Blair’s Golden Road Blog - "Dark Star crashes..."
By Blair Jackson
In my last blog, about audience tapes, I casually mentioned that the “Dark Star” from the 1/10/79 Nassau concert was my favorite of all the post-hiatus (i.e. post-’74) versions. This led to a few people respectfully disagreeing with that position in emails to me. One pledged allegiance to the 7/13/84 Greek Theater encore version, two advocated for the 10/26/89 Miami meltdown, and the fourth listed both 12/31/78 (closing of Winterland, just 10 days before the Nassau version) and 10/31/91 (featuring Ken Kesey and Quicksilver’s Gary Duncan, following Bill Graham’s death).
I like all those other versions to varying degrees (I saw the Greek one live, so it has a special place in my heart), but each of them is so different from the others. More than any other song in the Dead canon, “Dark Star” was so mutable, one version to the next, one era to the next. So, what one person likes in a “Dark Star” another might not. It’s not like “Scarlet” > “Fire” or “Jack Straw” or “Shakedown Street” where most of us would probably agree on what the best versions are. Do you like your “Dark Star” flowy and dreamy? Spacey and dissonant? Based strongly around the main theme, or exploring odd tangents?
As I have noted, I am a child of Live Dead. It’s the album that got me into the Dead in late ’69/early ’70, before I saw my first show in March ’70. For me, the “Dark Star” on Live Dead (from 2/27/69, I learned many years later) defined the song for me, and as a result I’ve always had a soft spot for the churning ’69 versions, which can be fairly similar (there are particular riffs and mini-jams they hit in many of them), but which have a certain momentum that I really love. Most of them never break down all the way rhythmically or dissolve into abstract noise. Most are complete unto themselves, with both verses—though the 11/8/69 Fillmore West version captured on Dick’s Picks 16 brilliantly carves up “Dark Star” with inserts of “The Other One” and a proto-“Uncle John’s Band” jam. The short and fast early ones from 1968 don’t do much for me, but by the fall of that year the song is well on its way to becoming the fantastic, elastic, trans-dimensional space vehicle that blasted off in the winter of ’69.
By the time I saw my first couple of live versions of “Dark Star,” it had already morphed considerably from the Live Dead template. Listen to ones from 1970 and you often find that following the first verse, the song would essentially stop, and out of the nothingness might come feedback, gong flourishes, random guitar blips, bleeps and volume-knob fluctuations, and assorted craziness. Rhythm and melody would soon be re-established and other touchstone jams usually would emerge, such as the so-called “Feeling Groovy” jam and what follows it on the legendary 2/13/70 (Dick’s Picks 4) version.
The addition of Keith Godchaux’s piano to the mix beginning in the fall of ’71 marks the next major shift in the song’s evolution, and I know many Dead Heads cherish the multitude of versions played from late ’71 through ’74 above all others. Of course that encompasses the 11 played during the Europe ’72 tour, each unique in its own way, and all riveting. (My personal taste leans toward the more rhythmic, less cacophonous excursions— Bickershaw and Rotterdam being my E72 favorites these days.) I love what the piano added to “Dark Star” during this era, and the quintet as a whole had a confidence and swing that drove the song to so many cool spaces. I never get tired of the “Dark Star” from Dick’s Picks 36 (9/21/72 Philly) nor the one from Dick’s Picks 28 (2/26/73 Lincoln, Neb.). And when I and 5,000 others had our minds blown by the “Dark Star” > “Morning Dew” on 10/18/74 (Winterland), none of us suspected that “Dark Star” was about to go on a hiatus that would far exceed the band’s own break.
I’ve never heard a good explanation of why the Dead didn’t play “Dark Star” when they returned to the road in 1976. Can you imagine what the versions they might have come up with in that peak year of ’77? Whoa! They brought it back for that final night at Winterland in 78, doled out two in January ’79, and then just two—12/31/81 Oakland and the ’84 Greek one—until it was revived in earnest in the fall of ’89 (released versions include the reintroduction in Hampton, Va., 10/9/89, on the Formerly the Warlocks box set and the one from the Meadowlands in Jersey, 10/16/89, on Nightfall of Diamonds).
No doubt Garcia’s fascination with the many new timbres and textures he could get out of his guitar because of his electronic MIDI setup was a major factor in his decision to bring “Dark Star” back—it became a natural playground for his sonic experiments. But I’m not sure Jerry ever committed to most of the ’89-’94 versions (it turned up at 31 shows in that period) with the same intensity and purposefulness he brought to “Dark Star” in the late ’60s/early ’70s. That may be in part because in those earlier days there was no formalized “drums” and “space” segment, so “Dark Star,” “The Other One” (and, on occasion, “Playing in the Band”) became the places they could get free-form and weird. On a lot of the late versions, they would play a relatively brief jam around the familiar “Dark Star” theme, and then it would quickly degenerate into “space”—and that “space” usually wasn’t much different from their regular nightly mid-second-set forays. So, in that way, “Dark Star” lost some of the luster it had in earlier eras. Also, I always felt Jerry was vaguely uncomfortable singing it later on; I couldn’t tell you why.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it was totally thrilling that they revived “Dark Star.” It was always sheer bliss to hear that familiar opening (live or on tape), experience that moment with the crowd, or find the band coming back to it later in the set, if only briefly, or simply playing around the theme and not singing the words, as they did a few times during the Bruce Hornsby era (6/17/91, anyone?). Bruce loved to tease “Dark Star,” and most of the full-on versions he was a part of were very cool. The times Branford Marsalis joined the Dead for “Dark Star” (3/29/90 at Nassau, 12/31/90 in Oakland) were truly dynamic, and nearly every version in the modern era had at least some transcendent moments.
