August 11, 2021

Dark Star 1969: The Late Constanten Era

On the summer solstice in 1969, the Grateful Dead were playing the Fillmore East. During the late show, after regaling the crowd with a Yellow Dog Story, they got down to business with Dark Star. Some in the audience applauded, already familiar with Dark Star from earlier performances. Many in the Fillmore East had seen the Dead repeatedly and knew what to expect (though they were a little thrown by the pedal-steel country tunes the Dead had started doing).
From the start, the Dead weave a thick tapestry – melodic guitar lines, Constanten playing Pigpen’s old organ riff, Pigpen himself on congas, and Mickey Hart on guiro. It doesn’t take long for the intro jam to heat up, Constanten swirling around Garcia’s lines in a ghostly echo. After only a couple minutes, Garcia pauses for the verse: “Dark star crashes….” Hart crashes his gong with abandon, and the gonging continues into the space after the verse as the rest of the band churns up a maelstrom. The Dark Star theme dissolves into half a minute of tense chords, stuttering feedback, and swirling organ. Garcia sails in, opening up the jam – only for the tape to cut, less than five minutes into Dark Star.
When it picks back up, there are only a couple minutes left, the heart of the jam lost…Garcia’s picking up the theme again at the quiet tail end of the jam, to the tinkle of cymbals and congas. The gong guides Garcia in to the second verse; and the audience stays reverently silent during the rising outro notes, as celestial bells ring. The applause comes when St. Stephen starts.
(This performance may be from June 20.)
 
Dark Star had gone through some changes since the Dead last played the Fillmore East in February 1969. The average Dark Star was now over 20 minutes long, and tended to be weirder, spacier, and more powerful than its early ’69 ancestors. The playing was getting denser, full of dynamic shifts, fleeting subtleties, and bursts of intensity. Garcia, Weir & Lesh were playing (as Phil put it) “like fingers on a hand,” finding new broader ranges in their improvisations. Constanten was becoming more assured on the organ, blending in with the guitars more. (Replacing his tinny Vox with a Hammond B-3 probably helped.) More percussion was being added to the mix, often with two drummers and congas all going at once. Many of the Dark Stars of early ’69 were rather laid-back and introspective, the Dead holding back – but by May ’69 Dark Star had become more forceful and energized, reaching more hard-hitting peaks. 
 
Dark Stars through the first part of 1969 typically followed the same structure in the main jam, including several common signposts. The jam would get off to a spacy start after the verse – over time this part kept edging closer to becoming a chaotic feedback space, getting longer and noisier. (Early in the year Garcia liked to play gong-tolling sounds on his guitar in this spot, as heard on Live/Dead, but he used this effect less by summer ’69.) The band would play an instrumental verse (or part of one), a relic of the 1968 format which they stopped doing in April ’69. There would always be a “Sputnik” jam, characterized by Garcia’s high-pitched arpeggios and a swirling band background – over time this lengthened into its own section with several parts, including choppy chiming, sound effects & general weirdness. And usually the jam would climax with a “Bright Star” passage, a joyful variation on the Dark Star theme, ending with a restatement of the main theme and the second verse.
For some timing examples from 2/27/69, see:
 
Heading up to Oregon in late May ’69, the Dead played a fierce, bludgeoning Dark Star on 5/30 (ending with a surprise segue to Cosmic Charlie out of the mayhem), and followed that with an explosive Prankster space epic on 5/31. They started the June Fillmore West run on 6/5 with a more subdued (but still strong & spacy) Dark Star, and continued on 6/7 with a lightning-charged rendition reaching a crushing finale. Then they topped that with a fast & intense attack on 6/14, packing an amazing punch in 14 minutes. Then it was off to New York for two shorter, calmer Dark Stars…

6/22/69
 
The Dead played a free show in Central Park during this visit to New York City. A full soundboard tape doesn’t seem to survive from this show, but fortunately someone out there was making an audience tape (possibly this tape is Marty Weinberg’s). It’s pretty good quality for an outdoor 1969 recording, though still not an easy listen – somewhat harsh and shrill, but all the instruments can be heard. The organ & percussion are more clear than usual (it sounds like someone’s keeping time on claves throughout, keeping this Dark Star relatively earthbound).
The taper stopped the recording between songs, so the opening of Dark Star is cut. My guess is only the very start was missed, probably less than a minute. Some people are busier talking than listening during the intro jam, which is distracting; but nonetheless, the Dead easily zone out into the cosmos in an atmospheric six-minute opening excursion. By the time they slyly return to the theme, the crowd is impressed enough to applaud. Garcia rides the main theme for a long time, 80 seconds, repeating it over & over until it turns into a triumphal march.
The Dead take a different turn in the space after the verse: it’s more subdued and relaxed, sounding like a dive underwater as the band slows down and floats on feedback. This is a much more prolonged, spacious soundscape than they’d played in the Fillmore. There’s a little cut at 10:18, and we find Garcia picking out an opening to the jam – unfortunately the tape gets noisier here, as the taper moves around and people talk louder over the music. But it sounds like the band might be a little distracted themselves, since no solid jam is cohering; they seem to all be going in different directions for a minute. Garcia starts teasing the Other One, and after a minute Lesh joins him and they rush pell-mell into an Other One jam, leaving Dark Star behind in a slick transition. (There are some cheers once the crowd recognizes the Other One. This rockin’ beat is much more to their liking.)
This wasn’t the first time Dark Star had been left unfinished – the Dead had also skipped out mid-jam on 5/7 and 5/30, and would do so again a couple more times in ’69. But it would remain a rare practice until 1971.
 
6/27/69 
 
We’re back to a relaxed California show, and a Dark Star that’s both long and complete. At 26 minutes this is one of the longest Dark Stars of the year, including quite a bit of exploration. It’s also a very percussive Dark Star, with both drummers active throughout, and Pigpen contributing congas and wood percussion in the second half.
It opens with a leisurely, majestic starting jam; the mood is soft and pillowy, with ghostly organ in the background and some light percussion from maracas and cymbals. The verse sneaks up suddenly, eight minutes in, bolstered by loud gongs on both sides.
The space after the verse is tense and threatening, full of gong crashes, ominous bass, and squiggling guitars. But after Garcia comes in with volume swells, the tension subsides into quiet spacy swelling, and he gently picks out the start of a pretty, understated jam. Over the next few minutes, the jam gradually picks up steam and gains power, propelled by both drummers (and some congas & claves) pushing up the volume and energy. Soon it starts sounding more like an Other One than a Dark Star – eventually Garcia & Lesh both acknowledge this and they swerve into a full-fledged Other One jam (the same thing that had happened on 6/22!). But they’re not all on the same page here; everyone seems to be on a different beat, pulling in various directions. They flounder for a bit and uneasily break out of this into an odd Lovelight-type jam. Garcia struggles to bring it back to Dark Star as the rest of the band powers ahead in a staggered groove – finally he brings in his old Bright Star lick and hammers it home over the pounding band and rattling drums, in a long rocking passage lasting over a minute. Once this finishes the band calms down, Lesh & Weir nudging at a return to the theme; normally they go back to the verse from here. But instead Garcia starts up the eerie Sputnik arpeggios and the band plunges into that, both drummers banging away and Pigpen adding wooden guiro clacks. It soon quiets down, seeming to drift off into the mist until they bring it to a frenzied strumming crescendo. After this, there’s a minute of quiet melodic drift as Garcia gently floats back to the main theme and the second verse.
Someone in back shouts in the outro: “Hey, can I have my microphone back?”
 
