March 24, 2017

Dark Star 1968-1989 (Guest Post)

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.

* * * 

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.

Bird Song (Guest Post)

by Hugh Barroll, 1999

For many years, Bird Song was Hunter and Garcia's hidden elegy to Janis Joplin. In electric shows it was a high point to many first sets, and it was a mainstay of the band's acoustic performances in the early 1980's, offering a sweet, mournful lyric and frequently inspired jamming. Finally, with the publication of Robert Hunter's Box of Rain lyric book in 1990, the Grateful Dead community at large learned the Bird Song was "for Janis", and a new dimension was added to Jerry's crooning and the band's increasingly wild performances.

The Story of the Song

On October 4, 1970, Janis Joplin died. Her loss rocked the music world, and, in particular, the San Francisco music scene. She had first appeared on the Bay Area radar screen as an acoustic blues singer, working the same coffeehouse circuit as the young Jerry Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen (with whom she played from time to time). She became a driving force of the electric unfolding of San Francisco when Chet Helms lured her back from Texas, and hooked her up with Big Brother and the Holding Company. In addition to her inspired performances, she was a much loved member of the community, contributing money and her talents to helping keep the fragile bubble of the Haight afloat, as well as providing a much needed reality check with the bubble floated too far afield. Her ridicule of the idea of a bunch of hippies running the Carousel Ballroom was scathing and to the point. She was a good friend of the Grateful Dead. She was particularly close to Pig Pen who was always proud to claim that he taught her to drink Southern Comfort, a memory with painful ironies given the circumstances of both their deaths.
On the night Janis died, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Hot Tuna performed at Winterland. It must have been a traumatic night for all involved. Marty Balin did not show up to perform with the Airplane, starting his break with the band. [Actually, he did perform, but unhappily. – LIA] The Dead managed a workmanlike set, mixing some solid performances with some major flubs. After the show, in the finest tradition of attack journalism, reporters demanded reactions from the musicians coping with the loss of one of their own. Jerry Garcia was one of those quoted. His comments, which were to the effect that everyone has to die and that Janis would want us to be happy because that was the kind of person she was, have been criticized by many, including Myra Friedman (one of Janis' biographers) as insensitive. In Bird Song, Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia were able to offer a far finer reflection on this tragedy.

The Lyrics

I find the lyrics to Bird Song work best when read as relatively straightforward song of loss, mourning and consolation. Hunter's acknowledgment that the song was for Janis aids in this interpretation, and represents one instance where a word of explanation from the songwriter helps in the appreciation of the song.
The opening two lines of exposition set out the basic tragedy of the song: "All I know is something like a bird within her sang/All I know, she sang a little while and then flew on." In addition to describing the loss of a beautiful songbird, however, these lines make clear that the singer will not be able to offer any explanation for this loss. All he knows is that she sang and then flew on.
At this point the song shifts to the second person, where it stays for the remainder of the song. This permits the singer to directly engage the listener in sorting through the loss of the songbird. Using the second person in a song to directly address the listener is a risky approach. By abandoning the expository approach, and not using dialogue between characters to tell the story of the song, Hunter is abandoning conventional distancing techniques that make songs less personal, both from the perspective of the singer and the listener. Hunter uses this technique to great effect here and in songs such as Ripple and Foolish Heart. The danger of this technique is that it can sound preachy. I don't believe Day Job would have generated the hostility it did, had it not been directly addressed to the audience.
In Bird Song, the singer's conversation with the listener opens with some fairly bleak images: "Tell me all that you know/I'll show you/snow and rain". In essence, whatever the listener can offer about the life and passing of the songbird comes down to "snow and rain". This is a wonderfully chosen image, since snow and rain are two of the perils of a bird's existence, evoking concisely the perils of mortal life. In addition, I hear echoes of the traditional folk image of "wind and rain" in this line. The Black Mountain Boys, among many others, sang to us of the cruel wind and rain. The central image of Bob Dylan's lovely Percy's Song is the cruel rain and wind.
The next verse opens with a poignant, unanswerable question for the listener: "If you hear that same sweet song will you know why/Anyone who sings a song so sweet is passing by". This takes the very specific tragedy of the loss of Janis Joplin and connects it to the broader tragedy that the creators of art, which can be eternal, are themselves evanescent mortals. More specifically, it ties the passing of Janis to the heartbreaking tradition of beautiful singers and musicians who have died much too young. When I hear this question, I hear echoes of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Pig Pen and Jerry Garcia among far too many others.
From here, the song becomes more open to interpretation. The singer appears to still be addressing the listener, however the imagery is the imagery of a bird: "fly through the night, sleep in the stars". What works best for me is to imagine the listeners as birds, and the singer as offering us consolation and encouragement to continue with our lives despite our losing a beautiful voice from our flock. Read this way, the remainder of the song works wonderfully. We are advised to "laugh in the sunshine/sing/cry in the dark/fly through the night". This reminds us that to grieve is not to abandon oneself entirely to loss. Yes, we may cry in the dark, but there is still room to laugh, sing, to continue with life as one flies through the night.
Finally, in the bridge, the singer advises the listener that grieving too must come to an end: "Don't you cry anymore". However, it is not enough to simply stop crying. One sign that the listener has resolved grief is when the listener can achieve a state of inner peace. This is how I read "Sleep in the stars". Besides being a simply beautiful image, it evokes a sense of tranquility and ability to accept the mortality that is the fate for all of us. Finally flying offers the listener the opportunity to "dry your eyes on the wind." Thus, getting on with life can be the final stage of the grieving process.

The Performances - 1970-71

Hunter and Garcia worked swiftly to create their elegy to Janis. Barely two months after her passing, Garcia was trying out the earliest known version of Bird Song in the rehearsals for the David and the Dorks/Jerry and the Jerks shows at the Matrix on December 15, 1970. The song may have received its first public performance at one of these gigs. If it did, no tape circulates.
It is unlikely that the Dead performed Bird Song in public prior to its presumed debut on February 19, 1971. It is possible that they performed it at one of the shows around the New Year that does not circulate. However, the band did a serious work-through of the song during the rehearsals for the February ‘71 Port Chester run. All the other songs on the rehearsal tape were debuted by the band at Port Chester, so it is reasonable to assume that this marked the debut of Bird Song.

The first performance of Bird Song is, unsurprisingly, a bit primitive. The Dead are notorious for arranging their songs onstage, and Bird Song is fine example of this. For the song's concert debut, only Jerry and Billy have a clue as to how to play the song, despite the band's efforts to rehearse. Pig Pen is absent, and I believe he never did play the song in concert (unless he is buried in the mix for some of the later ‘71 versions). Phil almost capsizes the intro when he tries to invent his part on the fly. Bobby is almost absent. Billy's playing strongly echoes his part on the Garcia solo album, suggesting that he had already been working on the song in the studio with Jerry prior to its public debut. In its debut arrangement, Jerry sings the song twice. Since the song reprises the first verse after the bridge, this results in Jerry singing this verse four times in its first performance (an arrangement repeated the next night, then dropped). This arrangement includes three brief instrumental breaks each launched by a guitar statement. No jamming develops.
The second performance of the song the next night shows Jerry starting to develop some ideas. The instrumental break after the first reprise contains the first statement of the searching/yearning guitar line that launched many Bird Songs through the years. Jerry does not extend this line far from the Bird Song theme, but it is the song's first indication of its ability to open. Similarly, in the third performance of the song on February 21, Jerry is looking for extensions in his leads, but he is getting little to no help from the band. Much of the song is a Jerry/Bobby duet, with almost no rhythmic support.
After a night off, Phil finally learned his part on February 23. The growth in his playing in two days in stunning. One must suspect he did some homework. He underpins the song structure and adds significant depth to the jam. Given someone to play with, Jerry starts pushing the jam a bit toward the outside. The playing is still nothing special, but you can hear that the band is starting to get some ideas.

