June 1, 2011

Dark Star 12/6/73 (Guest Post)

Here is a piece on the 12/6/73 Dark Star, by Nick.
Enjoy –

Bob: We’re fortunate tonight to have with us tonight a recruiting station for the Venusian Red Cross. It’s the gentleman over here with the big red blinking eye. If you’d just like to wander on over there and sign up…

Phil: The who?

Bob: The Venusian Red Cross.

Phil: The Venusian Red Cross... Is that what that means. (12/6/73)


I wrote this initially in response to several postings on a particular GD forum where the consensus among many seemed to be that the 12/6/73 Dark Star was over-long, sleepy, and self-indulgent. That particular Dark Star was (and still is) one of my favorites, so -- fully aware of the irony of composing a mega-review of an over-long sleepy self-indulgent jam -- I crafted this defense:

To start, context is important when talking about this Dark Star. It isn't 11/11/73, and I don't really agree with the deadlists comment that the two are "fraternal twins," which would naturally lead the uninitiated to listen to it in a certain way. Instead, let's first locate where 12/6 stands. The final tour of the year found the boys back on the east coast sans Donna (much to the delight of many folks here). 11/30 is the stuff of legends, and rightfully so, and it's a beautiful display of the late 73 dreamy melodic style of improv: "sleepy" if you're looking for something akin to 71-72 at its rockin'est best, but I say adjust your levels. 2001 isn't exactly the zippiest film ever made, but then again, exploring the outer reaches may not be the time to put the pedal to the metal -- it's all kind of relative in outer space, isn't it? Fall 73 wasn't about burning off both your ears.

Something happened in Boston on 12/2, though. My theory is that a certain recruiter from the Venusian Red Cross landed at that mysterious 11/28/73 Garcia/Hart/Ned(?) show at the Palace of Fine Arts, made some connections, got some phone numbers, rocketed back to the mothership to pick up his toothbrush, and picked up the Dead tour a few shows later. Upon his return, he caused a major disruption to the psychoelectromagnetic forcefield being emitted around the proto-Wall of Sound (somewhat similar to Phil’s discovery of the movie camera's feedback potential in the Winterland movie). You doubt this? The famous 12/2 Playin delves deep as all Playins of this vintage did, then delves deeper and deeper and deeper still. This wasn't unheard of, of course: Phil did some major dismantling of his bass and our synapses in the mightily wicked 10/25 Dark Star and certainly on other occasions as well, but on 12/2 they are nearing the source of a deep space vein that ran with them for the better part of the week. It's there again in the next show's Eyes>space (12/4), albeit in less extreme form, and later reappears in the 12/8 Other One, where it's already starting to mellow significantly. I need to listen more closely to 12/10 and 12/12, which I've never given much attention, but these shows don't seem to have jams of similar scope or intensity. The last two shows of the year, however, manage to recapture some of that energy, with a great apocalyptic space in the 12/18 Dark Star and one final laser beam blast of prime deep space mindscrambling in the wonderful meltdown that follows the Other One on 12/19.

So: the 12/6 Dark Star.

note: I wrote this using shnid=4452, though it's now been officially released on a Road Trips bonus disc. The first version of this I got on cd about 10 years ago had the Dark Star cut into 3 tracks, which I actually kind of liked: the tuning, the "prelude", and the Dark Star itself. All subsequent transfers leave it as just one 43 1/2 minute slab of music, which works just as well, of course.

http://www.archive.org/details/gd1973-12-06.sbd.miller.105560.flac16 (an upgrade, but the timings are different)

Our trip starts with Jerry noodling and Phil and Bob tuning up. Jerry's clearly in Dark Star mode from the word go, waiting for the rest of the band to get it together. At around 1:12, Keith stops helping Phil tune and starts drifting towards Jerry's zone… It's important to note that from this point on, Keith is as active a participant in this music as Jerry or Phil is. In fact, I can't think of another stretch of improv as long as this where Keith is so involved and playing his ass off -- there are plenty of wonderful moments in 71-73 where Keith steps up and counters any notions we have of him as the sleepy pianist, but here he does so for the most sustained amount of time. And the fact that he does so almost completely on his Rhodes is heaven for me -- I love love love the sound of this keyboard, and whenever I'm out digging in record store basements for old jazz lp's (another pasttime of mine), I'll usually grab anything from 1970-1976 if I see a Rhodes listed on the back cover. Digression. Back to the business at hand. The boys are getting ready to go.

