We have arrived at the 50th anniversary of some of the greatest live rock music ever recorded, the four night run at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Cosmic.
Last night’s opening show 2/27/69 produced the iconic “Dark Star”, which was the opening of the album Live/Dead, released 11/10/69. Hearing that for the first time at the end of 1969 was quite an experience.
Even the New York Times commemorated the occasion. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/27/opinion/grateful-dead-dark-star-anniversary.html
From the authoritative Deadheads Taping Compendium Vol I, published in 1998:
These four nights at Market and Van Ness stand as a landmark of sorts in the canon of live Dead performances. In the nineties, it is hard to imagine a four night run during which both “Dark Star” > “Saint Stephen” > “The Eleven” and “The Other One” would be played every night, but that’s exactly what happened during this run. One or both of the middle nights of the stand, February 28 and March 1, are on many tapers top-ten lists, and the Thursday show gave us the archetypypal “Dark Star” > “Saint Stephen” that made it onto Live/Dead. Whether it was the phases of the moon, the outstanding billing in which they were paired with British folk stars Pentagle and the Sir Douglas Quintet, or the knowledge that the shows were being recorded for a live album, the band performed at the top of their game for four nights running.
In 2005, Grateful Dead Productions released the 10 CD set Fillmore West 1969 The Complete Recordings. Now we can hear everything that transpired. https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Every-single-note-of-Dead-s-famous-4-night-run-is-2574874.php The second set of last night’s February 27 show, opened with “Dupree’s Diamond Blues”, then it gets serious. The transition from “Mountains of the Moon” is sheer magic. Garcia sings “Mountains of the Moon” beautifully, then he plays a lovely driving acoustic solo. You can hear him put down the acoustic guitar and pick up the electric, while the band continues playing. Weir sets forth the Dark Star chords. Lesh starts pounding, and they are off. It soars and it swings. There is nothing quite like it. Garcia’s lines are iconic. There are soft moments and surging ones.
The Deadheads Compendium:
The airy “Dark Star” fades in from the bittersweet melody of the open-ended conclusion of “Mountains of the Moon”, moving into the bewitching extraterrestrial landscape of one of the most elegant “Dark Stars” ever performed. Certainly longer, more intense, and stranger versions exist, but this quietly surreal, relatively slow version, with Garcia’s buttery guitar lines, Phil’s loping bass, and T.C.’s understated keyboards, was an entirely justified choice for the band’s first live album.
The middle part has a chamber music feel rare in this song, thanks in part to Constanten’s baroque improvisations. A particularly sweet vocal on the second verse led into the familiar ascending bass segment that, in a short burst of “Feedback,” led into the muscular, extremely well sung (and occasionally screamed) version of St Stephen, which again is distinguished by T.C.’s swirling organ. At this point, we can only imagine what the rest of this jam might have sounded like.
We no longer need to imagine it. What followed was a great rendition of “The Eleven”, the only pop song in 11/8 time. On Live/Dead, they used “The Eleven” > “Lovelight” from a month earlier, 1/26/69 at the Avalon Ballroom, which is of course epic.
My only quibble with Deadheads would be that Bob Weir’s driving guitar is much more important throughout than Constanten’s organ.
Live/Dead was the subject of a review of sorts by the legendary, obscure J. R. Young in Rolling Stone 2/7/70. https://glorioustrash.blogspot.com/2018/08/jr-young-review-as-fiction.html He wrote his reviews of rock albums as short stories.
According to The Rolling Stone Record Review, this was Young’s most popular story, and I saw one online claim that some editions of Live/Dead came with a slip proclaiming, “Put on the Dead and spread!” This memorable tagline features throughout the story, which is a short one about a trio of young girls named Marsha, Starglow, and Sheila, who when we meet them are “four joints to the cosmos” on “very potent dope.” Sheila’s telling the other two about her latest boyfriend, Real George, who every day after work likes to come home and immediately “ball,” screaming “Put on the Dead, and spread!” This is because, “Real George likes nothing better than to fuck to the Grateful Dead.” Soon enough this very thing happens, Real George ripping off his clothes as he tears into the house, bellowing, “Put on the Dead, and spread, ‘cause I’m loaded and ready to go!” Sheila sheds her own clothes (“She was naked in a jiffy”), puts on a tape of Live/Dead, then rushes into the bedroom with him. The story is goofy and has that fuzzy-freaky vibe I love so much, but it’s pretty short and it’s mostly centered around the tagline, which is repeated several times.
Tonight’s show, Friday 2/28/69, opens with “Morning Dew”. The second set is “The Other One” > “Dark Star” > “Saint Stephen” > “The Eleven” > “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”. I can hardly wait.
The New York Times article has a list of 12 “Dark Stars” starting with 2/27/69.
I asked David Lemieux, the band’s official archivist, how he would describe the significance of the song within the band’s catalog. “It’s a song with endless possibilities,” he said, “and in true Dead fashion, they explored every possibility the ‘Dark Star’ musical landscape allowed. Although there are consensus ‘best versions,’ every single performance is worth exploring.”
Here are 12 classic performances, starting with the best known version, performed 50 years ago today. The next three versions were selected by Mr. Lemieux, the rest by the NYT writer.
1. Fillmore West, San Francisco, Feb. 27, 1969. From the 1969 “Live Dead” album. On the original vinyl, “Dark Star” jammed into “St. Stephen,” and “The Eleven” and “Turn On Your Lovelight.” The live version of the song that began this sequence, “Mountains of the Moon,” was not released until the full four-night run of the Fillmore shows was made available in 2005. Running time: 23:17.
