15 minutes (and has a splended 'Morning Dew' afterwards).

    After 1974, unfortunately, 'Dark Star' rarely worked for me, although I was pleased when it turned up at my last GD gig, at Wembley in 1990. The post-1974 versions are -- I think it's having two drummers again -- rather plodding and don't have that freewheeling feel that the 1971-74 versions have.

    Dr Paul

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    Replies
    1. I like the '69-70 versions just as much as the Keith versions. In 1970 Dark Star had reached a fairly predictable format - some might say it stagnated, others that it had reached perfection - and the Dead seemed to lose interest in it, all but dropping it by the end of the year. I've written about its 1971 renaissance in another post - Keith definitely gave the jams extra impetus, new creative directions, and a much jazzier feel, and the Dead are clearly excited to play it.

      Dark Star was apparently starting to fade out again in 1974 (though the versions that year are still strong), as the band became more interested in different types of jams & new material, and after the hiatus they headed in a firmly non-Dark Star direction. There's a discussion of the few '78-84 versions here:
      http://deadessays.blogspot.com/2013/05/dark-star-1978-1984-roundtable.html

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