This far down the line from the end of the Grateful Dead, I still find it instantly transporting to hear that riff played by Furthur or Phil & Friends or anyone who tackles it. It always means we’re going some place unexpected.
Do you have favorite eras and versions of “Dark Star”? How about post-Jerry? Or do you believe, as some do, that “Dark Star” was/is overrated?
The Dark Star's with Tom Constanten are the best in my opinion, listening to live dead night after night with the head phones on in high school was one of the reasons I got into the Dead. There sound changed once he left and the song was never quite as riveting, always appreciated, but did not have the same energy as the late 68 through 69 versions.
It was the very last song I needed to overcome as a fan to turn in the ticket. (All in) I thought for quite a long time that the song was aimless and without focus. Come hither young one. Tis the reason. I get it. Thanks guys. Fare Thee Well!!
i do believe that dark star is over rated. it's an over-rated dead song. it was good in the '69 through early seventies period then .... it wasn't good any more. it's not such an interesting song.
and in the modern era, hearing phil sing any part of it, in any arrangement, is pain.
Some of my favourites tend to slip under the radar a bit:
- 28 February '69 - bubbling, brewing, threatening, darker than the previous night
- 27 April '69 - maybe one of the last "Fillmore West-style" versions?
- 2 February '70 - I've liked this one for a long time...it's so pretty
- 24 June '70 - the transition from Sugar Magnolia back to Dark Star is one of my favourite moments of Grateful Dead synergy
- 17 September '70 - a monster hiding on a not-very-good tape
- 31 July '71 - a standout version in a year of, in my opinion, vastly differing Dark Stars
- 20 September '90 - a magnificent post-drumz second set jam
In other words, there's no pattern but I to tend to prefer the lyrical, sweeter versions over the cacophonous, dissonant versions. That being said, the 1970 versions with the terrifying periods of near-silence are always good fun!
I don't have a fraction of the Dark Star compendium in my collection as referred to by countless others above me. I can say the Live Dead is my template. That said, I was at the Hampton Coliseum that night in '89. I disctinctly remember recognizing the version as less inspired than I hoped a 'reunion' might be. That said, I also distinctly remember a very odd but real occurence... the four notes of the intro...doo doot doo dooooo. I literally shot out of my chair, arms thrust overhead, and howling like never, ever, before...clearly several seconds BEFORE my brain actually made the computations to identify it as Dark Star.
I have to also say the crowd's response was phenomenal...transcenedent...multi-dimensional.
Thanks for asking!
I was at this one and this show was a life changer. I will never forget looking up at the gold lame ceiling of Fillmore West feeling like a spaceship had taken off in the middle of itm as the music swirled... It felt like Jerry and Phil, in particular, were channeling something from above, propelling each other to higher heights. A great version that coulda just as easily been on Live Dead...
For me, Dark Star is very hit-or-miss. The closest I came to hearing it at a Grateful Dead concert was at Soldier Field 1991 with constant teases from the keyboard section during the middle of set two. I found it rather annoying that they never broke into it and just kept teasing it out-- it seemed like forever before they actually played the next song. It did not work for me at all-- took two years off of shows after that one.
On cds, I like certain era Dark Stars, especially 1969-70. My favorite is the Two From the Vault Dark Star and I am finding that I prefer versions where they stay within the song a bit more instead of drifting too far off the melody. The Fillmore 69 versions of course are stellar. There are some great jams in the Europe 72 Dark Stars that I have purchased, but sometimes I get bored with where they go. I always liked the 12-31-78 Dark Star (again, a concise version). I need to revisit that 2/13/70 version on Dicks Picks, haven't listened to it in some time.
Being a Deahead of the 87-95 years who did not see any of the usually noted Dark Stars, of that era, live, I have a few good ones I witnessed to throw out there.
7/12/90 RFK Stadium, Washington D.C. - both verses with a long and powerful jam in the middle during a steady rain.
3/20/92 Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, Ontario - power set with a Shakedown and an Other One, too.
12/12/92 Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, CA - in a mellow and spacey show, the song follows suit.
You think I'm planting subliminal messages in my postings? Not a bad idea, actually... But of course I have NO comment about your DP3 theory... We'll let you sweat it out a little longer...
Since no one has tossed this comment into the mix, I might as well. I seem to recall Blair's article about the GD Video in an MTV age, just before the announcement of the All The Years Combine Box. And now we have Dark Star crashes, with the announcement of Dave's Picks Volume Three (hopefully) coming soon. And so, the searchlight is casting- perhaps even asking- Shall we go?