Following the Port Chester run, our next version of the song is from the legendary Princeton show on April 17th. It is unclear whether other versions of the song exist from March ‘71, since tapes from the period are so sparse, but several early April shows that we have on tape are missing it. [April 14 is the only known version in this interval. – LIA] The Princeton version is not memorable, but it includes an elegant descending then ascending figure from Garcia in the final instrumental break that I believe is unique.
For the finest of the early Bird Songs, I commend your attention to its next appearance in Providence on April 21st. Like all 1971 Bird Songs, it is relatively brief (under 8 minutes), however this is the first version that I feel truly soars. As with so many Grateful Dead jams, the key to making this version special is Phil. He is dominant in the mix and drives the song through the verses. His strong lead launches the jam at the first break. Jerry joins in for a thoughtful and inventive (though too brief) dialogue. One of the best thing about early ‘71 jamming is that the stripped down arrangements required by the personnel created space for Jerry and Phil to interact directly through out the jams. This Bird Song is a fine example of this communication. The brief second jam in this version contains Phil's quick quote from Dark Star. The third break is dominated by a more conventional Bird Song theme from Jerry, but Phil offers strong support to drive the jam.
[Bird Song was then played three times at the Fillmore East. – LIA]
One last ‘71 Bird Song worthy of note is the Yale Bowl version from July 31st. This is the first Bird Song connected to another song. This does not occur again until 1980. It is also the only time it was connected to Dark Star, a frequent source of jamming material for Bird Song. This is not an exceptional version of the song. It kicks off with a bang out of Dark Star, and the arrangement is delivered confidently. However, when Jerry tries to seriously weird out the jam at the end, the band doesn't really pick up the thread and the jam sort of peters out.
[After two more performances in August and a September rehearsal, the band dropped the song. – LIA]

The Garcia Solo Album

After the band had dropped Bird Song as a performance piece, Jerry finally got around to releasing it on his first solo album, Garcia, in early 1972. Yes, we have yet another chapter in the band's complete obliviousness to its commercial product in making up its set lists.
The album version is nice, with a bouncy tempo, but not particularly inspiring. Instrumentally, it is dominated by Jerry's electric guitar and straightforward organ riffs. It doesn't include any significant instrumental play until the end, where a brief jam slows the tempo just prior to the fade.
There is one mystery on the album version. Early on, there is, very briefly, a women's voice wailing, buried deeply in the mix. It comes right after Jerry sings the opening line. This is uncredited, leaving plenty of room for speculation as to the vocalist. My pet theory is that Donna overdubbed it, since she was in the Dead's orbit prior to the release of the album. Other speculation is that it is Mountain Girl or a sample of a Janis recording.

The 1972-73 Revival

After August ‘71, the band abandoned Bird Song for almost a year, reviving it after Pig Pen left the band in June 1972 (another bird that sang a little while and flew on). Upon its revival, it became a mainstay of their 1972 sets, appearing in almost every show from July through December 1972. After December 1972, it became an occasional treat, livening up first sets until it was dropped after September 15, 1973.
Clearly, the band, especially Jerry, gave some thought to how to bring back the song. The new arrangement introduced a formal structure to the jam at the first instrumental break. In all 1972 and 1973 versions of Bird Song, this jam opened with an improvised section which would close with a statement of the Bird Song theme. The jam would then move to a brief solo statement from Billy, followed by the full band offering a forceful, yet spacy, statement of one of Bird Song instrumental themes originally developed by Jerry in the early 1971 versions of the song. To my ears, this theme appears to be closely related to the chord pattern the band uses to introduce the bridge of the song. In some late ‘72 and early ‘73 versions, I hear the band using variations on this theme in their playing of the bridge, particularly during the reprise. In 1972, the band also developed a closing jam after the reprise of the lyrics. While this tended to be a relatively brief jam, it often was quite dynamic, and frequently provided a contrast to the generally more contemplative opening jams. Once this arrangement fully evolved in August 1972, the Dead found themselves with three distinct jamming statements in Bird Song: the opening jam at the break, a jam after Billy's brief solo, and the closing jam.
Another major development in the 1972 Bird Songs was the growth of Bob Weir. In 1971 versions of the song, he was generally not a significant factor. For the new arrangement of the song, he developed a distinctive jazzy pattern of chording that was key to the framework both of the song and much of the jamming. This chordal pattern freed Jerry to explore wide ranging lead lines, and offered a sensitive framework for the band to react to. Bobby and Jerry also worked out unison lead lines for the verses, similar in concept to their playing on China Cat Sunflower, which gave more authority to the presentation of the lyrics.

While the basic structure of the new arrangement was worked out in advance, the band, as was its wont, spent the first several tries of a new arrangement working out the kinks. On occasion in the early versions (such as 7/18/72 and 8/12/72), one can hear Jerry directing the band. The debut of the new arrangement occurred at Roosevelt Stadium on July 18, 1972, the second show after Pig Pen's departure. This version is more than a little bit rocky. Jerry totally dominates the opening jam, which stays fairly static. After the drums, the band restates the basic Bird Song theme rather then hitting the theme used in all other 1972 and 1973 versions. The post-drums jam quickly falls apart. Another, I believe, unique, element of this version is that the closing jam comes after the reprise of the first verse. In all other 1972 and 1973 versions, the closing jam comes at the very end of the song. Phil kicks off the closing jam, eventually joined by Jerry. This jam does not cohere particularly well, and lacks the drive that is central to most of the closing jams in this era.
While we are missing most of the next version of this song, the fragment we have of 7/22/72 shows substantial progress in the development of the new arrangement. The post-drums jam and the closing jam are much better organized, although neither soars. 7/25/72 is also a tad pedestrian, but offers the first clear statement of the post-drums theme that will be a centerpiece to the remaining 1972 and 1973 Bird Songs.
By August, the band is making substantial progress with the new arrangement. The 8/12/72 version from Sacramento shows the band much more comfortable in the instrumental groove, and much more confident (though still off-key) with its vocals. The band asserts itself much more strongly in the opening jam, pushing the energy and creating some interesting tension with Jerry's very drawn out lead lines. The post-drums jam quickly abandons its signature theme for a yearning theme more characteristic of the opening jam. It's nice, but doesn't take advantage of the opportunity for thematic variation that this arrangement of Bird Song presents. The reprise jam, on the other hand, shows significant evolution. Jerry kicks off with a spacy start to the jam framed by Bobby's inventive chordwork. Jerry moves to a more driving, Other One related line, then moves back to a yearning theme supported by Phil. Then, as a harbinger of things to come, Phil moves out front. He's just building up a head of steam as the jam ends, leaving us wanting much more. This is by far the finest reprise jam to date.
The two versions from the Berkeley Community Theater (8/22/72 and 8/24/72) show the continued evolution of Phil's role. In both versions, Phil is dominant from the intro onwards. These versions also show how the whole band's communication is improving. Neither of these versions is flawless, the band still hasn't figured out what to make of the post-drums jam, but the overall playing is showing substantially greater depth. [A longer version was also played on 8/25. – LIA]
Next up is Veneta 8/27/72. I do not subscribe to the school that maintains this show to be a monumentally unique Grateful Dead experience. However, I do think this was a very special show, and that the band responded by pushing their playing to a higher level than in the earlier post-Europe shows. Their performance of Bird Song illustrates this point. This is the first version of the new arrangement that completely works. It is substantially longer than any previous version, running close to 12 minutes, and the band makes great use of the extra time. The singers show their growing confidence with the song. Even the harmonies start to gel, as Bobby finds a way to fit in. Jerry kicks off the jam with his standard yearning themes. He then pushes the tempo, and the band responds fluently as the jam swells, recedes and swells again. Jerry's leads extend the opening jam much further than the earlier 1972 versions, and the band is with him every step of the way. The band seamlessly flows into the restatement of the Bird Song theme leading to the drums. The post-drums jam finally works as distinct statement, as the band picks up on the signature theme and, for the first time, develops variations on the theme. Phil's leads underpin the singing in the reprise. Bob's chords kick off the reprise jam, and Jerry plays off of them beautifully to develop a supple and exploratory jam that flows perfectly into the close.