7/5/69 
 
This is a more understated Dark Star. After a quiet start, Garcia pauses for half a minute before he enters with a feedback whine. The intro jam is short and mellow, only four minutes, punctuated by congas and some shaker. The organ’s up in the mix, so Constanten’s embellishments are prominent.
After the verse they drop into a whirling eddy of crashing confusion for a minute – Garcia emerges quietly from this, starting a slow, tentative, poignant jam. (In a reversal of roles, Hart is drumming while Kreutzmann sits out – usually in recent months it’s been the other way round.) After a couple minutes they gain energy and the jam surges forward more confidently. Some amp buzzing distracts them; Garcia starts making boingy-spring sounds and pauses to start a Sputnik passage. This moves through unearthly shimmers, beeping arpeggios, scrapey chopping, and Garcia’s alien-whine tone – with the band’s creepy backdrop it’s like the soundtrack to some distant planet surface. Garcia finishes this section with some volume swells and a bit of wah-type squawking, then switches back to his pretty tone for a slowly-building Bright Star passage. The band builds up to a stirring, powerful final raveup, then quiets down suddenly for a return to the main theme and the second verse. (Oddly, Hart stays on the drumset for the verse instead of the gong.)
There’s applause when they start St. Stephen, as the audience recognizes the track from the new album.
 
7/7/69 
 
From the start this is clearly a more high-energy Dark Star as the band comes storming in with feedback and bass strums. The stage volume’s pumped, and feedback keeps creeping in; even when the band calms down the mood of wired intensity still infuses the playing. Garcia’s in no hurry to get to the verse – whenever a chance for the main theme sneaks in, he skips by it for another enticing path (passing through some volume swells and a little duet with Weir). When the theme does come in after eight minutes, they stomp it out at length but then…Garcia keeps flying off on other digressions, not getting to the verse until 13 minutes in. It’s the longest intro jam so far in ‘69, fully half the length of this Dark Star. The crowd appreciates it, clapping and cheering in the distance (especially after a wild moment five minutes in).
Constanten’s place shifts in the mix – he’s moved over to the side and then raised in volume, giving us a good opportunity to listen to him in isolation as he shadows Garcia.
After the verse it seems like they’ll continue the jam, but they soon melt into space: Garcia makes his gong-tolling sounds (common in the first half of ’69) and descends into feedback through crashing gong and clattering drums. As usual in this part, Garcia sneaks out with a quiet slinky line; joined by prodding bass and Kreutzmann’s drumming, this quickly becomes a hard-driving jam. Garcia pulls up for a more relaxed passage, some claves come in for a Latin touch, and then….there’s an abrupt tapecut at 17:45 as the cassette runs out. When the music returns the band is wigging out in space, tense and frantic...it sounds like the aftermath of some unheard transition, and I’d guess a significant amount is missing.
Garcia starts a Sputnik jam – this one’s shorter but more noisy & chaotic than a couple days earlier. As Phil signals the main theme, Garcia switches to his buzzing alien tone and the band hovers for a bit before he returns to normal. The jam ambles along until Garcia stops for some spiky high-pitched jabbing (normally a part of Sputnik). This out of his system, Garcia sets up the closing jam, easing into a happy, uplifting Bright Star (somewhat marred by a buzzing problem with the organ). The band saunters back to the main theme & verse after a triumphant finish. The audience stays calm for the conclusion, but there’s big applause after St. Stephen starts.
 
7/12/69 
 
For this show, the surviving mono soundboard tape only captures the end of the show, so the first part of Dark Star is lost. The tape picks up with a loose, mellow Constanten/Weir groove. One drummer keeps up a beat, but Garcia & Lesh sit out for a minute. (Most likely Garcia had broken a string.)
When Garcia comes back in, he’s very low in the mix. The jam gets more heated for a bit and Lesh hints at the Dark Star theme, but the playing seems unfocused and the band not very committed, so they lapse into low-key noodling. Garcia starts a Sputnik jam, but this is a poor rendition: short, dull, and not very engaging, and the drummer can’t kick any life into it. Garcia wraps it up with some ghostly bell chimes, and strikes a new direction with a frantic lead. Still nothing coheres, and the band stays scattered until they start the theme. Finally they recover in an energetic Bright Star-like climax passage – but the surge doesn’t last and they fall back into quiet noodling. Garcia can’t muster up a verse, so instead he pulls out his alien tone at the end for a little eddy of weirdness, then bails out with a quick switch to the Other One riff.  
Dark Star instrumentals in Dead shows were unheard-of at this point, so they had probably played the first verse before the wheels fell off. The transition to the Other One is reminiscent of 6/22 – perhaps it was an easy exit when the Dark Star wasn’t going well, and they tackle it with more vigor. At any rate, what’s left of Dark Star is easily one of the weakest versions of the year, a distracted band in a poor lopsided mix, barely worth a listen.
 
8/3/69 
 
A new cast of characters assembles for this Dark Star. This Family Dog show has long been famous for its mystery guests, a saxophone and a viola player. Much (digital) ink has been spilled trying to figure out who they could be, but they still haven’t been identified. They both knew the Dead’s music well, though. The mix is crowded with the viola rather low and not coming forward often, so the sax stands out more, but they’re both playing throughout.
 
Dark Star starts normally with the guitars, guiro and congas, and the organ off in the back (and some hard-to-identify noises). After a couple of minutes the saxophone enters smoothly and takes the lead while Garcia backs him. He fits in so well he almost sounds like an extension of Garcia, playing the same kinds of lines. A few minutes later the viola comes in too, joining with Garcia and the sax in the lead, and he takes over for a short solo spot. The Dead’s backing is restrained, letting the guests take the spotlight. Hart adds his cowbell to the mix, and soon the others drop out for a meandering Garcia/Hart duet (with some shouts of encouragement).
Things get weirder when Garcia briefly switches on his alien-whine tone, which the sax immediately responds to. Garcia leads them into a little Sputnik jam (in a very rare pre-first verse appearance) with the sax playing over it. Things reach a frenzied little scrub – toning it down, Garcia continues the jam in a gentler vein, stepping back again. The sax stays in the lead (the viola playing rhythm backing), but when Garcia comes forward with Hart’s drumming, the jam gains force and drives to a wild Bright Star-like peak.  
The guests take a pause as the Dead quiet down for the theme and the verse – this intro jam was over 12 minutes long, almost as long as 7/7!  The guests provide quiet backing in the verse, staying out of the way of the vocals. But after the verse, the viola steps up and plays an instrumental verse melody as the band melts into an open droning space, a beautiful moment. The Dead decide not to take the noisy chaos route; instead Garcia starts a tender new jam with volume swells out of the drone.
The sax steps back and there’s a lovely quiet stretch with just the guitars. But soon enough the sax and Hart’s drums sneak back in and the jam intensifies. (Kreutzmann, oddly, sits out, never touching his drums.) As the sax gets wilder with loud honks, the viola re-enters and the guitars fight their way forward, and we’re in an unhinged free jazz jam on top of the Dead’s Dark Star, all the instruments blending in a free-for-all. When the peak subsides, Weir starts up the theme again and a sunny feeling emerges. Garcia heads for the Bright Star riff, a jaunty arrangement where the band plays it as a light background at length for two minutes while the guests stretch out.
Finally Garcia takes them back to the theme and a quick return to the verse, the guests again backing him tastefully. They follow the Dead’s changes surprisingly well. The viola player’s so familiar with the song, he even plays the outro line with the guitars! St. Stephen doesn’t follow this time – there’s a full stop and applause before the drummers take a left turn into Alligator.
 