At 1:45 there's a second's pause and something in the air changes. Listen, you can feel it. Keith continues, but it's clear now that they're done tuning up. Our VRC recruiter peeks his head over the stacks and gives them the thumbs up. Billy falls in with some cymbal splashes. Jerry's ready to go. At 2:10 Keith moves from his Steinway to his Rhodes, where he stays for the remainder of this Dark Star. Just then, Phil lets off some thunder to announce that he's ready to go -- they're revving up. Or maybe it's more like monks scuttling back and forth preparing for a ceremony.

Finally, at 3:22 Billy tosses out a nice, flowing beat and Keith and Jerry dive in. It's Dark Star, but there are none of the obvious signposts announcing that. Every Dark Star begins with some announcement, some statement of purpose ("free turf!" as Jerry calls before launching the one on 3/2/69). Not here. It's amazing to me that they performed this way in front of a large crowd (more on the crowd later). No one thing says "Dark Star!" but no one would mistake it for anything else -- loose, fluid, gentle, Billy dancing away back there, while the four guys upfront talk, nudge, and whisper to each other. I suppose one drawback to this one is that Bob takes his place in the backseat and doesn't say much, and this doesn't change much for the next 40 minutes. Equipment issues? A Bobby-unfriendly mix? Maybe taking a break to man the Venusian Red Cross table while our friendly recruiter climbs up into the PA to work a little magic?

Anyway, as I believe Tom Constanten once said, "Dark Star is going on all the time. It's going on right now. You don't begin it so much as enter it. You don’t end it so much as leave it."

So here we go. They groove and float for a few minutes, like five skaters doing slow loops on a pond. By about 6 min in, Phil's starting to get a little more punchy, and the jam begins to focus itself into more of a direction, thickening up, pushing into a sliiiightly more aggressive and "purposeful" Dark Star theme jam. At 10 min or so, this particular approach seems to climax: Jerry moves forward, but the boys pull up short and drop the bottom out from under him for a second, and they turn towards a new direction. I love listening to these momenets when they reach the conclusion of a particular jam, regroup and and decide where to go next, and no one's in any hurry to figure it out. At 11 min, Jerry's got the wah turned on, but it seems like Billy wants to keep it grounded for now; Keith suggests the Dark Star "verse" theme at 11:40? Not yet, pal. Phil's having none of it, and seconds later he starts unleashing some huge feedback waves. Wooosh! He's not fully taking it there yet, but it sounds like he's letting everyone know: no usual Dark Star tonight; tonight we push for the outer regions.

The rest of the boys seem happy to oblige. Or powerless to resist.

And they're off! Or are they? At 13 min, they set off but then fall back into the regular Dark Star terrain and hesitate. Is this where we want to be? Should we go someplace else? Enough indecision: at 15 min, Billy whips up a whirlwind and Jerry and Keith take off, both really pushing and playing hard. They build to another little climax, sparring playfully and getting kinda pissy with each other. At around 16:35 Jerry eases back and plays one of his standard "regrouping" licks, the same repeated arpeggio picked slowly while he finesses his wah pedal. NOW the Dark Star theme? Phil's having none of it. The beast is crawling out of its cage now. Enough playtime.

Phil proceeds to usher in one of my very favorite deep space Dead jams. This is my "primal Dead" -- for some it's 68, for other it's 77, but for me this kind of stuff is the pot which holds the bubbling primal ooze. The mothership has landed, all pretense or facades of human bullshit have been melted away, and the third eye begins to crack itself open. Phil gets prehistoric -- he starts revving up wave after wave of feedback drone, not decimating everything in sight (unlike, say, 10/25/73, where Phil's evil wizard twin appears to pulverize our synapses), but pulsing and writhing like a living thing, like a giant whale rolling in the surf; Jer and Bob keep some semblance of sanity by clinging to those slow, arpeggiated figures they keep playing, while Keith goes for broke and rides the wave that Phil is churning up.

After a few minutes of this sheer perfection, Jerry eventually pokes his head above water and starts working purposefully towards the Dark Star verse theme. Phil subsides gently, and at 21:07 it all comes together and Jerry finally plays the Dark Star theme, much to the crowd's appreciation. Elated, they groove on this for a bit; vocals at 25:10.

It's worth noting two things at this point:

1. The only Dark Stars I can think of that come close to the amount of pre-verse music that this one has are 9/27/72 and 9/10/74, but I think this one edges both of them out. For comparison's sake, 12/6/73 has almost 10 minutes more than 11/11/73.

2. At no point in any of this is Keith MIA in any way -- no vanishing for equipment problems, sneaking a cigarette, catching a nap, having a sandwich, whatever. He's plugged in and up front the entire time.