Following Veneta, the Grateful Dead started one of the finest periods of their career. Almost every performance is memorable, and every jamming song they performed reached great heights. Bird Song was no exception. Every Bird Song from this era is worth serious attention, as the band's jamming reached almost telepathic levels of interplay.
The 9/10/72 Hollywood Bowl performance is an example of the band's interplay at its finest. It is possibly the longest performance in the 1972-1973 era, running about 13 1/2 minutes (although 7/27/73 competes for that honor). Phil ornaments the verses with intricate melodic lines, giving the first hint at the depth of this performance. Phil and Bob launch the jam, with Phil's lead lines dancing through Bob's chord patterns. Jerry's yearning lead completes the picture, and the three guitar players develop an extended and exploratory conversation, in a relaxed mood. The jam smoothly flows into the restatement of the Bird Song theme, Billy's drums and a brief post-drums jam. The reprise jam resumes the guitar players' intricate three-way conversation. These are not a powerhouse jams with dynamic surges. But these jams have an intricate beauty that is worth a close listen. One footnote to this performance: after the close, Bob tries to connect Bird Song to Jack Straw, but no one will follow him. Had the connection been made, it would have been the only 1972 or 1973 Bird Song to segue into another song.
For something completely different, I recommend 9/17/72. Here, after a confident reading of the song, Jerry hangs back to let Bobby build a chordal structure to open the jam. Jerry then blasts down this structure with piercing lines. This is as high energy as Bird Song opening jams got in 1972. Jerry drives this jam with authority, poaching some rock and roll lines from a Truckin' jam. Bobby's support keeps the song anchored as he explores variations on the Bird Song theme. The closing jam is also noteworthy in that here Jerry explores the yearning themes ignored in the opening jam. This is a comparatively concise version (only 10 1/2 minutes), but it is a powerhouse.
The earliest Bird Song released by the Dead (and one of only four) also fits in the powerhouse category. This is the tour-de-force version from the Stanley Theater on 9/27/72, release on Dick's Picks XI. This is the version Phil proclaims to be dynamite at the close. My favorite parts of this one are the Dark Star elements Jerry introduces near the opening jam, and the driving closing jam. Bobby opens and closes this jam with patterns derived from the post-drums theme. Jerry uses Bobby's framework to launch his high energy lead, and to bring it back to earth as the jam winds to its close.
One surprise in 1972 Bird Songs is the reticence of Keith. I find this puzzling, because Keith plays a key role in much of the year's jamming. Fortunately, there are a couple of noteworthy exceptions. The 9/21/72 version from Philadelphia is, as noted in Volume 1 of the Compendium, one example of Keith out front. In this version, Jerry launches the jam with his typical yearning themes. After wandering up his fretboard, though, Jerry drops out, and Keith takes charge. Robert Goetz speculates in Volume 1 that Keith took over when Jerry broke a string. My guess is that it was planned. After some initial patterns with Bobby, Keith moves over to electric piano and favors us with some subtle and quite nice wah wah phrasing. This is the first use of electric piano I am aware of in Bird Song, and Keith's first use of the wah wah effect that I know of anywhere. I think Jerry stepped aside to let Keith try out his new toy. Eventually, Jerry strolls back in for a nice conversation with Phil, leading to the drum break. In addition to 9/21/72, I would also commend 9/15/72 to the attention of Keith fans. He isn't out front, but he makes several strong contributions in the verses and the closing jam.
For Phil fans, I would recommend two of my very favorite 1972 Bird Songs: 9/26/72 and 11/22/72. The kickoff to the 9/26/72 opening jam shows Jerry and Phil in telepathic communion as Phil punctuates Jerry's extended lead lines with a dancing melody. Their communion deepens as they develop an intricate dual lead jam. 11/22/72 is a tape "flawed" by a bass-heavy mix. This is a flaw I can live with. We get to again hear Phil beautifully ornamenting Jerry's introduction to the opening jam. Phil then pushes the tempo and energy of the jam up a notch, bringing Jerry along for the ride. The jam slows to an elegant, melodic theme, with some Dark Star hints from Phil before the drums. This version is also notable for the return of Keith's wah wah electric piano. Here it accents the post-drums jam, the vocal reprise and the start of the closing jam.
Of the remaining 1972 Bird Songs, I would particularly recommend 10/19/72 and 11/19/72. However, all are worth a listen.

The early 1973 Bird Songs do not impress me as much as their brethren from the late summer and fall of 1972. This may be, in part, because the early 1973 shows don't thrill me as much as the end of 1972. Another factor is the decline of Bobby's role in the arrangement. His chord work was a key element of the song's structure in 1972. Somewhat inexplicably, Bobby pretty much abandoned his distinctive chordal pattern in 1973 Bird Songs (with the notable exception of 3/22/73). This was not entirely a bad thing. Bobby backing off opened space in the arrangement that gave Keith and especially Phil more room to play. But nothing in the 1973 arrangements really took the place of Bob's chord work, leaving a looser and somewhat more disjointed arrangement of the song.
The highlight of the early 1973 Bird Songs are two versions where Phil makes his presence felt. In both the 2/22/73 and 3/16/73 versions, Phil enters into extend dialogues with Jerry. 2/22/73 is relaxed and spacy version that stays close to home, with elegant variations on the Bird Song theme. 3/16/73 is more adventurous, with Jerry injecting Other One hints in the opening jam, and Phil bringing elements of the intro to Truckin' into the closing jam.
In Vancouver 6/22/73, the Dead offered one of their finest ‘70s-era Bird Songs. For the first time, Keith played the whole song on Fender (something he continued in most of the later 1973 versions), a delightful change of pace. This change, however, doesn't disrupt the arrangement. To the contrary, every piece of this version falls into place, from Jerry's leads down to Billy's swinging cymbal accents. Weir gives us a taste of his chord work in the first verse, although he essentially disappears from the arrangement afterwards. Phil makes his presence felt in the first chorus, then Keith steps out for the second verse and the bridge. Phil, Keith and Jerry open the jam in a gentle, contemplative space, exploring variations on the Bird Song theme. Gradually they pick up the pace, while retaining the spacy melodic feel. Like 9/10/72, the jam swells and recedes seamlessly in telepathic communion. Weir finally resurfaces in the mix just as Jerry explores more variations of the Bird Song theme before the drums. The post-drums jam is a further extended conversation between Phil, Jerry and Keith, with Keith reintroducing his wah wah. The closing jam continues the conversation as it builds to an understated, but well-structured climax.
The last four 1973 Bird Songs are all very different except in one critical respect: they are all monsters. Roosevelt Stadium 8/1/73 gives us a powerhouse rendition. Keith is again a star on Fender. Billy also makes his presence felt in the opening jam pushing the energy upwards. Keith and Jerry respond to this, building to a mountainous climax. The only flaws in this version is some quirkiness in the mix of the reprise, and a high energy but too brief closing jam.
The final three Bird Songs only circulate on less than splendid audience tapes. Each is worth the patience it takes to experience the Dead's jamming at its finest. 9/7/73 is a cousin of 9/10/72 and 6/26/73 with its fine interplay and intraband communication. Jerry and Phil's dialogue in the opening jam is particularly noteworthy as is the fully developed postdrums space jam.
The 9/12/73 version from William and Mary launches the opening jam directly towards space, using circular patterns reminiscent of the revolving jam central to 1969 Dark Stars. This jam eventually peters out, and Jerry brings up more conventional yearning themes, but with a strange, off-kilter edge. Jerry and Phil push the jam further towards weirdness until a climbing pattern develops to build energy towards the return of the Bird Song theme. Keith is the initial star of the postdrums jam with rippling Fender lines. Jerry and Phil then take over for a delicate and strange space. The closing jam is a nice mix of power and weirdness. It doesn't develop so much as mutate, introducing increasingly odd facets to a basically static framework. If and when the band shows the good sense to make the William and Mary run a Dick's Pick, I hope they do not neglect this gem from the underappreciated second night.
Then on 9/15/73, for the last performance of Bird Song for seven years, Jerry reminds us that this is his song. Before letting go of this song, Jerry has a few things to say. He launches the opening jam with high pitched arpeggios similar to the revolving themes of 9/12/73. He then moves into yearning themes, with a tense, angry edge. Jerry similarly drives the postdrums jam and the closing jam. The closing jam hits strongly on Other One themes, opening with drive before spacing out gently for the close.

It is hard to figure why the band dropped Bird Song just as they moved into another of their finest jamming periods in late 1973 and 1974. Possibly it got squeezed out by the band's interest in bringing forward material from Wake of the Flood and, in 1974, Mars Hotel. It is reasonable to speculate that Here Comes Sunshine, Weather Report Suite and, in 1974, Scarlet Begonias offered the band new opportunities for exploring jamming opportunities within a song framework. Another possibility is that, by 1973, Bird Song was firmly entrenched as a first set song. Late 1973, despite its legendary jams, does show the band cutting back on its first set jamming. See, for example, the set lists to 9/17/73, 9/24/73,10/23/73, and 10/27/73. Regardless of the explanation, I will always regret that the band dropped one of my favorite songs just as they entered one of my favorite eras.