8/16/69 
 
The infamous Woodstock set. After only two songs, the Dead have to take a ten-minute break while Owsley tries to fix the sound system. Not wanting to lose more time, as soon as the sound is fixed they interrupt Ken Babbs’ long monologue by launching right into Dark Star.
The sound quality, from a multitrack recording, is superior to most of the recent tapes. Constanten is high in the mix with a very warbly tone, starting with Pigpen’s old organ riff before branching out. Hart is out-front with the guiro, another lingering ’68 touch. The intro jam stays on safe ground, sticking closely to the main theme which they frequently return to. Garcia’s playing becomes more minimalist as the jam goes on, and at one point Constanten even takes the lead. The jam stretches for a respectable eight minutes before the verse, but sounds tentative and unfocused, the band volume slowly fading until it sounds like they might drop into silence. Garcia seems rather uncertain when he sings the verse.
The space after the verse is dispensed with – instead, chord strums lead right to the middle jam while Kreutzmann joins in on drums. There’s a peppier feel already, the jam sounding happy and brisk (and, when Garcia’s strumming, not far off from Eyes of the World). Constanten adds bright organ chirps; Hart starts drumming as well; and with a new gust of energy they seem to be taking off at last.
But instead of riding the surge, Garcia drops back and the band pauses for a quiet stretch of noodling, all direction suddenly lost. They hint at a dive into space, but instead the guitars putter around while the drums try to keep up some momentum. Whenever Garcia starts on a new path, he soon stops short – instead of gaining traction, the band drifts aimlessly, and the jam goes nowhere but keeps circling back to the theme. With Garcia nearly out of action, there’s a lot of empty space to fill, but instead of stepping up the others hang back.
Finally in the last minute they catch a fleeting groove. But when this too dies, Garcia bails out and starts quietly strumming High Time. The rest of the band catches up to him, leaving Dark Star behind with relief. Some light applause greets the new song.
While not a total disaster, this version is similar to 7/12 in being mostly pathetic and a low point among 1969 Dark Stars.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvt87xrXgZ8 (a different mix – actual b&w footage starts 13 minutes in)
Released on Woodstock: 40 Years On.

8/21/69 
 
After a scrappy Other One, the Cryptical outro quietly fades out to the rattling of congas. Garcia doesn’t feel like playing the whole thing, but instead drops Dark Star hints to the others until they catch on. Dark Star gets off to a bouncy start but there’s no intro jam at all – Garcia sings the verse right after the opening. His concentration already seems to be lapsing as he sings, and the band stumbles into a quiet jam without venturing into space. The feel is much more tentative than usual in Dark Star, pleasantly spacy and gently probing over a backdrop of shaker and congas. After a couple of minutes the jam becomes more solid and rhythmic, with Weir starting to play the chords of what will soon become the Soulful Strut theme.
But the Dead don’t take the jam anywhere or hit their usual structural signposts. Just three minutes into the jam, Garcia returns prettily to the theme and the band quiets down for the second verse. And Dark Star ends as uncertainly as it began – they don’t even play the outro fully before Garcia shifts to the more reassuring ground of Cosmic Charlie. This turns out to be one of the shortest Dark Stars ever played, an airy wisp that never quite arrives.
 
8/23/69 
 
The Dead find themselves playing at another summer festival, this time on a farm in Oregon at the obscure Bullfrog 2 Festival. But here, despite a shaky cassette recording, they’re in much better shape than at Woodstock. Here what I think of as the “1969 Mark II” Dark Stars get underway – closer to their 1970 sound, the playing becoming more open and subtle, and with a much bigger emphasis on the Space after the verse. The tentative playing of the previous week has turned into a consciously minimalist, less-is-more approach. As with the Atlanta show in July, the playing is even more amazing considering the outdoor festival setting.
I believe this is the first Dark Star in which Constanten does not play Pigpen’s old ’68 organ riff at all. This recording is also distinctive for Constanten’s prominent place: he’s off to the side but very loud in the mix, so this is one of the best tapes to hear his playing. He also sounds more warbly than usual, and not just due to wobbly cassette speeds – as he writes in his book, “It being an outdoor concert, the power came from on site generators. I was playing a Hammond B-3 at the time, and the fluctuations in the electric current affected its ‘sense’ of pitch. So on occasion it’d suddenly be in C-sharp, or B. And that was with Owsley…monitor[ing] the generator’s output, to keep it on or about 60 cycles.” 
 
The opening is quiet and restrained – they proceed delicately, leaving a lot of space open, and even with the organ warbling there’s a feeling of gentle stillness. (A shaker provides percussion; congas come in briefly but soon depart for the rest of Dark Star.) The jam is leisurely, in no hurry to arrive at the verse, and each time they bring up the main theme it’s only to wander off on another excursion. After the theme at one point they fade to near-subliminal quietness; the gong comes in and they patiently build back up to the theme; Kreutzmann adds his drums, the playing gets louder and stronger, and they seem ready for the verse; but instead Garcia turns sideways and they hover in delightful droning suspense for a minute, fading to quietness again…
What happened next is unknown – the tape cuts at 11:48, wiping out the first verse. Most likely they got to the verse soon after that and only a couple of minutes are missing. The recording comes back immediately after the verse as the music breaks down into space. This is a significant Space, by far the longest we’ve heard so far – recent spaces tended to stretch for one to two minutes after the verse, but this lasts a full five minutes. Instead of crashing noise and tension, this space is mostly quiet, ambient and moody; Garcia floats on extended volume swells over a muted backdrop of gong, humming bass and spidery organ. Finally they surge in a brief noisy spell with Garcia’s gong-tolling, bass squiggles, and eerie organ trembles; but then the band falls back into the silent void, barely playing until Garcia softly starts the Sputnik arpeggio.
This Sputnik passage is short and subdued, only lasting a couple of minutes before Garcia switches to his pretty tone and quietly starts the closing jam. Volume rising, the band soon heads into a lengthy Bright Star that keeps going and going, Garcia repeating the phrase over and over as both drummers join in for a slow, lumbering take. At last Garcia & Lesh spin off in a nifty improvised transition back to the main theme and a particularly triumphant finale. In the end they pull themselves together for the second verse, sounding almost shaken by the journey.
 
8/28/69 
 
Not the full Grateful Dead, but the Hartbeats at the Family Dog, with organist Howard Wales sitting in. The tape is a buzzy cassette that starts with a poor mono mix, but it’s still an unusual and significant show for 1969, and the only live recording of Wales with the Dead. (More background on the show is here.)
 