2. Fillmore East, New York City, Feb. 13, 1970. Mr. Lemieux: “This was the first version of ‘Dark Star’ I heard after ‘Live/Dead,’ the highlight of the first box of cassettes I received in 1984. Its melodic upbeat coda is in stark contrast to the primal, psychedelic, orchestrated chaos of 2/27/69 and shows where the Dead were heading. In the age of the Grateful Dead’s foray into Americana, ‘Dark Star’ from 2/13/70 demonstrated that they were still able to pull off improvised, psychedelic/melodic bliss.” Running time: 29:42.
3. Veneta, Ore., Aug. 27, 1972. “On a hot, sunny day near Eugene, Ore., playing in a field to their tribe, the Dead played a ‘Dark Star’ that is about as dynamic as they ever got with this song in this era,” Mr. Lemieux said. “From the smoothness of the opening section of the song to the meltdown, drum-and-bass duet, and its rising-from-the-ashes triumphant return to light, this ‘Dark Star’ is one of the most deep and joyous journeys the Dead ever took.” Running time: 31:40.
4. The Spectrum, Philadelphia, Penn., Sept. 21, 1972. “Similar in structure to 4/8/72, this ‘Dark Star’ has it all, from the psychedelic depths of its earlier incarnations to the jazz-inflected introspective moments, to an ending that is all bouncing and smiles,” Mr. Lemieux said. “It’s versions like this that make me think the band must have even surprised themselves. This is not composed music, but rather improvisation that is as structured as though they’d played this closing a hundred times.” Running time: 37:08.
5. The Family Dog at the Great Highway, San Francisco, Calif., Nov. 2, 1969. Nine months after the “Live Dead” version, the song has become quieter and more reflective. Organist Tom Constanten, known as T.C., is particularly inventive this night; note how he takes the song in a curious direction at about 6:45. Running time: 30:16
6. Fillmore East, New York City, Sept. 19, 1970. This recording begins mournfully. It was the day after the death of Jimi Hendrix. Mid-song, however, things change. Running time: 25:23.
7. Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, N.Y., Feb. 18, 1971. The Dead played a number of legendary shows at this venue; this one jams into the song “Wharf Rat” before evolving again into something later simply described as the “Beautiful Jam.” Running time: 21:42.
8. Wembley Empire Pool, London, April 8, 1972. The band’s spring 1972 tour of Europe was a triumph. This version of the song features the delicate piano of the keyboardist Keith Godchaux. Running time 32:09.
9. Miami Arena, Miami, Oct. 26, 1989. Brent Mydland joined the band as keyboardist in 1979 and gave the Dead a jolt of new energy. This “Dark Star” captures that version of the band, and of the song. Running time: 26:40. [here at BQTA, we don’t do 1980s or 90s]
10. Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland, Calif., Oct. 31, 1991. The band performed on Halloween, in the wake of the death of their friend, the concert promoter Bill Graham. On that occasion, they were joined onstage by the author Ken Kesey, who was himself in mourning over the loss of his son. Midway into the tune, Kesey reads the e e cummings poem “Buffalo Bill’s Defunct.” Running time: 11:06.
11. The Omni, Atlanta, March 30, 1994. The last performance. Garcia sings only the first of the two verses, leaving the song forever unfinished. The weariness in his voice is heartbreaking. Garcia would die of a heart attack 17 months later, on Aug. 9, 1995. Running time: 10:29.
12. No compendium of “Dark Star”s is complete without a version of the original “single” of the song, from 1968. Garcia considered this short version a flop. It’s historically interesting for the banjo riff at the very end, along with the only recording of the lyricist Robert Hunter’s voice on a Grateful Dead record, performing what he called a “word salad” in the final seconds. Running time: 2:44.
The Deadheads Taping Compendium Vol I includes a list of recommended versions of every song through 1974. Here’s their list for “Dark Star”.
- 8/27/72, Old Renaissance Fairgrounds, Veneta, Oregon. (may very well be the most serious— or at least the most out there— psychedelic space exploration by any band ever. It’s downright apocalyptic and it features a hair-raising Phil bass solo. Do not pass go without a copy of this tape);
- 2/13/70, Fillmore East (this is most folks’ favorite, and the “Feelin Groovy Jam” contained within is one of the heavenly melodies ever played the the Dead);
- 2/27/69, Fillmore West (the Live Dead version);
- 9-27-72, Stanley Theater (it goes into “Cumberland Blues”!);
- 4/8/72, Empire Pool, England (next to 2/23/70 this version has some of the prettiest instrumental melodies ever played during “Dark Star”);
- 12/6/73, Cleveland (breaktaking harmonics and “Feedback” by Phil);
- 4/14/72, Tivoli Garden (completely manic— features an aggressive “Feelin Groovy Jam”);
- 7/18/72, Roosevelt Stadium (Jerry plays as though he’s possessed);
- 5/23/72, Lyceum, London, England;
- 5/15/70, Fillmore East (another very pretty “Feelin’ Groovy Jam”);
- 9/10/74, London (a funky “Dark Star”> “Morning Dew”);
- 9/24/72, Waterbury, Conn.;
- 4/22/69, the Ark, Boston,
- 9/19/70, Fillmore East.
Dark star crashes, pouring its light into ashes.
Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis.
Searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion.
Shall we go, you and I while we can?
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?
Mirror shatters in formless reflections of matter.
Glass hand dissolving to ice petal flowers revolving.
Lady in velvet recedes in the nights of goodbye.
Shall we go, you and I while we can?
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?