The Acoustic Bird Song

Seven years later (almost to the day) after its departure, Bird Song returned in its first acoustic incarnation. The acoustic Bird Song was spawned during the period of intense creativity and work that generated the acoustic material for the extended residencies at the Warfield in San Francisco and Radio City Music Hall in New York. Two of these versions have been released, one on Reckoning and the 10/31/80 performance on the video Dead Ahead. Outside of these runs, the Grateful Dead played Bird Song acoustically only a few times. However, the acoustic arrangement lived on in acoustic performances of Jerry Garcia and John Kahn. I had the good fortune to see five acoustic Bird Songs: three from the 1980 Warfield run, the 12/31/80 performance at the Oakland Auditorium (later known as the Kaiser), and finally the Phil and Friends version from the Berkeley Community Theater in 1994. Each version was memorable.
The acoustic arrangement of Bird Song abandons many of the structural elements of the 1972 and 1973 versions. The drum break at the center of the main jam disappears in 1980, as does the distinctive figure, adapted from the bridge, that followed the drums. Also, the closing jam disappears in 1980, never to return. In addition, the order of verses is substantially reshuffled in 1980, then reshuffled again (whether intentionally or not) almost every night they played the song. For the debut, Jerry sings the entire song, including repeating the first verse, before the jam. After the jam, Jerry sings the first verse, skips the second verse, then sings the bridge and repeats the first verse for the fourth time (he repeated this pattern on 12/31/80). On other nights, Jerry goes from the jam straight into the bridge (9/27/80), and sings the second verse three times (10/9/80). On 10/2/80, the band more or less settles on the verse arrangement most commonly used in 1980 Bird Songs, singing the whole song before the jam, then going to the second verse after the jam, followed by the bridge and a repeat of the first verse.

As with the earlier arrangements, it takes the band a few tries at the song to wipe the cornstarch off its mukluks and get settled. The revival version opens the show on 9/25/80. I believe this is the only time Bird Song has opened a set. This version finds Jerry and Phil engaged, but finds the rest of the band well and truly lost. The drummers, in particular, lock into a totally inappropriate nervous pulse. The brief jam introduces Jerry's stabbing acoustic guitar lines, a prominent feature in many acoustic Bird Songs. The 9/27/80 version shows the band, especially the drummers, still out of synch. The drummers are much too busy, and working at far too speedy a tempo. One begins to understand Bobby's complaints about the drummers overplaying on ballads. The jam here shows Jerry starting to stretch out as he explores new angles. By 9/29, the arrangement starts to fall into place. The drummers are back in their cage, and the band in general seems more confident. The high point of this version is Phil stepping out for some lead lines in the still too brief jam.
The next two versions are also strong versions for Phil, and are my two favorite Warfield versions. The 9/30/80 performance runs about 8 minutes, the longest acoustic version to that point, and Phil and Jerry take full advantage. Phil does a delicate, melodic dance through the verses. Jerry kicks off the jam with rapid fire lines, then backs off the tempo only to push hard again. Phil tracks the ebb and flow from Jerry, ornamenting every step. On 10/2/80, Phil remains fully engaged. His lyrical leads dominate the verses, and he enters into an extended exploratory conversation with Jerry in the jam. 10/2/80 also shows the harmonies becoming much sweeter, as Jerry, Brent and Bobby develop a delicate rapport. Some of my very favorite Bird Song vocals are from the later Warfield shows.
Two other noteworthy Warfield Bird Songs are 10/9/80 and 10/10/80. 10/9/80 features some more fine Phil and Jerry interplay. This version features high speed rippling lines from Jerry, with Phil bouncing imperturbably around him. This version also has Jerry singing "If you hear that same sweet song again" rather than "When you hear". This is noteworthy because Hunter wrote the line as "If you hear". Until this version, I don't believe Garcia had ever sung the line as written. 10/10/80 is a Garcia tour de force. He drives the entire jam, as he explores a wide range of variations on the Bird Song theme. This version reminds me Jerry's approach to the song in his duets with John Kahn.

Following one performance in New Orleans, the next Bird Songs were from the band's residency at Radio City Music Hall. Generally, I prefer the later Warfield performances to those from the Radio City run. A big reason for this is that Jerry's voice is in much worse shape at Radio City. The other reason is Phil. With one noteworthy exception, I just don't hear him stepping up to the plate for this run. This may be due, in part, to the fidelity of the audience tapes. But I think he simply wasn't giving it his all
From Radio City, one version certainly worth a listen is 10/25/80, thanks almost entirely to Mr. Garcia. He offers one of his better readings of the lyrics, then sails out strongly in the jam with piercing notes. He forces a tightly focussed and intense jam that bristles with energy.
My other favorite from Radio City is 10/31/80: the night Phil came to play. Jerry launches the jam, lyrically ascending and descending his fretboard. Phil is much more of a presence than earlier in the run, as he underpins and ornaments Jerry's flights. One wonders if Phil is showing off for the cameras. Jerry extends his rippling lead lines away from the Bird Song themes, with Phil pushing him every step of the way. Brent starts the return to the main theme, but Jerry resists, setting up some tension that gives more strength to the jam, and a nice sense of release when the reprise falls into place.

Following the Radio City run, the band gave us two more acoustic Bird Songs in 1980. Both are noteworthy. The first is from one of the band's 12/6/80 show in Mill Valley, a rare all-acoustic concert. This show offers a wonderful performance, but a frustrating tape. On the tape we can hear Phil clearly enough to tell that he is active and fully engaged, but not clearly enough to really hear what he is doing. An upgrade is called for. Jerry's playing makes the performance. He launches the jam with some fast pitched stabbing notes, like a Martian telegraph. He builds the jam with rippling lines that have a bit of a hard, dissonant edge. This is about as stormy as the acoustic Bird Songs get.
The final Bird Song of 1980 came on New Years Eve, and it remains my favorite acoustic Bird Song, a culmination of the 1980 revival. The fact I was at the concert might color my judgment a bit, but it is definitely worth a listen. Phil and Jerry launch this jam together. Jerry is out front with rippling lines. Phil underpins Jerry's flight in a manner similar to his approach on 10/31/80. Jerry shifts direction away from standard Bird Song themes, bringing in a dissonant edge not unlike the Mill Valley version, but also with a blues feel. The band does a very nice job of building the energy of the jam in support of Jerry's lead. Then, with a nice sense of dynamics, the band quiets and Jerry flies almost alone before returning to the Bird Song theme.
The final full band acoustic version of Bird Song comes at the legendary OOPS concert at the Melkweg in Amsterdam on 10/16/81. It is a winner. The jam here is relaxed at the start, with Jerry strolling out accompanied by Phil and Brent. Jerry and Phil then push the tempo and energy. A very strong full band jam builds, bristling with ideas. Both Jerry and Phil essay some sweet lead lines, and the band moves into and out of Other One related themes a couple of times. The electric set from this show justly gets most of the attention, but this highlight to the acoustic set is arguably the most serious jamming of the night.

After the Grateful Dead abandoned the acoustic arrangement of Bird Song, it lived on in two forms: as a Garcia/John Kahn duet in the 80's and as a highlight to occasional acoustic shows by portions of the Grateful Dead (these were generally benefit shows). Unfortunately, Jerry never introduced Bird Song to his shows with David Grisman.
The Garcia/Kahn duets start in the summer of 1982, and are a common occurrence from late 1984 through early 1986. I have only heard a few of the Bird Songs from this era. There are two versions, though, that I can strongly recommend. The version from
Dunsmuir House in Oakland on 8/18/85 has a very nice blues orientation in the jam. This gives Garcia and Kahn a good grounding for the jam, and lets Kahn contribute without interfering with Jerry's flights of fancy. Another version that shows Garcia and Kahn in synch in the jam is the lively version from the Ritz in New York on 1/28/86. Here the jam kicks off with a playful melodic dance from Jerry. Jerry shifts to chording patterns that introduce darker themes that he carries into his lead lines. Meanwhile, Kahn keeps up the bright melodic themes. This sets up a tension that resolves in a well executed climax to the jam.
The acoustic Bird Song only resurfaced in five shows by subsets of the Grateful Dead. The first is from the Disarmament Benefit at the Warfield Theater on 5/22/81. This is a performance by the entire Grateful Dead, except that John Kahn replaced Phil. This version of Bird Song is not terribly distinguished, but it does kick off a novel suite of material, going into Ripple then Drums then Oh Boy. The second, from Garcia and Weir's duo concert at the Melkweg on 10/11/81, is unique in that it is the only version I know of without a bass player. This is not a monumental version. Jerry and Bobby do take the jam out for a bit of a spin, but never wander too far from home. Still, it is nice to hear the boys trying something new. The third version from 12/17/87 is noteworthy in that it is the shortest version of Bird Song known, even shorter than the version on Garcia's solo album. The brevity of this version is generally attributed to Jerry cutting off the jam when Joan Baez appeared on the stage, apparently intending to join in. (the show was a benefit she had arranged). The fourth version is from another benefit, the San Francisco Gift Center benefit for poster artists on 3/22/89.