This is really a Dark Star Jam as in the ’68 Hartbeats shows, since there is no singing and it quickly leaves the theme. It starts off simply with just Garcia, Lesh, and a shaker – Weir is absent. Wales soon joins in, mixed much higher than the others (and he stays louder for the next twenty minutes). Garcia leaves Wales plenty of room and plays more sparsely than usual, hanging back and interacting a lot with the organ (much more so than with Constanten, who usually tags along behind Garcia’s lead). Wales is a very different Hammond player than Constanten, more assertive and jazz-influenced, and he plays a busy, funky rhythmic backing.
Within a couple minutes it’s already moving away from Dark Star into a loose jam. The jam is restless and keeps changing, with new riffs or rhythms coming every few minutes. Garcia and Wales take turns playing short solos; sometimes they enjoy trading lines back and forth. Wales has a very choppy, note-heavy soloing style which can be jarring; it sounds like he’s used to leading a jazz combo. Garcia, for his part, plays differently than his normal Dark Star style – more like a Texas blues guitarist at points. The drummers come in after a few minutes and remain active throughout (particularly Hart). A flute player takes a brief solo around nine minutes in, but he’s very low in the mix and can only faintly be heard, and disappears thereafter. (The vocal mic was also buried deep in the mix in the earlier blues songs.) 22 minutes in, the mix is finally fixed and switches to a much better-sounding stereo picture.
The jam moves through different phases, hinting back at Dark Star at times – ranging from bluesy passages to a jazzier feel to rock riffs, from an Other One-style jam to a 6/4 shuffle to a quiet dreamy space to a funky variation on Dark Star. They’ll start a chord progression and develop it for a few minutes until it changes into something else. At times they pause or slow down, sounding like they’re about to wrap it up; but the jam won’t come to a stop, each time they press forward through the lull and keep it going. Garcia & Wales alternate in the lead, Garcia playing some tasty lines then stepping back to play rhythm chops behind Wales’ solos. The last ten minutes of the Dark Star jam flag somewhat as Wales seems to lose the band, trying out different short-lived rhythms that don’t catch on. But it revives nicely in the last few minutes as Wales fades more to the background and Garcia takes control with a biting lead.
47 minutes in, Garcia & Lesh are working on a new riff and stumble into the Eleven, which everyone rapidly takes up. (Wales seems to be no stranger to it, or he could just be a quick study.) The Eleven jam continues for another 16 minutes – it’s basically a straight Hartbeats performance; Wales stays more in the back and isn’t very active in this. After a couple of bass solos (!) and a final organ flourish, they finally close it out.
 
Although the big jam starts off as Dark Star, it doesn’t stay that way for long, and the theme is only occasionally brought back now and then, so very few of these 47 minutes are actually Dark Star-related. But as a series of loose jams, it’s still enjoyable, especially once you get past the poor mix of the first half. It’s also a way to hear Garcia playing in a different mode outside the usual Dead context of the time.
Constanten was likely present, and was nervous about Wales’ reception with the band: “It was unsettling enough for Phil to pointedly remark how much he preferred Howard Wales’s playing when he sat in with the band. But what really hurt was his insensitivity to the fact that Howie’s system was driving twice as many Leslie speakers as mine.” But Constanten needn’t have worried – Wales wasn’t about to join the band. (Instead, Garcia would soon join Wales outside the Dead.)
 
8/30/69 
 
Dark Star begins with a lovely peal of feedback from Garcia; then he keeps repeating one note for the first minute, like an invocation. This opens up into a graceful, sensitive intro jam that continues the recent trend of quiet exploration. Constanten’s up in the mix and very active, laying out a constant organ backdrop and inhabiting Dark Star more comfortably than he did back in early ’69. After seven minutes of sailing down a celestial stream, they satisfyingly hit the main theme.
After the verse, they enter space like taking off from shore against the crashing waves. Having discovered a new kind of Space on 8/23, they’re eager to explore it further. We enter a long stretch of minimalist silence - from the void emerge quiet squiggles & pluckings, gong taps, and feedback, like an alien soundtrack to a sci-fi planet landscape. They’ve learned to use silence as part of the music, and this will remain the pattern for Dark Star spaces through 1970. (The audience, for their part, help out by staying quiet as mice.) After a short freakout they dive back into the void, and Garcia continues the cosmic drift in a series of violin-like volume swells.
After seven full minutes of space Garcia quietly embarks on the next phase with his bright tone. They’re very patient and deliberate here, the jam slowly swelling up to a majestic feel; Hart keeps up the gong washes and Kreutzmann joins in with light drumming. Garcia picks out a very pretty melody over Constanten’s chords in an astonishing passage (at moments it sounds like the Beautiful Jam of 2/18/71). The jam slowly ramps up over several minutes, finding a quicker rhythm and reaching a lovely peak.
But at twenty minutes, Garcia breaks a string and drops out; Lesh, Constanten & Kreutzmann carry on seamlessly with a strong rhythmic jam. The bass and organ take the lead, and soon Weir & Lesh bring in the Soulful Strut chords while they wait for Garcia to come back. After a couple of minutes he returns tuning up, trying to blend the tuning in with the music, then picks up the jam where he left off. During a pause Weir starts a new chord pattern, and Garcia soars over it in a thrilling moment. As they carry on, the jam calms down and Garcia heads to the Bright Star finale, but it’s kept subdued & low-key. When they return to the theme and the second verse, it sounds like they’ve lost some focus, so the last few minutes of Dark Star stumble a bit after the graceful flow earlier on.
Garcia runs into trouble after Dark Star too – he breaks another string in St. Stephen and plays an impromptu feedback solo (!), then he doesn’t start playing again til midway through a sloppy Eleven, which is cut short when he still can’t get it together. After a drum break, he concedes defeat and ends the show with High Time.
I wrote about this show in one of my first posts. This is one of the longest Dark Stars of 1969, and another major step toward the 1970 model. It's not a very highly regarded version, but I still find it to be one of the most beautiful of this period.
 
9/1/69 
 
Another week, another pop festival, this time down in Baton Rouge. This Dark Star is considerably more energetic and condensed compared to the last two. The intro jam has a warm, inviting feel. It’s also rather short and uneventful, ending with the theme four & a half minutes in. Constanten adds a warbly texture again, and there’s light percussion from shaker and congas.
The Dead lose no time setting off into space after the verse. Once again it’s a quiet intergalactic space, three minutes long, punctuated by congas, organ swirls, hissing gong, and volume swells. After a freaky crescendo, Garcia starts the long climb out, and they play a slow melancholy melody in free time to Constanten’s whistling backdrop. After a couple of minutes the jam finds a solid beat, both drummers coming in, and they start to soar. The jam steadily builds, pauses, renews itself – Garcia hints at Sputnik but moves on instead. Finally they land in the expected Bright Star finale, a rousing performance that neatly turns back to the theme. But the second verse doesn’t come right away: in a last-minute surge, they jam on the theme for an extra minute before the verse.
That final twist is the only real surprise in this Dark Star, a short & straightforward version.
 
 
Dark Star went through a few significant changes in August ’69. Most importantly, the Dead started diving into deep space after the first verse. For a few months this had been the spot for noisy, crashing tension-building, but now the Dead took a new direction with long silences and atmospheric sound paintings. The Sputnik jam, an invariable part of Dark Star for almost a year, was diminishing and all but disappeared now that the Dead could absorb the weirdness into Space. This point also marks the start of new thematic jams appearing within Dark Star, although it would be a couple more months before they were fully developed. (The Dead were tending toward more overtly rock-styled jams in Dark Star. August ’69 saw a phase of quiet, low-key playing in Dark Star, but the band would soon move back to a more exuberant mood.)
Also, Constanten’s organ technique was becoming more confident and involved – as the band urged him, he played “less like a sideman,” using more chords and new Hammond tones, and happily adding weird splashes in Space. He’s also easier to notice on tape – after months of being barely audible in Bear’s recordings, his stage volume became higher in the mix on some tapes. But he would never be as assertive as, say, a Howard Wales – his role was always to support the band, never to lead them. 
 