After the verse, the bottom drops out as usual. Bob strums away quietly, Keith continues to play on, then Phil steps upfront as is his usual practice around about this time. At about 28:30ish he lets off a big feedback chord, which fades away to just Jerry alone scraping a single string. Again, note the crowd response to this. They're feeling it.

Now the real bullfight begins. Phil lets off some squeals, the crowd hollers a few words of encouragement, Billy makes himself known with some little percussion taps as Phil starts to disembowel his bass. The heavy shit starts now. Words won't do this any justice. Everyone (even Keith) sit this one out as Jerry and Phil get all King Kong vs. Godzilla and do some damage. Phil lays down some monster chords while Jerry swoops above like some kind of howling bird of prey, then Phil falls back to let Jerry come from and center to lay some waste, all the while laying down a droning bed of buzzing feedback. You like this stuff or you grit your teeth and wait it out, but music like this forces you to confront it and reckon with it. At this point, I literally cannot hit the skip button -- I'm in too deep to bail out now.

That little VRC recruiter is either rolling on the floor with glee or wondering just what the hell kind of jungle cat he let out of the bag.

Finally, at around 35 min, on the back of final huge Phil feedback bomb, Keith comes creeping back, followed quickly by Bob and Billy. Phil is still in convulsions, but Jerry picks up on the new company and pushes off in a jazzier direction with Keith, the two of them reeling off these fast runs that mirror-image each other. Billy kicks in a propulsive beat and Jer and Keith race off, neck and neck with each other, tilting unsteadily back towards atonality one second, then back in the direction of jazzy melody the next. A nice run back towards the Dark Star verse theme? Hard to say where they're going, but by 40 min, Jer eases off and lets Keith run with it. The energy subsides, but Keith keeps it going, and around 41:30 he plays a little 2 chord vamp that Jerry picks up on and plays with for a second. Though the air is starting to leave the balloon, their playing is still remarkably sharp and focused -- prime 73 Dead jazz jamming, ala many other great ones from the year (3/24, 7/27, 10/29, etc). In the waning moments, it really sounds like they're considering a return to the Dark Star theme -- Keith and Phil practically cue it right up (!), but Jerry's on his own path and turns straight into Eyes of the World. Never a bad call, but jeez, how perfect would it have been if Jerry eased back and let them put the cherry on top of this Dark Star? Ah well. "You don’t end it so much as leave it."

Eyes of the World. I could say more, but I've said way more than enough as it is.

The rest of this show is quite lovely as well. I hear the HCSunshine is a good one.

Thanks for sticking with me.


This Dark Star has sparked a variety of opinions, so here is a collage of other reviews:

“A long spacey Dark Star that seems to drift in from somewhere beyond the reach of the Hubble telescope is a highlight, pulsing and beaming like stars being born in an intergalactic dustcloud…. Not much in the way of fireworks, more drifting and dreaming really and sometimes hard to bring into focus, but a bewilderingly lovely thing all the same.”

“It is extremely abstract and ethereal. It starts off in space and returns there twice in the twenty-five minutes of down- to mid-tempo open jamming before the first verse. Starting around 11' Phil starts dialing in some serious Seastones UFO tones and takes the second half of the pre-verse jam quite deep in a cubist/impressionist style. Then after the verse is several more minutes of deep Seastones abstraction (no Tiger jam this night) before rolling into a nice little melodic improvisational outro section. This kind of thing isn't for everyone, but I love it.”

“This Dark Star has instantly become one of my favorites! I've listened to it before but was never really struck with by its magic. The beginning jam is one of the best examples that I have heard that showcase just how much creativity Keith brought to the band. Around 18 minutes, Phil initiates ignition of the engines and we are pulsated to another dimension. Phil's solo at the 28 minute mark is STUNNING! We dissolve into the ethers and then Jerry takes us home. Wow.”

“I think it’s fantastic and mellow and spacey for about half the length of its 45 minute running time before it devolves into the usual '73 nonsensical meandering noise.”

“This is one of the worst "Dark Stars" I have personally ever heard, and I have heard more than a few. The first 20 minutes are not really the song at all but just some space noodling. Mercifully Jer drops in the first verse without much fanfare, and then it continues to go nowhere for another 20 some minutes w/ Phil intermittently assaulting our ears (and my woofers) w/ bass sustain and feedback. This is generally what musicians do when nothing else is really happening musically.”

“This is one of my favorite versions of Dark Star. Although it doesn't start with the signature beginning riffs, it is a great jam with a lot of fine work on the electric piano by Keith. I'm not sure they didn't just start up a jam in "A" that just eventually became Dark Star (same key of A) half way through it. Either way it is a great and unique jam… I can see why some people don't like this Dark Star…but I like it because it is very different. Yes they are just noodling in "A" for most of it but I really like the electric piano and the laid back, sleepy energy.”