The final acoustic Bird Song is one of my finest Grateful Dead memories, coming from the Phil Lesh and Friends show at the Berkeley Community Theater on 9/24/94. This is the show where the band left the drummers at home, and played their last acoustic concert. This is an uneven show, with the near collapse of the group's attempt at Dupree's Diamond Blues, and serious sound problems in the early part of the show. Still I love the band's willingness to experiment and fail. 1994 is not a year of great innovation for the Grateful Dead. At this show, at least, they offer us something new.
The Bird Song from this show is one place where the band's sense of adventure pays off. This version is more than a bit ragged in the verses. The band misses the drummers here. The jam, however, is heavenly. Jerry launches with a reflective and spacy lead line. After being inaudible much of the night, Phil is a delight underpinning Jerry's lead. Vince, in his only performance with the acoustic Dead, provides sensitive support. Bobby serves the critical role of holding down the groove. After a slightly melancholy opening jam, Vince and Jerry shift towards space. Phil digs in as the jam gets more and more abstract. This portion of the jam is as close to an acoustic Dark Star as I have ever heard from the band. Eventually Jerry attempts to impose thematic order on the chaos, but fails as Vince and Phil remain in space. Eventually, after several detours, Phil, Vince and Jerry return to the Bird Song theme, and the final acoustic Bird Song winds to a close.

The Electric Revival

After the Radio City Music Hall run, the band wasted little time in reintroducing Bird Song to their electric repertoire, where it remained for the rest of their career. The new electric arrangement is very similar to the acoustic version in that the jamming is almost exclusively concentrated in the middle of the song, and the band never settles on a fixed pattern for the verses. The most common verse structure is for the band to sing the song all the way through, including repeating the first verse or second verse, followed by the jam. Starting in 1994, however, the band frequently starts jamming directly out of the bridge. After the jam, the band generally returns to the bridge, but this is by no means fixed. Usually, but not always, the band concludes with the first verse, with Jerry crooning "snow and rain" several times (as many as seven) to close the song.
The electric versions from 1980 on are almost always in the first set. There are a few second set appearances in 1981. In the early ‘80s, Bird Song most commonly appears in the middle of the first set. Occasionally it closes a set in 1983, and on rare occasions it appears in a suite of songs to open a show. In 1986, the song begins its slow migration to the end of the first set, and from 1987 on it almost always closes the first set either on its own or in combination with one other song (usually its odd-couple partner - Promised Land).
As with earlier eras, the latter-day Bird Song is pretty much a stand-alone piece. It almost always starts from a standstill. Segues from another song are very much the exception. There are a few songs it segues into: most notably Promised Land, but also the occasional Red Rooster and Looks Like Rain. But even with the segues, there is rarely the jamming connection between songs that the Dead feature with so much of their other material. Bird Song always retained a very distinct identity. Even in a segue you can clearly tell when Bird Song stops and starts. I believe this is probably due to the very distinctive melodic figure that clearly announces the beginning and end of pretty much every Bird Song. To jam into or out of Bird Song the band would either need to jettison this figure, or compose music to literally connect this figure to the connecting song (as the band did with Dark Star and St Stephen). The only time I really hear the band jamming from Bird Song into another song is on 11/17/81, the night the band jettisons the reprise.


The first electric revivals on 11/30/80 and 12/14/80 are very strong. One of the first noticeable changes in the 11/30/80 version is that the drummers have been set free. It works nicely in this version, with some nice touches added to the dynamics of the jam. The jam kicks off with typically rippling Jerry lead lines. Solid support from Phil builds a nice strong jam. Bobby adds chordal support reminiscent of his approach in 1972. Jerry's climbing lines build to a solid climax, followed by a gentle return to the Bird Song theme. The 12/14/80 version is more Jerry's show and features a jam that succeeds in spacing out without losing its punch. This version also revives Other One elements that would strongly figure in many of the subsequent electric Bird Songs.


Following these initial versions, I find the early ‘80s Bird Songs a bit erratic. 1981 features some truly unique and unforgettable versions, but also a number of versions where Jerry takes the jam out, but doesn't really bring the rest of the band along with him. I put 3/12/81 and 5/9/81 in this category. This pattern continues until the mid-1980s when I hear consistently stronger intraband communication in the jamming, and greater variety in the directions the jam could take.
One 1981 version worth serious attention is the 3/7/81 version from the Cole Theater. In Deadbase, Simon Friedman extols this version as a must for Jerry freaks, and I heartily concur. This is Jerry's showpiece, although Phil and Bobby provide nice support. It is also, possibly, the longest Grateful Dead Bird Song. My version runs over 16 minutes, and my tape is quite fast. [It’s 17:27. – LIA] This is, by no means, a perfect version of Bird Song. At times, the jamming gets a bit stagnant or unfocussed, and there are some serious glitches in the reprise. It is still a pleasure to listen to. Jerry keeps finding new toys to explore as he moves into and out of Other One themes, a variety of melodic patterns, and rippling and stabbing lead lines.
Deadbase also gives praise to the 3/9/81 version from Madison Square Garden, and again this praise is well deserved. Interestingly, this version is completely different from the one just two days earlier. This one clocks at just over 10 minutes, and it is a full band powerhouse, with nary a wasted note. Jerry kicks off the jam with rippling lines, accented by Brent's electric piano. After some noodling, Jerry builds a melodic pattern to jam around. This wakes up Phil, who echoes Jerry's pattern. Jerry drives the jam, while Phil maintains a very sympathetic support. Jerry introduces a new figure that develops into a revolving jam which sounds like a piece of a 1969 Dark Star. The band pushes out of this figure, then returns to it just before the return to the bridge. The band offers a quick return to the jam just after the bridge, as a nice reminder of how special this performance has been.
A final 1981 Bird Song of note is the truly unique version from Paris on 10/17/81. The previous night at the Melkweg must have inspired the band to shake things up a bit. Here we get Bird Song in the second set (for the last time), and, for the first time since 7/31/71, not from a standing start. A fine Truckin' jam quiets and flows almost seamlessly into Bird Song. This version features a gentle, contemplative Jerry lead line, with elegant and subtle support from Phil. Jerry pushes the tempo, then introduces Other One themes, then moves in the direction of space. Phil is on top of every twist in the jam, maintaining a spirited dialogue. In many ways, this strong communication between Phil and Jerry reminds me of the wonderful Bird Song from 9/10/72. A push from the drummers moves the jam further away from Bird Song and towards the blues. The jam slows and quiets almost to Jerry solo, then moves into Brent's Never Trust a Woman. This is probably the only version of Bird Song after 1971 that did not include some form of a reprise.


I am not familiar with most of the 1982 Bird Songs. The ones I have heard all have interesting elements. None of them blow me away. The 1982 Bird Songs I have heard do show Brent playing with greater verve than before. On 2/17/82, he pushes Jerry to the jam's early peak, and follows Jerry out as the jam extends. On 4/17/82, Brent livens up the verses, and plays a key role in the weirder section of the jam, setting up obstacles for Jerry to work around. My favorite 1982 Bird Songs, though, are the ones where Phil comes to play. On 5/21/82 and 7/31/82, he is a critical force in giving depth to the jam and pushing Jerry to new directions. Still, even in these versions, I don't sense a lot of new ground being broken.


1983 is a not completely satisfying year for Bird Song. One thing I find frustrating in the Bird Songs of this year is that Phil and Brent are becoming even more substantial in their contributions to the jams, but Jerry is often not picking up on their ideas. This gives me the sense that the band is not communicating well with each other. 4/22/83 is an example of this. Phil is dominant in the groove, laying down powerful lines. But more than once I hear Phil trying to turn the jam in interestingly twisted directions that Jerry appears to ignore.
There are a couple of 1983 Bird Songs that are something special: 4/16/83 and 12/28/83. The jam on 4/16/83 starts cautiously, but quickly takes off with a sweet ethereal lead from Jerry, complimented by a parallel line from Phil, and Brent's accents and color. After Jerry enjoys an extended lead, Phil moves out to compete, which provokes Jerry to raise the stakes with a flurry of notes. This brings the jam to a too short climax, with Phil roaring along. Phil is having enough fun with this one to continue his lead lines through the reprise.
12/28/83 does not start auspiciously. Jerry's vocals are strained, and he makes a hash of the second verse. The jam, however, is another wonderful dialogue between Jerry and Phil. The surprise here is Bobby. He sounds like he is having a wonderful time slashing through Jerry and Phil's conversation with some very fuzzy attacks. After a few minutes, the jam quiets and Bobby backs off. But once the jam reforms and accelerates, Bobby responds with even more manic assaults. After pausing for a brief exploration of a theme that sounds vaguely like a piece of Wharf Rat, another high speed jam develops, but this time Bobby joins in for some high speed picking. It takes the band awhile to find its way back to the Bird Song theme from this jam, but it's worth the trip.