9/26/69 
 
The Dead are back at the Fillmore East, three months after their last show there. This time there’s only a murky audience tape recording the show, and it’s not very good – muddy, distorted and a step below the Central Park tape.
There’s a small cut at the start of Dark Star, just a few seconds lost. The intro jam is bouncy and fast-paced; this part is getting more energetic again after the quiet interludes of August. But it’s also short, as the Dead get to the main theme quickly and head for the verse after only three minutes.
After the verse, the theme soon dissolves into Space. It’s hard to tell just what’s going on in the murk of space, but it’s another phantasmagoria of eerie noises. Space bleeds into the following jam; it sounds like Garcia starts up a tune while the others are still lost in the void, so he melts back into space for a couple more minutes. But gradually they climb onto solid ground again; drums and claves come in; the pace quickens and a happy jam gets underway. Soon it becomes a Feelin’ Groovy jam, the first on tape. (Lesh had played the descending line in a few earlier Dark Stars, for instance on 6/7, but they hadn’t jammed on it.) This Feelin’ Groovy jam is played in a different rhythm than it would be later. Now that they’re playing louder, it’s harder to hear what’s going on as all the instruments turn into mush. But there’s still an exuberant mood as the jam hurtles forward and Garcia steers them toward the Bright Star climax. The audience applauds when the Dead slow down and return to the theme; they’re silent and expectant through the verse and outro, then cheer the arrival of St. Stephen.
This is a short, cheerful Dark Star, very similar to the 9/1 performance. This would be the last Dark Star under 20 minutes for months to come. It has an upbeat feel with a rocking second half, so it’s a pity it can’t be heard better. Constanten would later remark: “Most any show at the Fillmore East was exceptional. The Fillmore East was a magical place to play - the crowd was very responsive. The band had a strong following in New York and it put an edge on the playing. I'd rather listen to any Dark Star from the Fillmore East. They were in a different class.”
  
At this point there are a number of missing shows from fall 1969 (including runs at the Cafe au Go Go and the Boston Tea Party), so it’s likely several lost Dark Stars were played. But when the tape record resumes, Dark Star continues on the same track as in September: more pared-down and punchy, following a simple structure, and including the new thematic jams.
 
10/25/69 
 
After the poor Fillmore East audience tape, we mercifully return to a very clear recording. This tape reverts to an older Owsley recording technique: guitars in one channel, the rest (organ, percussion, vocals) in the other. Despite the quiet organ tootling on the side, the band’s very close to their stark guitar-centered 1970 sound. (There’s a shaker at the start but it seems to drop out shortly.) This is also apparently Garcia’s first Dark Star on a Stratocaster, sounding a little thinner, less fuzzy & overdriven than his previous Gibson SG – those thick bass notes and horn-like tones have been swapped for a cleaner sound.
 
The intro jam flows along effortlessly; reaching the main theme after four minutes, they don’t bring in the verse immediately, but hover in stasis for a minute, bobbing on volume swells and gong tides. Then they return to the theme with light drumming (unusual before the first verse) – along with Weir’s chirpy chords, this gives the theme more of a rock feel than it had previously.  
After a nearly organ-free verse, there’s a surprise: instead of a straight drop into space, they return right to theme-based jamming with drums. After a minute the music starts going awry with bass thrums, crashes and feedback, then glides sweetly into a quiet tinkly stretch. They never enter space though – the “straight” jamming continues, just gradually rising in volume.
There’s a tense feeling in the jam here like they’re about to burst into something. Lesh & Weir make a few feints at starting the Feelin’ Groovy jam, but when it does get going it sounds a little disjointed and uncertain, stalling the momentum. They don’t seem sure what to do with this theme; Garcia’s trying to figure out what to play over it. Weir hints at Soulful Strut, but they continue with a more confident stretch of Feelin’ Groovy before flipping it into Soulful Strut. Garcia regains his fluency, but not for long – around 16 minutes he seems to go astray and all but drops out. It takes him a minute to get back in the flow, and they end that section with some hard chords.
Passing through a little Garcia/Lesh duet, they wind their way to an odd-sounding final climax which shades close to the Bright Star motif but doesn’t quite get there (instead sounding more like Fleetwood Mac). Finally they pounce on the main theme again, slowing down and lingering on the theme before they return to the verse. Once again the audience waits for St. Stephen before applauding.
This is generally a popular, well-regarded Dark Star from 1969, partly due to the sound quality, but I don’t rate it very highly. Not only does it lack any Space, but the main jam is rather awkward and doesn’t flow as smoothly as the Dark Stars before and after. It shows some of the teething troubles the Dead had incorporating the new thematic jams into Dark Star.
https://archive.org/details/gd1969-10-25.sbd.miller.flac1644 (22.02)
 
11/2/69 
 
A week later, the Dead are on another level in one of the best Dark Stars of the year. This time the recording’s closer to mono (with drums & some organ on the sides), but this doesn’t hurt – there’s a dreamlike magical feel here, as if the band are merely vessels transmitting music from a celestial realm.
The intro jam is incredibly graceful, with Lesh in a very melodic mood. Garcia pauses for a bit at the start before coming in, and throughout the opening he leaves a lot of space in his playing. There’s a sense of meditative grandeur like they’re at prayer in a cathedral. Constanten is given a lot of room to play in and the organ’s ghostly whine suffuses the jam, twining around the guitars like vines. A shaker adds a quiet beat. After a few minutes they reach a beautiful intense climax based around repeating notes from Garcia. Then, de-escalating in a little stream of notes, they coast gently to a quiet stretch; after the theme comes in they just hover in place, Garcia laying out as the band floats motionlessly in a long pause; theme fragments bob up, the gong quietly washes in, and finally the theme returns in an astonishing drawn-out descent to the verse.  
The mood of peaceful calmness continues after the verse as the band promptly fades out into space beneath bubbling bass notes. Space stretches for a couple of minutes, random weird noises from all the instruments puncturing the void until they swell into a feedback crescendo. Garcia hints at a return to regular music with little runs, but the gloomy bass drones continue. Quietly Garcia slips in the Sputnik arpeggio under Lesh’s cello bows; the whole band joins in and it expands into a spirited swirling Sputnik jam, the first full version since 8/23.
From here they move into an oddly syncopated passage while Constanten whistles cheerfully. Kreutzmann & Hart lay down a beat (drums and wood taps) and the tempo gradually picks up speed, the jam finding a groove and building momentum. Lesh starts the Feelin’ Groovy line, which fits in smoothly with a triumphant feel; this time Garcia tackles it happily. In a lull, Lesh hints at the yet-unplayed Uncle John’s bassline (they’d played the UJB jam the day before but it didn’t have this part yet). But Feelin’ Groovy gains new strength and rolls on joyously for a couple more minutes. When it comes to a natural end, Garcia starts up the Soulful Strut chords right away and they sail into the Latin groove with claves & organ chirps. Weir takes the first solo here Easy Wind-style while Garcia plays the chords! Then they trade and Garcia takes over the lead, both drummers rattling along until the theme slowly trickles out to the tinkle of cymbals.
Then the band slowly drifts on two chords for a minute, the mood relaxed and blissful, not quite returning to Dark Star until Garcia brings up the theme. As the band glides into that, Garcia quickly shifts to an intensely joyful Bright Star which ends on a repeated bent note, transitioning beautifully back to the main theme again.
Hart can be heard quietly jingling bells during the outro. The Family Dog audience may be laid-back but they still muster up a few cheers once St. Stephen starts.