“Sorry to say the whole thing is over blown hype. This is not even close to Phil at his best. If you like dull sleepy spacy Dark Stars with some cool feedback and a little jamming about 35 minutes into it then it's for you. This thing really never gets off the ground, dull boring attempt. Very slow and sleepy. I like laid back jamming from 73 but this is like falling asleep.”

“Rarely do you hear a Dark Star so out-there it sounds like the Dead are trying to split the universe in half. This is not overrated!”

“This Dark Star opens the doors to dimensions that are folded into the three dimensions we know of, whole universes compacted into a space a billion times smaller than a proton. There are jazzy segments, there's deep space, there's Phil assaulting the audience with one barrage after another (post-verse), there's a segment where they seem to be moving towards The Other One, and there are segments of heartrending beauty... [I used to think] this Dark Star meandered for a long time before the verse and then dissolved into a mess during which they were barely playing for minutes at a time. That couldn't be further from the truth. They keep up the intensity for the full 43 min, and in fact they could have gone longer. The one thing I did notice is that Weir either is missing entirely from Dark Star or is mixed so low as to be inaudible. His guitar reappears at the beginning of Eyes, but disappears again.”

(From the Taping Compendium.)
“This version is one of those rare Dark Stars from which both Phil and Keith launch the brightest volleys. Put headphones on and listen carefully as Phil alternates between plucking subtle, high percussive notes as a deliberate counterbeat to Phil’s drumming, and laying down deeply entrancing harmonic drones that seem to go on and on forever. This is Phil at his very, very best. Keith, for a change, is very loud in the mix. This allows the listener to clearly hear him inventing weblike melodic patterns against which Jerry’s picking stands out strongly. At several points Keith is leading the band, something you just don’t hear that often. This incredibly well-developed jam goes on for quite some time before Garcia steps forward with strong vocals. Back into space they fly. This evolves into one of the most beautiful explorations of feedback I’ve ever heard this band play. Neither minimalist like the Dark Star feedbacks of 1970, nor scary like many versions found in 1972, nor electronic-sounding like many played in 1974, this feedback sounds like something you’d expect as background music in a Stanley Kubrick film. After several delicious minutes of group feedback, Keith lays down a more structured riff and boom, the whole band rises up into structured melodic harmony again. Both Phil and Keith eventually find their way into Wharf Rat, but Jerry wants no part of it – he cuts them off, launching into a long, spacey Eyes.”

(From reviewer “snow&rain”.)
“This one is pretty fantastic. It makes a lot of top fives for its “contemplative” jamming and bizarre structure. It may not be the best Dark Star of the era, but it is certainly must-hear material, as there really isn't anything else like it.
The beginning of the song is never announced. It creeps up behind you, because it really starts from a Keith jam that emerges out of tuning. Usually I’m just typing away, or watering the plants or whatever, not a care in the world, when I realize that I’ve been listening to Dark Star for the last 10 minutes – and enjoying it! It’s the creeper Dark Star.
The band rides this jazzy little groove for over 40 minutes. Keith is a huge factor early, running up and down the scales with virtuoso-like quickness. Keith is clearly influenced by the great jazz pianists of the era, including Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, especially. Then Phil takes over, setting the real theme of this Dark Star – which I find in his deep, booming, feedbacky tones. It’s certainly one of the most free-form Dark Stars out there. First verse doesn’t come until the 24th minute. After the verse we get more electric space from Phil. Can’t help but think of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman’s influence on the band at this point. The band goes almost totally silent, before opening up a spacey jam in the truest sense of the word – echoes of feedback, big booming bass chords…scary stuff. I personally LOVE the scary Dead, so I’m into it, but this part won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Space gives way to a more “call of the whales” segment – similar, but less frightening, before it settles back down into a nice Jazz Star kind of groove again. Jerry picks up the pace a bit for the final movement. The drums are back in place, and we’re back into a normal song structure again, with Keith again leading the way with his rhythmic, angular chords.
With a proper grip on reality reestablished, the darkness give way to a nice version of Eyes (there’s another patch during the first verse, but no biggie). Jerry is as on here as he is the rest of the night, effortlessly slicing and dicing his way through the song’s various jam cycles and into truly spacey territory, complete with Slipknot! jams and all those funky little G#min jams you could ask for (is there a name for that?). Jerry absolutely smokes his way through the last 8 minutes of this song. Another major highlight from this amazing show.”