1984 is another inconsistent year for Bird Song. The band stretches out its jams a bit this year, with several versions clocking at well over 13 minutes. However, with a few exceptions, the jams do not develop far. Generally speaking, the band develops one jamming theme and explores its variations, rather than exploring multiple ideas. This makes the pleasures of 1984 Bird Songs subtle ones of nuance and interplay
The Greek Theater version from 7/15/84 is the best version of this type of 1984 Bird Song. It is really quite lovely. Jerry sings with authority, and Phil offers an intricate lead throughout the verses. Also in the verses, we hear carefully placed cymbal splashes, providing a nice structure to this arrangement. This device is carried through to the jam, and works quite well. Jerry lays back at the start of the jam, with Brent out front and Phil continuing his nonstop lead from verses. Jerry picks up on Brent's lead and they enter into a dialogue, while Phil threads his way in and around their byplay. Brent and Phil are the mainstays of this jam, with Jerry wandering on the fringes and Bobby offering gentle accents. The band executes a seamless turn to open up a few slightly more dissonant angles to explore. After an extended, thoughtful discussion, the band builds the energy just a bit, then releases into a quiet space before returning to the reprise.
The 10/8/84 version from Worcester is a glorious exception to the rule of understated 1984 Bird Songs. Jerry kicks off this jam with a searching lead, articulate and carefully structured. He accelerates the jam as he climbs the fretboard, and Bobby and the drummers push the energy of the jam forward. Jerry backs off a bit with a return to searching themes, then accelerates again in a lower register as Bobby begins restructuring the groove. Jerry picks up on Bobby's new groove, and they lead a potent jam. The band makes a quick shift to a revolving jam which quickly evolves in the direction of Dark Star at Jerry's direction. The jam wanders in the direction of the Other One then quiets as Jerry explores Bird Song variations with echoes of Dark Star. Slowly the band reconstructs the Bird Song theme, building to a nice climax as they return to the reprise.


I did not expect to like 1985 Bird Songs as much as I do. I like 1985 Grateful Dead. But, generally speaking, this is because of the band's willingness to shake up its set lists and try new material, rather than finding new jamming adventures. Many of the jams in 1985 are considerably shorter than previous years, and jamming is the heart of Bird Song. It is true that Bird Songs in 1985 are generally shorter than previous years. I know of only two that exceed 10 minutes. Still, this is my favorite year for Bird Songs since at least 1981 because of the quality of the performances.
4/7/85, 6/21/85 and 11/5/85 are all fine examples of the joys of a compact Bird Song. 4/7/85 features excellent communication between Jerry and Phil throughout the jam. They open the jam with a dual lead, working very closely together. Phil drives the entire jam from beneath, while Jerry floats free on top with an active and inventive lead. 6/21/85 is an interesting curiosity. It features someone, I assume Brent, playing a synthesized horn figure that adds a novel color to the jam, and foreshadows guests to come on other days. This jam also develops some nice Dark Star elements. 11/5/85 features excellent band interplay, and a lively. dancing Jerry lead. Jerry develops a repeating figure that helps pull the jam to a nice climax.
My favorite of the compact Bird Songs is 8/30/85 from Houston. This is likely to be a controversial recommendation, since I think it is the debut of the dreaded "bird sounds": synthesizer wobbles that Brent uses as bird calls. I'm not a great fan of this technique, which pops up from time to time until early 1987, but it doesn't bug me as much as many listeners. I like this version, however, for its jamming. Phil and Jerry launch the jam together with a dual lead similar to 4/7/85. Jerry quickly builds the jam to a climax, then, rather than backing off, explores variations, moving between Other One themes and Bird Song themes. At one point the band integrates the themes into a wonderful combination of the Other One's driving rhythm and Bird Song's delicate melody. Phil shifts through these thematic shifts in perfect synch with Jerry. Bobby offers some unusual slide accents that prompt a stinging retort from Jerry, and a second climax builds, then fades for the return to the bridge.
Springfield 3/28/85 is the prize long version of the year. From the start, Phil announces that this will be special, with a thoughtful, melodic lead throughout the verses. He keeps the action going as the jam kicks in. After a restrained start to the jam, Jerry climbs the fretboard and a potent, high energy jam develops. The jam quiets and Phil's pulsating groove moves out front. Jerry looks for a new angle. Phil follows, and a multitempo jam develops. At this point, the playing is a little unfocussed, but the band finds some interesting corners and crevasses. Energy builds as the drummers set up a new groove to support Jerry and Bobby's rhythmic riffing. After peaking, the jam quiets and closes with a return to Bird Song themes.


Early 1986 is a seriously underrated era. While shows from this year are often erratic, the band's jamming shows a great sense of adventure. If more of these shows were available in good soundboards, I think the period would be much better appreciated. The four Bird Songs from this time are all delightful. In addition, the band adds a couple of interesting elements to their bag of tricks for the song that they would carry through into the future. The most noticeable new element to the band's Bird Song jamming is how the band handles the transition to the reprise. In the most other years, the band would almost always quiet its jamming, and have the reprise appear out of near stillness. In early 1986, the band launches the reprise out of a climax in the jam. This completely changes the energy of the reprise, a very nice change of pace.
Another new element is the jamming theme that the band introduces to build this late climax. The vast majority of Bird Song jamming is based on extended lines of notes from Jerry and Phil. This new jamming theme is based on aggressive strumming riffs from Jerry and, to a lesser degree, Bobby. It has a rhythmic pattern very similar to The Other One, but a distinctly different melody. This approach is jarringly different from conventional Bird Song jamming themes, although given its rhythmic similarity to The Other One, it offers the opportunity for the jamming to shift back and forth between themes based on The Other One and the strumming theme. The band fully exploits this in 1990 and 1991. As this theme develops over the next nine years, it becomes the signature theme of the powerhouse Bird Songs of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and pops up in some form or other in almost every Bird Song from 1988 on (although it is missing from some of the best).
My favorites of the early 1986 Bird Songs are 2/11/86 from the Kaiser and 3/21/86 from Hampton. Both feature very spirited kick-offs to the jam, with the whole band contributing ideas and reacting nimbly to each other. This full band approach sounds quite different from how the band would open the jam in the early ‘80s. The 2/11/86 version is then pushed by Bobby and the drummers into a high energy jam that Jerry crowns with an early climax featuring several peaks. The jam quiets except for slashing riffs from Bobby. Phil and Jerry build a new conversation in and around Bobby's riffing, followed by Jerry's first tentative exploration of the strumming jam theme, which leads to the reprise. On 3/21/86, after the opening jam, Jerry and Bobby pick up a revolving thread that spins into a gentle, spacy jam with Jerry floating on top. Bobby then mixes in rhythm and some unusual lead lines that builds another unique jam. This unwinds into a bouncy jam, similar to the jam's opening. This gradually builds to a crescendo, as Bird Song themes emerge and the band launches into the reprise.


After Jerry's coma, the band's jamming seems to retrench a bit. While I'm not as familiar with 1987 Bird Songs as I am with other years, my general sense is that they backed away from the free spirited approach of the early 1986 versions. This is not to say that 1987 Bird Songs are dull. The band is generally playing well, and there are some interesting structural developments. The most noteworthy change is the development of the strumming jam. Starting with 3/2/87, it is frequently a major structural element of the end of the Bird Song jam. The ideas the band developed for this jam in 1986 are now in full flower, and the jam comes across with the power of a 1972 Tiger jam, albeit without the feedback.
My clear favorite of the 1987 Bird Songs I've heard is the 3/26/87 version from Hartford. The jam here opens with a low line lead from Jerry, complemented by Brent and Phil. Brent pushes the jam in a spacier direction and Jerry follows along. Jerry briefly introduces a riff from The Other One, then pulls out in favor of a singing lead line. This builds to a couple of nice peaks from Brent and Jerry, with the second one being particularly wild. We get another brief echo of The Other One before Jerry builds a strumming jam that builds to an even higher crescendo before returning to the reprise.


By 1988, the band was ready to take more chances. Many, although not all, of the versions I've heard contain at least one section that devolves into pretty much a free for all, with multi tempos forming and players heading hither and yon in their playing. It doesn't always work. On 10/14/88, Jerry forces the band out of chaos through repeated stating the basic figure for the return to the reprise. It's almost as if he's saying, this is screwed up, let's cut our losses and get out of here. But when the quest for the strange works, it is one of the places where "it" emerges. This is where Bird Song joins the continuum from 1968 feedback jams through Dark Star Playing in the Band and Other One jams and the best of Space to offer us a chance to hear music a new way. This willingness to sail into the unknown started poking through in 1986. By 1988, it is an integral part of the best Bird Songs.
12/28/88 is a fine example of Bird Song heading out towards space. After opening the jam with a relatively conventional lead, Jerry backs off and a confusing, multi-directional jam develops. Jerry takes a whack at reintroducing elements from his opening lead, but the band will have none of it, and pushes towards space. Jerry then tries a singing lead line that the band coalesces around, while staying quite on edge. After briefly stopping, the jam turns in an even stranger direction with an angry Jerry lead competing with mysterious tones from Phil. Jerry then launches the strumming jam. After some interesting resistance, the band joins in and drives to a peak, where Bird Song themes reemerge just before the return to the bridge.
From 1988, I would also recommend 2/16/88 even though it does not get exceptionally strange, 7/3/88 because it does, and 10/18/88 because it offers some of Bobby's finest playing on a Bird Song. This one gives us Bobby and Jerry in space, and they both shine.


