April 1, 2020

The Shortest Dark Stars 1969-1974

For some time I’ve thought about writing a piece on the shortest Dark Stars of the ‘70s. Dark Star was not a song known for its brevity -- it was designed to have expansive, open-ended jams. So I thought it might be interesting to look at the times when it wasn’t so expansive: what do the brief Dark Stars have in common, and why did they turn out that way?
Ironically, this will be a short post, since the Dead at the time hardly ever played short Dark Stars (say, less than 15-20 minutes). You’d think that at least a few times, they would enter Dark Star, realize things weren’t working, and bail out quickly. But this almost never happened. Even under the worst conditions, at Woodstock, they still jammed it out to an impressive 19 minutes. In these years, once Dark Star began, the Dead almost always committed themselves to a lengthy jam, even if they weren’t quite feeling the spirit. So the rare occasions when they did shorten or abandon Dark Star may be worth investigating.

This post isn’t meant to list the shortest Dark Stars ever played (many of which can be found in the ‘90s), but the shortest in these particular years – some of which are still pretty long! The comparison is with other Dark Stars during these years, not the entire history of this song.
Dark Stars shortened by tapecuts are not considered here. Most of these are found in 1969, including Dark Stars like 1/26/69 (9:45), 2/12/69 (4:58), 6/21/69 (7:43), and 7/12/69 (9:52). These were probably normal-length Dark Stars as played, but are hard to judge on tape due to the giant cuts. (In an odd irony, the longer Dark Stars became after 1970, the fewer lengthy tapecuts are found in them.)  
For a full catalog, see: http://deadessays.blogspot.com/2017/06/dark-star-catalog-guest-post.html

Our journey begins in 1969. I’ve already written a piece on Dark Star’s first year, 1968, and it goes without saying that all the earliest live versions are short. In January-February ’68, Dark Star usually ranged from about 5 to 7 minutes. By summer ’68 it had already expanded considerably and the Dead played a number of 15-minute versions that year. The shortest Dark Stars of late ’68, 10/20 and 12/29/68, were about 10 minutes each and came in shortened festival sets where the Dead were pressed for time and raced through the show in a hurry. Naturally the Dark Stars in these circumstances were quick and compressed. But this would not be a factor very often after ’69.

After a number of 12-15 minute versions early in 1969, Dark Star first passed 20 minutes in February ’69, and the longest versions would gradually creep upward in length through the year, up to 30 minutes. Most of them weren’t that long, though – only about ten Dark Stars that year went over 25 minutes. Dark Star’s running times varied widely in ’69, ranging anywhere from 15-30 minutes, with an average length around 20 minutes.

Technically, the shortest Dark Star of 1969 was the tease played on 4/26/69. After Mountains of the Moon, Garcia switches to electric guitar and they jam in a Dark Star groove for about 90 seconds (as on the opening of the Live/Dead album). But, for whatever reason, Garcia decides to skip Dark Star that night and abruptly switches to China Cat Sunflower. It’s debatable whether this can even be considered a Dark Star jam since they never get to the actual intro.
(Also on Dick’s Picks 26.)

Otherwise, 8/21/69 is by far the shortest full Dark Star of the year. Following a ragged Other One, the Cryptical reprise peters out after only 90 seconds as Garcia audibly loses interest and starts teasing Dark Star instead, until the rest of the band comes round. There’s no intro jam – he starts singing the verse immediately. Afterwards, the jam is quite sleepy and laid-back, not building to any peak; instead it gets quieter and more minimal until the second verse a few minutes later. Whether the Dead are tired or distracted, evidently the time isn’t right for Dark Star, and the Dead wrap up the show with Cosmic Charlie, unable to face the challenge of St. Stephen.



One trend that started in 1969 was the Dead abandoning Dark Star mid-jam and leaving it unfinished, jumping into another song without playing the second verse. This didn’t yet happen very often (only in five versions that year), nor did it always result in shorter Dark Stars, but it hinted at how Dark Star would be played in later years.