11/7/69 
 
Another one of my personal favorites. The intro jam is in the same vein as 11/2, though shorter and a little less graceful. The mix is much the same, except the organ is more distant and Garcia’s guitar more echoed, so it has more of a recessed mystical sound. Garcia plays in the same sweet, spacious style, invoking the muse; but Lesh is being a little pushier with his bass tonight. They reach the main theme after four minutes, and it seems like they’ll go straight to the verse, but Garcia reconsiders and plays another short solo before settling down for the verse six minutes in.
The breakdown into space is a little more clumsy and heavy-handed tonight. They don’t linger long in silence – space quickly progresses from Garcia’s gong-tolling sounds to an alarming little feedback freakout to swift volume swells and organ squiggles. As space continues, Garcia cautiously drops in little fragments of melody. They drift through the gloom led by questioning bass, drumtaps, and swirls of organ; finally they reach shore with climactic bass chords and a buzzing tone from Garcia.
They quickly embark on a fast-paced jam marked by prodding bass, crashing gong, and cymbal taps. The guitars are soon raring to take off and get tangled up in their haste while Lesh lays down some brusque chords. A lot of impatient energy is coming out, but they pause and Garcia starts over more deliberately. He soon heads in a new direction in a kind of blues-raga solo with low-note drones, a rare technique for him. Weir & Lesh build on this droning dark vibe in a pounding heavy-metallish attack not quite like anything in Dark Star before. After a minute they jump into a twisted Dark Star theme continuing the aggressive, surly feel. Before long this turns into a very heavy Feelin’ Groovy jam with Lesh slamming down the bass notes. The mood is totally different from 11/2, sheer intensity. The theme suddenly ends, but after questing ahead for a minute, Garcia just as suddenly starts the Uncle John’s Band instrumental. Everyone else hops aboard – they zip through it sloppily and the mood lightens. But within a couple minutes it’s cut short by a tapecut.
After a quick tapeflip, the music resumes apparently not long afterward. The Dead are in full flight, carrying on from the end of the UJB jam in a beautiful variation which Garcia unexpectedly turns into Bright Star through a simple twist of notes. This only lasts a short thrilling moment though, as they sloppily drop back to the theme. Things are getting really ragged, and after some drift Garcia makes another attempt at an ending with some lovely improvising on the theme. They make another rough landing with tumbling drums, and finally settle down for the verse. Instead of the usual segue to St. Stephen they do a count-in to a Cryptical>Other One suite, to the audience’s delight.
Not approaching the pristine perfection of 11/2, this is a more raw & intense bass-driven take with a sloppy but spellbinding second half that’s just as amazing in its own way.
 
11/8/69 
 
Dark Star captivates immediately with an intricate, swirling opening jam. Garcia’s playing is evocative and understated as Lesh & Weir sensitively develop the theme. Shaker and organ are up in the mix, and Constanten weaves a ghostly web around the band. The music is softly probing until they reach a wistful little chord progression that segues easily to the main theme, pushed along by cymbals. Once again the intro jam is dense but not that long, with Garcia singing the verse little more than five minutes in. He sounds very melancholy in the verse, a change from the more emphatic singing of earlier months.
With an ominous rattle the music disintegrates into a swift puddle of chaos and vanishes. Space ensues – quietly drifting bass & organ, waves of gong & percussive taps, guitar squeaks & scrapes, volume swells & odd chords, random pluckings. The Sputnik motif emerges from the gloaming, rising in volume until it becomes a clattering outburst of noise. But the frenzy is brief: after a minute Garcia embarks on a regular jam, picking out a stream of notes. The jam is scattered at first as the band takes a little while to cohere, but Hart’s claves & Kreutzmann’s drums add a rhythm and a lurching groove is created. Lesh kicks the band into a quick, loose Feelin’ Groovy jam, but this ends within a minute. Then after a short drift, Lesh insistently pushes the band into a forceful, pell-mell Other One as the gong crashes.
The mid-jam transition to the Other One had also been done back on 6/22 and 7/12; but this time it’s not the end of Dark Star. As the Other One wraps up, it sounds like they’re going to do the second verse, but instead at the last minute Garcia veers away in a quasi-Dark Star/Other One direction. After the band collides in a brutish pileup, Garcia jauntily brings back the Dark Star theme in a refreshing reprise. This is the first time they’ve wrapped another song inside Dark Star. The jam’s getting wild, and as they race ahead Lesh & Weir quickly push it in an Uncle John’s direction. Garcia belatedly joins them for a smooth, upbeat UJB instrumental reading. It’s done faster than the day before, but is tamer & more controlled, and after one runthrough Garcia wants to move on. As the others hang onto the UJB rhythm he exits back to the theme and they gradually slow down in a percussive tumble, with a few final pretty flourishes from Garcia before the verse.
This is a Dark Star in a hurry, with the Dead anxious to try out other jams. There’s not that much actual Dark Star jamming here as they switch to different themes in the second part. So this version is distinctive not so much by itself but for its role in the overall suite. Including another song inside Dark Star was a bold step but would remain very rare thereafter. Uncle John’s Band wouldn’t resurface until it was a finished song a month later, and would never be connected to Dark Star again.
Released on Dick’s Picks 16.
 
12/4/69 
 
This recording has problems. As one copy of the show warns, “This is one of the more muffled and hissy master cassette SBDs from the '69 era. It sounds like there could be several analog generations in the lineage, though the lack of crisp sound quality might mostly be attributed to the master, which is reportedly degraded.” Nonetheless, it’s still listenable, and some surprises await within the murky depths of Dark Star…
Lesh is boisterous from the start, which comes out in this bass-heavy mix. Constanten is very prominent throughout and his warbly lines & chords seem to take a leading role, as this is one of his loudest appearances of this period. Weir’s guitar, on the other hand, is totally inaudible at the beginning – in fact I don’t think he even plays for the first five minutes! (The tapecut before Dark Star may omit the explanation for this.) Kreutzmann is on the drums from the start, which is unusual, giving the intro some extra snap. Due to Weir’s absence & the drumming, the opening jam sounds almost like a Hartbeats jam with organ.
Garcia oddly starts out playing chords (replacing the missing Weir) and doesn’t step into the lead for a minute. He seems restrained, and soon retreats to a looping lick that he keeps repeating. His playing stays tentative for a while, and the band seems to withdraw into quiet brooding introspection, but at 5:30 Weir shows up at last. Immediately there’s a little more life in the music, and they go directly to the main theme. Garcia’s not ready for the verse yet, so the jam spacily wanders off again. Nothing much happens for the next minute as Garcia retreats to the background – the others try returning to the theme, but Weir is so glaringly out of tune he has to drop out and retune, leaving the bass & organ to carry on by themselves for a bit. At this point it’s almost reminiscent of the Woodstock performance, with a subdued band almost out of action as soon as they’ve started!  
But once Garcia, Weir & Kreutzmann become engaged again, they recover nicely, finally raising some intensity on a repeating lick from Garcia that turns into an almost-Bright Star-like passage. Garcia uses some ugly chords to divert the band into a choppy new jam that seems to wander far afield from Dark Star. He resists returning to the song and they drift off in quietly morose chording; then he even pulls in some country-style fingerpicking totally removed from the normal stylistic range of Dark Star. Finally he switches back to the main theme (to everyone’s evident relief), and the verse follows, 14 minutes into the jam.  
Afterwards they soon dissolve into feedback (beautifully harmonized by Constanten) and launch into a lush, billowy space. Filled with organ, feedback, gong, and volume swells, it’s almost peaceful and New Age-ish. They get quieter over a few minutes until Garcia bursts out with a few expectant notes over the organ swirls & gong crashes. Lesh & Weir awake from their slumber and are ready to greet a new jam. Garcia points the way and the jam soon heats up in a churning flow (just guitars, organ & gong at first). After a pause they resume with Kreutzmann drumming & Hart on claves, sounding like they’re about to go into Feelin’ Groovy.
But instead, Lesh & Constanten start a Dark Star theme variation, with the organ emphasizing the chords. (This kind of chordal Dark Star jam is actually quite rare in Dark Star.) Their odd rhythm seems to throw off the guitars and Garcia recedes, only playing occasional notes for a while. But after a couple of minutes Garcia & Weir find their way in: the jam gets hotter, the drums get louder, the playing becomes spiky & forceful. Then Garcia dramatically dives into the main theme with a heavy drone (similar to 11/7) – this turns into a short, lurching Bright Star and he returns to the theme motif with a drawn-out final note. The band settles into the theme, the staggered rhythm of the jam still carrying over. The second verse has Hart on drums rather than gong. Garcia screws up the outro, then goes into High Time instead of St. Stephen (perhaps a sign that he’s not feeling confident).  
A very unusual Dark Star. After a protracted intro jam in which they start without Weir and almost seem to lose interest in Dark Star altogether, by the last ten minutes they recover with a unique jam. Although this is perhaps not the most likeable Dark Star, I’m impressed that they avoid playing any of the regular thematic jams they’ve been doing and even introduce different styles to the mix. The remaining Dark Stars this month will be considerably shorter.
(The channels are switched on this copy, but I prefer the sound of this remaster to the more muffled older source and the heavily sound-reduced newer source.
 
12/11/69 
 
Bear’s recording is mostly in mono, with only Kreutzmann’s drums over in one channel and the band sounding crammed together in the shadows. (Amazingly, the AUD sounds identical to the SBD; other than the vocal level & the drum placement, it’s hard to tell any difference.)
Lesh is very bouncy in the intro jam, while Garcia is rather understated. Constanten drapes a curtain of shimmering organ in the back. A shaker keeps up a steady patter, and congas can faintly be heard. The opening is short and energetic: they get to the main theme in a couple of minutes, carry on with a little more jamming, then head to the verse less than four minutes in.
The music slurs and melts into space, Lesh pushing the band over the edge. Tonight’s space is very quiet and restrained, a sound sculpture that stretches over several minutes. They drift through Garcia’s quiet gong-tolling, some rattling congas, volume swells, bits of feedback, hissing organ, spacy sounds & random plucks. The organ swells like a spaceship taking off, then they fall back to quietness. Garcia’s Sputnik arpeggio slowly emerges from the depths of space, gathers form, and develops into a brief, eerie full-band Sputnik passage, cymbals crashing.
Within a minute they use the momentum to launch into a jubilant jam. (No slow build this time.) Right away this turns into a quick Feelin’ Groovy jam, Kreutzmann drumming and Hart tapping the claves - the rhythm has straightened out by now into its regular shape. After a few minutes it transforms into a Dark Star-themed jam (impossible to tell where Feelin’ Groovy ends & Dark Star begins). The mood is cheerful and content, but after a while they have to work more at sustaining it. They pause uncertainly and settle into a simple but distinctive two-chord motif. Garcia leads them to a storming climax, rounded out by a rather perfunctory Bright Star finale before they fall back to the theme and second verse.
This is a pretty standard but very upbeat & satisfying version, which shifts quickly from a long low-key Space to happy rock music.
https://archive.org/details/gd69-12-11.sbd-aud.cotsman.8998.sbeok.shnf (AUD – all the Archive sources come from the same AUD tape)  
Released on Dave’s Picks 10 bonus disc. (20:12)
 
12/20/69 
 
Long considered to be a lost Dark Star, this finally came to light when the missing reel was discovered in 2012. It’s another mostly-mono recording by Bear (the drums are slightly separated), with the bass the loudest, leaving the band cramped for space. The intro jam has a relaxed ebb & flow and feels like a drifting stream, gentle but insistently rhythmic, with some light percussion from shaker & congas. Four minutes in, they climb to an intense peak, then drop into the main theme. (There’s an audience shout of appreciation.) Garcia plays around with the low notes in a little counterpoint with the bass, then delivers the verse.
There’s a quick dissolve to an ambient Space, which lasts about four minutes and is quite atmospheric. They fade to quiet volume swells, trickles of organ, gong & cymbal taps, string quiverings & scrapings, glorious cello-like feedback. A loud organ wash crashes and recedes, leaving silence in its wake. In the aftermath, the bass gently pulses and Garcia starts a Sputnik-like figure which soon picks up momentum and changes into the opening of a jaunty new jam.
The claves start up and the band gathers round Garcia’s plucky lead, sounding off-kilter at first but settling after a couple of minutes into a steadier rhythmic flow. Once they find firm ground they launch into a blissful Feelin’ Groovy jam. This only lasts a couple more minutes before breaking up with no clear path forward, but the band quietly putters ahead, meandering around in a pleasant open-ended jam. Garcia gathers his strength with one repeating bent note and suddenly bursts out with a Bright Star passage, leading the band in a lightning climax that eases back into the main theme. Garcia lingers a minute on an oddly syncopated, descending theme counterpoint before the last verse. The Fillmore crowd sounds like they’re anticipating the shift to St. Stephen.
Another great but standard performance – it follows much the same path as 12/11, but is still very satisfying.
Released on Dave’s Picks 6.
 
12/26/69   
 
Weir has to change a string before Dark Star, so while they wait Lesh asks the audience, “Can’t you people reach over and fondle the person next to you and create a little excitement in here? Grope a little! – I mean, it’s dark.” Garcia is a little unnerved by the quiet audience: “Man, this place is really quiet, no kidding; are you people all sitting in the dark watching us goof around up here? It’s not like we’re doing something important, you know. Not that important…if it was that important we wouldn’t do it!” Then they proceed with Dark Star.
Bear has rediscovered stereo at last and the recording is much more spacious. The intro jam is very happy-sounding, an elegant dance between guitars, bass & organ (and a little shaker). They introduce the theme early on and the jam becomes more intense, pushed on by an insistent Lesh and a buoyant Garcia. Then suddenly they quiet down for a moment of fragile grace – returning to the theme, Lesh spins them out into a quiet, delicate little space, suspended in the air with Garcia’s volume-swells and muted gong…then they gently return to the theme and the verse, six minutes in. Garcia’s singing in the verse is getting ever softer and more uncertain.
The dissolution is dramatic and tuneful, Lesh melting the Dark Star notes into goo as Space sweeps in. Tonight’s Space is shorter (about 3 minutes) and has an ominous mood: feedback, reverberating gong, mysterious creakings, finishing with distorted bass accompanying Garcia’s volume swells. Once again, Garcia signals the way out by quietly starting Sputnik under the bass drones, the band quickly swirling around him. But this passage lasts less than a minute – much like on 12/20, it doesn’t turn into full-fledged Sputnik weirdness but serves to open up a brisk jam. They tumble into a headlong, upbeat jam, Garcia & Lesh prodding ahead while Weir fits in chord arpeggios giving it a more brooding flavor. (Kreutzmann’s drumming, Hart taps the claves & Constanten adds chirpy accents.)
As they continue, Weir drops in the Feelin’ Groovy chords when the others aren’t ready, catching them off-guard, but they adjust quickly and deliver a fast Feelin’ Groovy jam that’s over within a minute. In a bouncy segue, Lesh switches to Soulful Strut – this is more to everyone’s liking and they tear into it fiercely, both drummers joining in & the organ sailing the wave. Garcia steps back after a couple of minutes and lets Weir take the lead in a role reversal. (Soulful Strut is just about the only place in Dark Star where Weir’s played lead solos, but he’s improved since the last time.)
As this winds down, Garcia guides them back to the Dark Star framework in a rough transition. For a couple of minutes they’re sort of playing both jams at once, half Soulful Strut & half Dark Star, an interesting blend they don’t hurry to resolve as the music practically beams with joy. Lesh is in high spirits, and finally he stomps back into the Dark Star theme at a peak moment. Garcia tries slowing down and playing a half-speed Bright Star over their pell-mell pace, which doesn’t quite come off, so he just returns to the main theme instead in a smooth shift. He ends the jam with a few fast runs in a final flourish, sounding briefly like he might be considering another run at Bright Star, but instead he sings the last verse.
The tape cuts off after “while we can,” and comes back in the middle of New Speedway Boogie – there’s no telling what the transition might have been.
This is a party Dark Star without much spaciness, instead giving way to uplifting rock & roll jams. There’s a rough-edged jubilant quality here which makes this an appealing version.
 
12/30/69 
 
Dark Star starts off with a bang, as a gong or cymbal crashes in the intro (a surprisingly rare effect). The band seems revved-up; Garcia sounds very snappy; the guiro is prominent (the organ less so). But they calm down and soon fall into a hypnotic pretty spot. After a brief increase of intensity, they subside into a quiet spell as Garcia taps & volume-swells his guitar. They stay in a mysterious quiet melodic zone for several minutes – the playing is almost tender, and the low-volume ‘prelude’ feeling anticipates 2/13/70. When the main theme finally comes round, Garcia doesn’t linger or zigzag as he often does, but goes straight to the verse, seven minutes in.
They fade quietly into space; along with ringing the gong, Hart is also jingling bells, a nice touch! For a couple of minutes they hover near silence, with subdued hums and chimes casting a dim glow. Gradually things get noisier with clangs, bass thumps, scrapings & random notes. An eerie backwards tune works its way in, then the bass swells into feedback and they dive into a noisy feedback interlude (sounding more like the climactic end of a show). Garcia enters his quiet Sputnik arpeggio, which has become the typical ending to space. It sucks the rest of the band in, but once they heat up Garcia brings it to a close – this is more of a bridge or transitional theme now.
The regular jam starts, loose and searching at first, and slowly finds form – Kreutzmann taps along on drums, the organ swirls, the guiro scratches. It’s very melodic, but for a few minutes they stay uncommitted to a regular theme, shifting from one pattern to another without resolving. Then Weir wants to do Feelin’ Groovy, and the others give in, sliding into it in a very relaxed way. After a casual run-through, soon they slide out again into a new progression, and for a minute they create a lovely on-the-fly jam, kind of a variation on Feelin’ Groovy. It doesn’t last long though, they don’t feel like settling down there; Garcia starts a quiet, drifting low-key chord progression with Lesh at his side. They go into a simple, beautiful tune…and then the tape cuts. It comes back at the tail end of Alligator.
There’s a serious amount of music missing here. Even assuming they went straight to the second verse from there (which I doubt) and then transitioned to Alligator, that’s at least 7-8 minutes cut. I think there were probably several more minutes of jamming at the end of Dark Star; almost invariably they bring it to a big climax and a Bright Star finale, and most likely they did here too. (And there may also have another song before Alligator.) It’s one of the saddest cuts in Dark Star, since that last minute is so lovely and evocative, carrying on the mood of quiet tranquility from the opening jam. 
Even as low-energy and incomplete as it is, this is still a strong finish to the year.

1/2/70 
 
Weir announces, “We’ll give you some easy-listening music.” Dark Star follows. This recording from the Fillmore East is much better than the tapes from the last couple of months; the sound is clearer than any Dark Star since 10/25/69, with a wider stereo spread and full guitar tones. The guiro and organ are loud in the mix – Constanten’s tone is particularly warbly, and this tape is a good place to hear his late style as he’s isolated to the side.
After the start, Garcia lays back for a minute before tentatively coming in. They gradually settle into a groove, touch on the theme, and detour away. There’s a little touch of cymbal; the gong sneaks in during a quiet stretch, and they return to the theme; then Garcia sits out for a minute again as the others vamp along on the theme. He comes back and sings the verse at 7 minutes. This intro jam sounds very cautious and restrained, especially on Garcia’s part.
They drop right off into Space, a long stretch of minimalist near-silence, punctuated by Hart’s quiet chimes, little plucks, background noises & ambient stirrings. It’s an abstract sonic painting, like a wind blowing through dark woods. The volume rises after a few minutes with blasts of gong & organ, beeps, feedback, string scrapes & sound effects. Then after nearly six minutes of space, Garcia starts a quiet little arpeggio under the buzzing that fades in and out. Weir & Constanten join him for a skeletal Sputnik jam, lasting a couple of minutes and sounding rather stark and eerie with shades of feedback. After this fades, they drift into a spacy, aimless realm again as the cymbals hiss and isolated notes echo.
Garcia starts a line to Kreutzmann’s drumtaps & Hart’s claves, but the music remains sparse and soon dies away again. Lesh comes in and lays down a tentative rhythm, then suddenly the feeling of uncertainty clears as they jump on a chord progression they all know. In an instant they’re playing much louder, a rock band again. The theme is similar to Feelin’ Groovy – calm, uplifting, anthemic. Garcia sounds ready to hop into China Cat, but when Lesh starts the actual Feelin’ Groovy line, Garcia instead takes a turn into a Chuck Berry-style counter-melody which turns into…Cosmic Charlie! The others follow him in this surprise twist, but it remains just a tease, and the jam trickles out again to just bass & percussion for a moment. Weir brings up Soulful Strut and they step into that, a spirited heavy-hitting take with both drummers. After a few minutes Garcia steps back to let Weir take the lead (as on 11/2 & 12/26/69), but not for long – after Weir rambles around for a bit, Garcia surges forward with high dramatics. The Soulful Strut jam comes to an end with both Garcia & Weir playing chords, then the band returns to the main Dark Star theme. It seems like the jam might go further but they pull back without going into Bright Star – however, Garcia pulls out his long-forgotten “falling star” lick as a muted finale before the home stretch to the verse.
A grand welcome to 1970 with the Dead’s longest Dark Star yet (and it would remain the longest for two more years). The first half is very quiet and understated, but then they rebound with a mighty jam touching on many themes.
Released on Dave’s Picks 30.
 
1/17/70
Back to a more typical tour recording, with the guitars crammed together and the organ very low in the mix. Constanten can barely be heard on this tape, but he’s noticeable now and then. (Congas appear at the start, which has been rare lately.) The intro jam is muscular and energetic, already reaching a peak two minutes in. After hovering around one note, they dramatically hit the theme. They don’t dance around it as usual; Garcia goes straight for the verse, less than four minutes in. This will be a condensed Dark Star.
The music breaks apart in a flurry after the verse, and they enter a half-minute of almost total silence. Small noises emerge, and Garcia does some quiet bell-tolling sounds on guitar, which give rise to loud, luscious feedback. Eerie sound effects follow: scrapes, squiggles, gong crashes, and threatening bass pulses. As they teeter on the edge of musical coherency, Garcia starts his faint Sputnik arpeggio. The others get sucked into it as it grows in volume to a full, jagged Sputnik swirl. It only lasts a short time, then they flow easily into a peppy new jam.
The mood is hot and aggressive, Kreutzmann drumming hard and the music pouring out. Lesh pushes them into a Feelin’ Groovy jam with Hart on claves, but they only go through a few passes before moving on. The jam continues in a melodic vein, sticking close to the Dark Star theme for a few minutes. Garcia keeps getting more excited, the drummers pile on, and the band plays faster, harder, grungier until they burst into a flaming Bright Star passage. This comes to a stomping climax, and they round it off with an unusual chord flourish at the end before settling back in the main theme, carefully returning to the verse.
An excellent fast-paced, high-energy Dark Star that flows well and rocks hard but still makes time for a trip to deep distant space.
 
 
 
To be continued....