Many listeners divide 1989 into the pre-Warlocks and the post-Warlocks era. Generally speaking this is a gross oversimplification, and leads to much fine music being ignored simply because it predates the legendary October 1989 Hampton run. However, with Bird Song, this division has quite a bit of merit. As a group, early 1989 Bird Songs do not impress me. Some, like the version I saw at the Frost Amphitheater on 5/7/89, just don't work.
It is hard to pin down what is unsatisfying about this era, but at least two things are in play. First, the band backs away from exploring the edge of chaos in its jamming. Nothing in early 1989 goes nearly as far towards space as the monsters of 1988. Second, I think the band becomes overly dependent on the strumming jam. They play it in every 1989 Bird Song. This is not a complaint about the strumming jam, I always enjoy hearing it, and they find lots of new angles to explore. But I think this focus on the strumming jam diverted attention from the remainder of the Bird Song jam. At points it seems like the band is just waiting for Jerry to get around to launching the strumming theme.
From the early 1989 shows there are a couple of noteworthy points. 3/30/89 includes some very sympathetic playing, and a nice unearthly mood before the strumming jam appears and drives things to an extended peak. The AIDS Benefit from 5/7/89 is significant in that it includes the first guest appearance on Bird Song: Clarence Clemons on saxophone. Clarence is not a good fit on Bird Song, he doesn't really find anything to sink his teeth into until the strumming jam, where he digs in and wails a bit. He then, however, runs into the bane of almost all Grateful Dead guests, as he nearly disappears in the mix. 8/18/89 balances an elegant Phil and Jerry dialogue with a monstrous strumming jam. I also have fond memories of this Bird Song because I heard it from outside the Greek Theater while strolling my three year old up and down the street. 9/29/89 is also noteworthy in that it offers, I believe, Jerry's first use of MIDI, a portent of things to come.
The next Bird Song, from Hampton 10/8/89, is not a monster. It does show Jerry stretching out a bit on MIDI, exploring some more effects, and it shows Bobby and Phil taking advantage of the additional room in the mix. The Meadowlands 10/12/89, on the other hand is an absolute monster. Jerry is in MIDI heaven, from his first rude blast of the MIDI pipes to kick off the jam through the synthesized guitar that dominates the angry jam leading into the strumming theme. Give this twisted version a serious listen, and be sure to check out the electric xylophone effects.
Each of the remaining late 1989 Bird Songs is wonderful in its own way. Philadelphia 10/18/89 includes a terrific, deeply abstract jam that would be right at home in the deep space of 1988. Charlotte 10/22/89 is completely different. It is understated and thoughtful with lots of delicate interplay and lots of Phil. Its approach is reminiscent of 9/10/72. As noted in Deadbase, 12/8/89 is one of the highlights of Without A Net, although on the tape you get to hear Jerry blow a lyric or two. 12/27/89 from Oakland includes some very nice Phil and some very nice Space.


In 1990, the band kept up the momentum they had built in late 1989. It was a wonderful year musically, despite the tragic loss of Brent Mydland. It was also a wonderful year for Bird Songs. I recommend them all unequivocally with the exception of 6/8/90, which I haven't heard, and the infamous jet lag show of 10/13/90, where the jamming is subpar and the blown close is painfully sad.
Despite the profusion of great Bird Songs from the year, it is easy to pick my favorite: Nassau Coliseum 3/29/90 - the night Branford came to town. Bird Song is Branford's first song with the band, and it's a great choice. He is instantly at ease with the material, chiming in with his ornaments after the first verse. Phil is also on in a big way in the verses, showing off for Branford. Phil opens the jam out front. Branford snakes his way in and sets up an extended dialogue with Jerry, trading ideas over Phil's mobile and inventive lead. Jerry then shifts to MIDI, and Phil pushes his lead even more aggressively. Branford picks up on Phil's line and a new, high energy jam forms. Jerry starts to introduce the strumming jam, but everyone ignores him. Phil and Branford are having too much fun. Jerry eventually picks up their thread, and a very complex jam develops. Jerry then reintroduces the strumming theme. This time Phil and Branford are ready to play ball. After a few rounds, Branford takes over the jam and invents a complex and dynamic line on the fly. The jam quiets, as Phil's lead line reasserts itself. Jerry and Branford move into a strange and reflective space. After a brief Other One tease, multiple tempos and themes evolve. The jam eventually organizes into a kaleidoscopic array which dissolves for the return to the bridge. At the close, Branford wails along with Jerry's final snow and rains. He's not ready for this jam to end, and neither am I.
Branford appears again for the wonderful 12/31/90 Bird Song. He is an absolute star during the lyrics, totally dominating the accompaniment. Interestingly, he only plays a small role in the very inventive jamming that is largely dominated by Vince. Vince shines on this one.
Another interesting and unusual 1990 Bird Song is from Shoreline 6/17/90. This is the only version from 1989 or 1990 that does not include the strumming theme. You can hear the point where Jerry's thinking about introducing it. Fortunately he doesn't. The band is in transition between an Other One based jam and a jam based on weird angular riffs from Bobby. The strumming jam would have been routine by comparison.
9/7/90 and 9/15/90 are also both worth a serious listen for the fine jamming, and also as Vince and Bruce's introductions to Bird Song (although you can also hear Bruce on accordion on 7/10/90). The two offer an interesting contrast. Vince immediately stakes out a major role in the arrangement of Bird Song, both during the verses and the jamming. Bruce is much more limited in his contributions. Other than his accordion version of 7/10/90, I'm not aware of any Grateful Dead version that he really shines on.
A final Bird Song from the year of note is 7/21/90 - Brent's last. After Brent died, several band members commented on how inspired his playing had been on his last tour. This performance shows Brent at his best. From the start, Brent is on, with dancing and rippling lines through the verses. He joins Jerry and Phil in kicking off the jam, ornamenting Jerry's leads, both his guitar and MIDI flute lines. Brent and Jerry turn away from Bird Song themes, while Phil remains locked in the Bird Song groove. This sets up tension in the jam as Jerry and Brent keep fighting towards space. After a low-key run through the strumming jam, the jam moves to a quiet place before returning to the bridge. Brent left us with a sweet Bird Song.


1991 is another fine year for Bird Songs, although some of the longer versions are open to criticism for wandering a bit. Also, Jerry freaks may prefer earlier years. As the year progresses, Jerry starts to back away from the dominant role in the jamming that he had maintained since introducing the song. Often, Vince takes his place as a lead voice introducing jamming themes and butting heads with Phil. When this works, which it frequently does, it works very well. Check out 6/11/91 for Vince night. At times, though, Vince gets wedded to developing variations on the strumming theme, and this can work to constrict the range of jamming. I hear this on 9/13/91.
Jerry is still the dominant voice with Phil in my favorite Bird Song of the year: Greensboro 4/1/91 (one of my favorite shows of the post-1974 era). Phil and Jerry kick off the jam with relaxed and melodic leads which build both in intensity and weirdness. Eventually, Bobby, Vince and Jerry (on MIDI) are all playing separate themes and tempos, while Phil stays home in the Bird Song groove. Then Vince introduces The Other One to the jam. Jerry picks it up and the band swings into a wild spiraling Other One jam, which dissolves back to Phil's Bird Song groove. After several more strange jamming themes based on the strumming jam, the band finds its way back to the bridge.
Shoreline 5/11/91 is a serious candidate for the longest Grateful Dead Bird Song at almost 18 minutes. While it includes plenty of nice jamming and a fine strumming jam, it does wander more than a bit in places.
A version that does not wander is 4/28/91, with Carlos Santana on guest lead guitar. This version develops three distinct variations on the strumming theme as the organizing principle for the jam. This is a good call, in that, the variations work well with each other, building to a well developed crescendo by the third go round. Also, using one theme as the basis for the jam lets Carlos find his way in, adding some fine playing after being introduced to the theme the first time around.