5/7/69 Dark Star (22:18)>drums>Lovelight
5/30/69 Dark Star (17:03)>Cosmic Charlie
6/22/69 Dark Star (/11:25)>Other One (AUD – opening cut)
7/12/69 Dark Star (/10:02)>Other One (only second half of Dark Star survives on tape)
8/16/69 Dark Star (19:06)>High Time

In some of these cases, the Dead may be abandoning a Dark Star that wasn’t working out – for instance on 7/12, a very loose and amorphous Dark Star jam heads into a brief Other One as the scattered Dead try to collect themselves. On 8/16 they also seem to be struggling with a Dark Star that doesn’t quite come together as the jam never really gels; when they head to the second verse, Garcia decides to give it up and strike out for High Time instead.
5/7 is another show where they sound out of their heads, but this Dark Star is fully played, a nice dreamy, drifting version. I think Garcia breaks a string around the 19-minute mark since he sits out the last three minutes, leaving the rest of the band to groove for a bit until they give way to a long drum break. 5/30, in contrast, is more of a tough, aggressive Dark Star – in the depths of a wild feedback-filled jam, Weir starts the childlike intro to Cosmic Charlie and the rest of the band picks it up in a great transition, presaging the unexpected song transitions of later years. (St. Stephen follows.)
6/22 has a lengthy opening jam of at least seven minutes (possibly several more are missing), and sounds like it’s turning out to be a great version, but only a few minutes after the verse the Dead take a left turn into the Other One. I think this may be the only version out of these that was really cut short before its time – the other versions sound like they’re close to a natural finish anyway.

A few more instances followed in 1970:
2/11/70 Dark Star (instrumental, 16:19)>Spanish Jam (9:40)>Lovelight (with guests)
3/24/70 Dark Star (13/:45)>Other One (several minutes lost in a tapecut)
5/8/70 Dark Star (/18:05)>Dancing in the Street (AUD – opening cut)
11/8/70 Dark Star (16:06)>Main Ten (8:50)>Dancing in the Street (AUD)

It can’t really be argued that these Dark Stars are incomplete or unsatisfying! They’re fully played, and three of them end in significant thematic jams (the Spanish jam on 2/11, Feelin’ Groovy on 5/8, and the Main Ten on 11/8). 2/11 takes an unusual instrumental course due to the extra guitarists. 3/24 is an instrumental version on tape since a tapecut wipes out the verse. 5/8 and 11/8, coincidentally, are the only Dark Stars that segue into Dancing in the Street – it’s often a good indication of a show’s strength when Dark Star is paired with another long jam number.

Early 1971 was the final era for regularly played “complete” two-verse Dark Stars – except for these two which the Dead exit without an ending:
4/26/71 Dark Star (12:52)>Wharf Rat
7/31/71 Dark Star (22:36)>Bird Song
From 10/31/71 onward, Dark Star’s second verse and ending would usually be dropped, and the band would almost always segue into a new song mid-jam.


1970 didn’t really have any short Dark Stars – even the shortest are 19-20 minutes long. In general, the only versions that year that are less than 20 minutes are due to tapecuts. The one exception is 3/24/70, the shortest Dark Star of the year, even considering that a few minutes are lost in a tapecut. It’s the only Dark Star of 1970 that’s really shortened due to circumstances, as once again the Dead zip through a fast-paced set cramming all the songs they can into a short timeslot. Nonetheless it’s still a great, hard-hitting version – Garcia sounds ready to take the jam to new heights, until Lesh prods the band into a quick five-minute Other One (somewhat like on 6/22/69).

1971 is another story, as the Dead rethought and reassembled Dark Star into a new form. I won’t go into detail here since I’ve already written a post on this year:
But in brief, the few versions from early in the year tend to be much shorter than 1970 Dark Stars, only 13-14 minutes long. 4/26 turns out to be the shortest of the year, barely making 13 minutes as Garcia changes direction mid-jam to play Wharf Rat as he did on 2/18, but this time he never returns to Dark Star.
Other '71 Dark Stars like 4/8, 4/28, and 11/7 are only about a minute longer. The fall ’71 versions are more jammed-out; Keith Godchaux’s first version on 10/21 is some 17 minutes long, and most of the following versions are a little over 20 minutes (despite losing the second verse). The 14-minute 11/7/71 is an exception, a scattershot version that doesn’t really cohere as the Dead seem to flail around for a few minutes after the verse; finally Garcia gives up and leads the band into a more successful Other One.



Sometimes in 1971-72 the Dead would play a song inside Dark Star and then return to the Dark Star jam, a trick they frequently pulled in the Other One. It was much less common in Dark Star – in fact they had only done it a couple times before:

11/8/69 Dark Star (14:08)>Other One>Dark Star (6:38)>St. Stephen
6/24/70 Dark Star (9:37)>Attics of My Life>Dark Star (7:12)>Sugar Magnolia>Dark Star (3:03)>St. Stephen

They didn’t do it very often in ‘71/72 either, only six times:
2/18/71 Dark Star (7:02)>Wharf Rat>Dark Star (7:19)>Me & My Uncle
10/21/71 Dark Star (14:57)>Sittin’ on Top of the World>Dark Star (2:12)>Me & Bobby McGee
11/15/71 Dark Star (12:49)>El Paso>Dark Star jam (7:45)>Casey Jones
12/5/71 Dark Star (8:01)>Me & My Uncle>Dark Star (12:16)>Sittin’ on Top of the World (instrumental DS)
4/24/72 Dark Star (25:46)>Me & My Uncle>Dark Star (15:05)>Wharf Rat
8/21/72 Dark Star (27:25)>El Paso>space (3:44)>Deal

After that the idea was dropped (to return occasionally in later years), so it appears the Dead weren’t very comfortable interrupting Dark Star like this. I bring up this list here to ask whether these Dark Stars were shortened by the extra song segues – did we miss out on more Dark Star jamming that might have occurred? In general, the answer is no: these Dark Stars are still average lengths for the tours they were played in. Usually the Dead pick up right where they left off once the middle song finishes, and even seem inspired by the interruption. By late ’71 they had generally stopped singing the second verse, but most of these later versions still find natural ‘conclusions’ where they restate the theme. (8/21/72 is the odd man out here, with its awkward little Phil/Jerry space appended to El Paso. It’s hard to tell whether they intended to continue Dark Star but were derailed by tuning, or if they opportunely turned a tuning break into an eloquent space duet.)


1972 is not a year known for short Dark Stars. Instead, the Dark Stars became giants, regularly surpassing 30 minutes, and occasionally even reaching 40 minutes. Even the shortest Dark Star of the year is still almost 20 minutes long – 5/7/72 at the Bickershaw Festival. It’s only half the length of some others from this tour, but this little runt of a Dark Star is still pretty great during the long pre-verse jam. After the verse, though, there’s just a brief three-minute space, then the band suddenly drops out for a drum solo, before charging back in for a half-hour Other One. This was the only time all year (and the last time until 1978) that Dark Star and the Other One would be played in the same show. I’m not sure if the Dead planned this transition ahead of time or if it was a spontaneous decision, but the lengthy Other One makes up for the skipped second part of Dark Star!
(Also released.)

The next-shortest Dark Star of ’72 came in the fall, 10/26/72. It’s two minutes longer and more “complete” in a way (in that it has some post-verse jamming), but I include it because it’s a fascinating failure – the weakest version of the year. The Dead had started the second set with a giant 26-minute Playing in the Band, the second-longest of the year (after 11/15) and one of the best-ever versions. Often at the time, when the Dead did a big second-set Playing like this it would be the jam centerpiece of the set, replacing Dark Star or the Other One (for instance on 11/12, 11/15, and 11/18). It was becoming rare for Playing in the Band and Dark Star to share the same set – 10/18 and 11/26 are two of the few other examples from ’72. (In fact a few months later, 3/28/73, was the last time Playing and Dark Star would share a set until 1989.)
In any case, 10/26/72 was one show where Dark Star was a jam too far. This version comes out of a rather quiet, low-key Truckin’ jam – it starts out well enough, until about 13 minutes into the pre-verse jam it starts to fizzle out into tuning and never really recovers. After the verse, Garcia only plays for a minute in a short, subdued jam before he and Weir both drop out, leaving the others to noodle for a bit until the jam collapses in a bass/drums break. The guitars return in the final minute, but rather than try to revive Dark Star, Weir decides to rescue matters with a rousing Sugar Magnolia. It’s unusual in this period to hear a full-length Dark Star running out of gas midway and sputtering to a halt, but this is a clear example of the band abandoning the song when it wasn’t working.

In 1973, the average Dark Star length was reduced – out of 20 versions that year, just half of them are over 25 minutes, and only three reach a half-hour. The Dead also played a number of abbreviated Stars, less than 20 minutes, including 2/15, 2/22, and 6/30. (On 2/15 there’s not a full-band jam after the verse, but a bass solo – 9/11/73 would follow the same pattern. The other two are complete but fast-paced mini-Stars seemingly played with an eye on the clock; all are shorter than the Eyes that follow.)

1973 also features what may be one of the shortest Dark Stars ever played, on 3/24/73, although this status has been hotly disputed. (It’s also the last of five Truckin’>Dark Stars – 11/8/70, 7/18/72, 10/26/72, 12/15/72, and 3/24/73 - all very different from each other.)
Here the music pauses for a bit after the Truckin’ jam, and Garcia teases Dark Star (at :36 on the official CD) but no one commits to the theme; instead they continue with a loose uptempo jam. Typically for the era, this turns into a lengthy bass/drums break. The others return for some spirited jazzy jamming, and after a few minutes Weir throws in the Spanish Jam chords (for the first time since 2/11/70). The band happily roams in the Spanish theme for a while, until it gradually subsides into a quiet wah space. They drift through space for a few minutes; then at last Garcia introduces the Dark Star theme, and they launch into the song. With over 20 minutes of jamming behind them, Dark Star’s intro jam is kept brief, just a couple minutes before the verse; and afterwards no jam follows – Garcia heads straight into Wharf Rat – then changes his mind and starts Sing Me Back Home instead.
The debate continues to rage whether this is a four-minute Dark Star (as the official CD tracks it), or a unique reversed 26-minute version in which the jam precedes the song. This wasn’t unheard-of at the time: 12/15/72 and 12/6/73 also have Dark Stars which are jammed at length before the theme is stated. But in those cases, the openings sound more like part of the song and there is also a “full” Dark Star after the jam; here we get some rather generic, unrelated jamming concluded by a quick verse. It’s up to the listener to decide how much Dark Star we have here.
(Also on Dave’s Picks 32.)

Also found in 1973 is what might be the first instrumental Dark Star tease since 4/26/69 – though this one’s also debatable. It occurs in the giant Playing in the Band song suite on 11/21/73. After El Paso, the band revisits the Playing jam for a minute, then suddenly slows down and drops into a hybrid Wharf Rat/Dark Star jam which lasts a few minutes before they start Wharf Rat proper. Musically Dark Star and Wharf Rat are very similar, and in the same key, so it’s hard to pin down this neat little jam – it sounds like Weir’s playing Dark Star, Lesh is playing Wharf Rat, and Garcia could go either way, and they hover in a liminal space until Garcia settles on Wharf Rat. I’m happy to call it a Dark Star jam; either way it foreshadows the instrumental Dark Star teases of the ‘90s. (There would also be a couple strong Dark Star teases in the Wharf Rats of ’76 – on 6/12/76 & 7/18/76 – mentioned here.) 
(Also on Road Trips vol.4 no.3.)

There had not been many instrumental Dark Stars up to this point (not counting Hartbeats versions or Dark Stars made verseless by tapecuts) – really only 2/11/70 and 12/5/71. The Dead returned to the idea on 11/30/73. This version comes out of a fine Let It Grow jam, the first of three Let It Grow>Dark Stars (the others would follow on 12/18/73 and 5/14/74). The Dark Star theme is clearly stated at the start, so this time the Dead’s direction isn’t in question. The jam that follows seems like a rather unfocused Dark Star intro jam – compared to nearby Dark Stars, the music is more decorative than purposeful, and somewhat half-hearted like Garcia is ready to back out of it. Around six to seven minutes in, it sounds like they’re going to head to the verse, but Garcia changes his mind and drops into one of the quiet drifting spaces so common that year, then starts a nearly twenty-minute Eyes.
(Also on Dick’s Picks 14.)

Only six Dark Stars were played in 1974, and none of them were short – even the briefest is still 22 minutes. But it’s telling that the two shortest versions of the year were both instrumentals – on 6/23 and 7/25/74. Both end in thematic jams: the Spanish jam once again on 6/23, the new Slipknot theme on 7/25. In both of these, it seems to me like they remain instrumentals because the Dead don’t feel like concentrating on the song, but skitter restlessly around the jams. 6/23 heats up as it goes along until it peaks in a powerful Spanish jam – 7/25, on the other hand, disintegrates over time; Phil disappears for most of the second half, and without a center the unfocused group dissolves into random riffing.

There’s one more instrumental Dark Star tease to mention, during the giant half-hour jam on 6/28/74. The Dead come storming out of a Let It Grow jam; slow down for a contemplative space; then wander through a Mind Left Body jam for a few minutes before turning into Dark Star (around 10:30 in the jam on the official CD). At least, the Dark Star theme is stated – most clearly by Weir, the others dance around it – but the jam soon strays away into other themes, culminating in a meltdown and a segue to US Blues. So it’s hard to say just when the Dark Star portion ends – could the next 17 minutes be considered part of Dark Star? In this case I’m inclined to be strict and say that only the part that’s recognizably Dark Star should be timed, up to the point around 14:00 where Garcia starts strumming a new chord pattern.
(Also on Dick’s Picks 12.)

By 1974, Dark Star was in much the same position it would be in during the 1990s – not a song the Dead wanted to fully explore very often, but a theme they’d revisit from time to time, sometimes just as an instrumental. With the Dead’s changing interests and waning focus in long improvisations, it’s little wonder that Dark Star didn’t survive the hiatus. Over the next ten years the Dead would occasionally revive it as a novelty piece – these versions are played at a respectable length (save for the dwarf Star of 1/20/79 which is rudely cut short after nine minutes). When it returned in 1989, Dark Star was played at full length again to start with, but by ’91 it started to shrink into a nostalgic reminder of itself, and in ’92-94 Dark Star returned to early-'68 lengths with few versions reaching ten minutes. This is the true era of short Dark Stars…but the ‘90s are beyond the scope of this post!  

As far as the early years, what can we conclude about the shorter Dark Stars of that era? They were infrequent, with only a small handful of truly shrunken Dark Stars being played over a five-year period. There were a variety of reasons Dark Star might be reduced:
-         the Dead faced a time limit and had to hurry up with the jams;
-         the Dead dropped the post-verse jam in favor of the next song;
-         the Dead just didn’t feel like playing it once it started, and the jam fell flat.
None of these happened very often. It was also rare for Dark Star to be truncated by another song; even the ‘interrupted’ Dark Stars are usually full-length versions. When we do find a brief Dark Star, as often as not the Dead may have just played a long jam or might head into another lengthy jam number, so even the shortest Dark Stars tend to be adjacent to longer improvisational pieces. Sometimes the magic didn't descend, but there were hardly any true misfires – with few exceptions, any Dark Star in this period was played by a band eager to jump in and explore it at length, and not anxious to let it go too soon.