When looking for good Grateful Dead, one rarely starts with early 1992. Bird Song appears to be an exception to this rule. Two of the versions I have heard are quite good - Hamilton 3/20/92 and Buckeye 7/1/92 (the last show before Jerry's collapse). Both of these versions feature Jerry fully engaged in the jamming. At Hamilton, early in the jamming, Jerry pushes the band out of its conventional jamming groove and a lively and quite abstract jam develops, with a very nice climbing theme organized by Jerry. Buckeye is a very sweet and delicate jam with very sympathetic listening and nice subtleties.
The third early ‘92 version I've heard is Cal Expo 5/21/92, and it is flat-out amazing. After a cautious start to the jam, Phil pushes out of the groove to develop a lumpy and erratic bass line. Bobby adds fuzzy atmospherics, then Jerry launches a soaring lead over Phil's twisted terrain. Vince pushes dissonant themes that Jerry follows, sending the jam further into the ditch. After quite a bit of strange land is explored, Jerry introduces a skeletal outline of the strumming theme with coloration from Vince and Bobby. Jerry then moves to a fast-picked version of the strumming theme, which builds to a peak followed by another peak based on a more conventional rendition of the strumming jam. After this the jam slows and descends for the return to the Bridge.
A lot of Deadheads, including me, were holding their breath waiting for the return of the band in December, 1992. The Bird Song from Oakland 12/12/92 provided plenty of reassurance that the band could still jam. This is Phil's night. Jerry kicks off the fun with some very Dark Star-like jamming early on, but Phil is instigator that opens up the jam to a variety of spacy themes. After a very complex and abstract jam, Jerry tries to launch the strumming theme, but the band, especially Phil and Vince refuse. This opens the door for a wonderfully jazzy Phil lead. After Phil has his say, Jerry takes another swing at the strumming theme, but Phil still resists. Jerry eventually prevails and a strange, off-kilter version develops with lots of conflicting themes. The jam abruptly shifts to a quiet, abstract space. Bobby interjects some blues patterns. The strumming jam almost reforms, but instead shifts seamlessly to the bridge. This is one of my favorite Bird Songs of the 1990s.


The 1993 Bird Songs I have heard are a decidedly mixed bag. To their credit, all are adventurous. In particular, each takes a novel approach to that warhorse of Bird Song jamming, the strumming jam. However, I have to consider the early 93 versions I have heard (1/24/93 and 5/15/93) ambitious failures. 5/15/93 features a massive strumming jam early on in the proceedings. However, after this, I get the sense the band can't figure out where to go next, and much of the jamming wanders. 1/24/93 features a wonderfully mutated strumming jam, with a barely recognizable rhythmic and melodic pattern. However, the early jamming seems confused and uncertain. I like the late ‘93 versions a lot more. 8/21/93, 9/28/93 and 12/19/93 all feature extensive "acoustic" guitar from Jerry. Jerry's use of the acoustic guitar effect in late 1993 has generated intensely mixed reviews. I find it works quite well in Bird Song (a song with a long and noble acoustic tradition). It also opens up the mix quite a bit for Phil. Finally, use of the acoustic effect for the strumming jam gives a fresh perspective on the theme. Check out 12/19/93 for a fine "acoustic" exploration of the strumming jam.
The truly great 1993 Bird Song is Madison Square Garden 9/22/93 with David Murray on sax. I am massively prejudiced on this one. I've been a big fan of Murray for many years, and I saw this show from the floor of the Garden. But a serious listen to the tape offers solid proof that this is a Bird Song for the ages. Murray's exploratory lines kick off the jam, intertwining with Jerry's guitar, while Phil thuds and bumps beneath. Murray quickly takes charge, with deep tones and soaring lines rising to an explosive peak. Phil then steps out for a lead that is alternately throbbing and jazzy. The jazzy line attracts full band accompaniment. Jerry essays a flying lead line, as the jam heads towards space over Phil's walking line. Tempos multiply and the jam gets quite weird until Phil launches a fast tempo that draws Murray back into the fray. This develops into a very complex jam, rooted in The Other One, but very challenging and strange. There is no trace of the strumming jam tonight. Murray and Jerry move into a dialogue, with Jerry on top and soaring with Murray squawking beneath. Jerry finally realizes this can't continue all night and restates the Bird Song theme for the return to the bridge.


1994 and 1995 are generally considered part of the erratic decline of Jerry Garcia. You would not know that from listening to the Bird Songs from these years. Every version I have heard (including the stellar Phil and Friends version discussed earlier) is lively and very ambitious, with significant ventures into deep space. Jerry is on top of his game in the jamming, although his vocals are a bit dodgy. Bird Song is a place to find some of the finest late Grateful Dead.
Eugene 6/19/94 is a fine example of an adventurous 1994 Bird Song. It launches its jam after the bridge, and what a jam it is. After a peaceful start, Vince's rising line sets the stage for Jerry to kick off a high-pitched lead that picks up the tempo, then veers towards space. Jerry introduces an Other One theme, which spirals upwards a bit, then spaces out further. Another ascending figure leads to a MIDI section with Jerry on flute and Bobby on brass. We are well out there. After yet another ascending figure, Jerry shifts to "acoustic" guitar for a relaxed jam based on Bird Song themes. This is followed by a relatively mild-mannered run through the strumming jam, followed by a descending figure that leads back to the bridge.
My favorite 1994 Bird Song is the last of the year: Oakland 12/12/94. Unfortunately, my version of this tape is a lot like my tape of 12/6/80. Phil is sufficiently audible that one can hear he is a big time player, but not audible enough to really hear what he is up to. An upgrade is needed. Still, even given the tape quality, this version is a stunner. It runs well over 16 minutes, and leaves me still wanting more. Jerry starts this jam in a cautious, exploratory mood, but gradually pushes the jam into space. After an initial exploration featuring Jerry and Vince, the jam quiets, looking to reform, over a severely twisted rhythmic structure. Bobby and Vince push the next round, which leads to a nice quiet piano statement. Jerry moves to MIDI flute, and Bobby interjects angry tones. Vince climbs and descends on synth. Phil finally breaks through the murk to push the tempo. Jerry responds with an aggressive and spaced lead, and the band follows with a full-throated, stormy jam. In the midst of the storm, Phil moves in with a jazzy walking bass line. Jerry brings us out of space with a searching melody that brings us back to Bird Song themes. The band moves in and out of Bird Song themes, not willing to let the jamming end. Jerry makes one quick pass at the strumming theme, which gathers no support, and the band at last surrenders to the bridge.


In 1995, I saw two Bird Songs. I rank both among my very finest Grateful Dead experiences. I've already written about the Seattle 5/24/95 version in my review of that run. The other was from Shoreline 6/2/95, my last Grateful Dead concert. It could well be the most challenging and intense Bird Song I've ever heard. This version starts jamming out of the bridge. Jerry's opening solo is based on the melody of the unsung verse. Phil is engaged from the start of the song, and at the start of the jam promptly joins Jerry in very sympathetic conversation. After extended searching themes from Jerry and Phil, Jerry gives a taste of wah wah (a very late innovation in Bird Songs). Jerry then pushes out of the Bird Song structure and multiple themes develop, including the slightest hint of the strumming jam. Phil at this point is holding down the Bird Song groove. Vince essays some blues riffs. Jerry picks up on this as the jam starts to get angular and dissonant. A very stormy jam develops, not at all for the faint of heart. After some intense waves, Jerry and Bobby (on MIDI) develop a spare and highly abstract dialogue accented by bizarre patterns from the drummers. This jam intensifies, and Phil launches a jazzy walking bass line through and around the strangeness. This part reminds me, at least in spirit, of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz period. The jam eventually quiets but stays strange as multiple themes develop. No hint of the strumming jam here, just more space. Jerry and Vince build another peak, with blues and Bird Song themes emerging at the same time. Eventually the Bird Song themes prevail, and Jerry returns to sing Bird Song to me for the last time.


Bird Song resonates quite deeply both as a song and a performance piece. It now can be heard as an elegy for Jerry Garcia and the multiheaded collective entity that was the Grateful Dead. This, at least, was my reaction upon hearing The Other Ones and Phil and Friends perform it. Its sweet and sad personality is very true to the persona communicated by Jerry Garcia through many of his best loved songs. This, in part, I believe is why Jerry kept playing it for so long with the Dead.
As a performance piece, I always felt Bird Song brought out some of the best facets of the Grateful Dead. Like Dark Star, the Other One and Playing in the Band, it was a given that, when they took that high dive into the jam, the band would at least try to find "it", the place where the music plays the band . I also find it amazing that this is one major piece of music that never grew stale, where the very last rendition I ever heard is very likely my favorite. As such, the song was a ray of hope in the troubled times that marked the end of the Grateful Dead, just as the lyric offers the listener hope in face of the loss of the sweetly singing bird.

For another look at Bird Song from 1971-73, see: