Sirius XM Dark Star Marathon

Starting at midnight Eastern Time tonight, and continuing until midnight tomorrow night, it’s the Dark Star marathon on the Grateful Dead Channel (Sirius 32, XM 57).

Here are some program notes, adapted from spoken intros by Gary Lambert and David Gans:

4/8/72 Empire Pool, Wembley, England:

I never met a Dark Star I didn’t like. I talked with a lot of fellow music lovers in the course of putting this program together, and pretty much everyone agrees that 1972 was a peak year for the Dead and for Dark Star in particular. This edition of the band had guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh, of course; Bill Kreutzmann was the sole drummer; and pianist Keith Godchaux had been in the band since the fall of 1971. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s health was failing and by this time he wasn’t participating in the extended musical explorations very much; he was off the road altogether after June of ’72.

In a conversation that took place in the Dick’s Picks folder of the old (but still lively) DeadNet Central web site, Florida-based drummer and author Peter Lavezzoli describes the 4/8/72 “Dark Star” this way:

The Wembley Dark Star is an astounding example of the Dead’s unique brand of synergy, one of their finest extended statements of collective improvisation. There are none of the typically identifiable “themes” of this era, other than the Dark Star theme itself. It’s all fresh improv. Garcia leads the way, but mostly by responding to the others. Some of the unexpected harmonic plateaus that the band discovers in the pre-verse jam are completely unique to this Dark Star. There is never a moment where the energy slackens, even in the deeper space segments. This is the group mind at its most tautly focused.

This Dark Star appeared on a limited-edition three-record compilation titled (A Musical Anthology of) Glastonbury Fayre, released in 1972 – even though the Dead did not perform at that summer 1971 event. The complete sequence of “Dark Star,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Caution” can be found on a terrific 4-CD set titled Steppin’ Out with the Grateful Dead: England ’72, released in July of 2002. In a day full of wonderful musical adventures, this one stands out as one of the all-time greats: April 8, 1972 at the Empire Pool in Wembley, England. – David Gans

9/19/70 Fillmore East:

Some important advice regarding the 67-1/2 minute recording from the Filmore East 9/19/70: prepare yourselves for a wild, wild ride. This unreleased Dark Star has that whisper-to-a-scream thing coming out of the first verse; a passage similar to the 2/19/71 jam we named “Beautiful jam” on the boxed set So Many Roads; and some of that descending chord sequence people refer to as the “Feelin’ Groovy” jam.

The sequence that follows this epic Dark Star includes some amazing stuff, including a jam in “Not Fade Away” based on the Youngbloods song “Darkness, Darkness,” that goes immediately into a “China Cat Sunflower” jam. And after one of the randiest, filthiest “Lovelights” you ever heard, you’re going to hear the crowd going absolutely apeshit, even after the lights come up and the house music comes on – the Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” as it happens. Finally you’ll hear Phil and Pigpen come out to deliver a special benediction, the house music comes up again, the Youngbloods song ends – and just for good measure, you’ll hear some guy holler one last “Casey Jones!” into the emptying hall. It’s a great moment. – DG

10/26/89 Miami Arena:

My friend Steve Silberman, co-author of Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads, once characterized the Miami Dark Star of 10/26/89 as “one of the most amazing pieces of late-20th century music of any sort. In the late 1980s the Grateful Dead began using an electronic tool called MIDI, the musical instrument digital interface. Keyboardists had been playing sampled and artificial sounds for many years by then, but it was more of a challenge to create devices that could accurately track the bending of strings and the subtleties of touch that guitarists employed. Once the Dead had that capability, it was possibly for them to, in effect, play any sort of sound that could be recorded or invented. Computer music wizard Bob Bralove had a lot to do with the amazing instrumental voices we heard in the last quarter or so of the Dead’s musical history. Jerry had one sound that Vince Welnick characterized as “hitting a parking peter with a sledge hammer”; Jerry played sounds based on French horns, bassoons, flutes, and so on – and it didn’t sound like a guitar wearing a flue suit, either: he’d phrase things like a flute player, somehow, while still being very much Jerry Garcia.

So this Dark Star, recorded at the Miami Arena on October 26, 1989, is indeed a very effective example of what the Grateful Dead were able to do with the infinitely expanded musical palette that MIDI provided. As Steve Silberman described it, this “Dark Star” (quote) “disperses the melody among guitars, virtual oboes and bassoons, pianos, bass flutes, chimes, bells, kalimbas, typewriters, explosions, steam whistles and industrial alarms.” – DG

11/1/90 Wembley Arena, London:

The 11/1/90 Dark Star comes from a pivotal moment in Grateful Dead history: the band’s European tour in the fall of 1990, which introduced the newly-recruited keyboard duo of Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby to the audience across the pond. “Dark Star” always presented limitless possibilities for collective musical invention, and this one, which took place at the Wembley Arena in London, is a particularly long and rewarding voyage into the unknown, featuring full-on Rhythm Devils and Space segments between the verses of the song. I especially like the post-drums sequence spotlighting Bruce Hornsby’s variations on the Dark Star theme, which call to mind the solo improvisations of one of Bruce’s big influences, the brilliant jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. There’s also some deep, dense and dissonant jamming after the second verse of the song. By the way, all of this was tucked between the halves of “Playing In The Band,” and you might be able to detect vestiges of that tune as the band finds its way into and out of “Dark Star.” – Gary Lambert

6/23/74 Miami Jai-Alai:

In planning for this event, we decided that it was important to present some of these monumental dark stars in their original contexts, with the other music that followed or was intertwined with the band’s most important improvisational vehicle. And we also wanted to feature a few of the great recordings made from the audience. We have Jerry Moore’s audience recording from Miami, Florida on June 23, 1974. This was the year the Dead toured with the “Wall of Sound” PA system that had literally hundreds of speakers and dozens of amplifiers, each instrument going through its own separate signal path and speaker system. It was amazingly clear in every part of the listening environment, and the Grateful Dead made some of the best music of their career at this time, too. This is what the list-makers call a Dark star Jam, because the band wandered off into a Spanish Jam before ever getting to the vocal part of the song. A guy named Wildhare had this to say about 6/23/74 in a discussion on DeadNetCentral: “It starts out very sweetly melodic and then at around the 7:45 mark Jerry hits the weird button and Pandora’s Box pops open. Demented flying monkeys emerge, tentatively at first, but before long they’re flapping around like sonsabitches, cavorting like demented flying monkeys will for the next ten + minutes before the band slides into Spanish Jam.” – DG

10/31/91 Oakland Coliseum Arena:

The band played shows on Halloween 14 times during its 30-year performing career. The confluence of the Dead and this holiday devoted to the celebration of all things weird was a natural match, given all that skeleton imagery among the band’s iconography, not to mention the inherent spookiness in the name “Grateful Dead.” The Halloween shows were generally raucous, entertaining affairs. But the performance of October 31, 1991 was different, as it happened in the wake of tragedy: it was the last of a four-show run at the Oakland Coliseum Arena that had begun just two nights after the helicopter crash that took the life of the pioneering rock concert impresario Bill Graham, a great friend to the Dead and to Dead Heads everywhere. The shows provided a much-needed opportunity to share our collective grief, and also to celebrate Bill’s life, and the Dead rose to the occasion magnificently. The Halloween rendition of “Dark Star” was, as you might expect, an especially intense one, with a longtime friend and musical associate, Gary Duncan of Quicksilver Messenger Service joining in on guitar. The performance reached its emotional peak during the Space sequence with the appearance of the great novelist and iconoclast Ken Kesey, one of the Dead’s earliest benefactors in his role as ringmaster of the traveling psychedelic circus known as the Merry Pranksters. Taking center stage, Ken said farewell to Bill Graham with an unforgettable reading of “buffalo bill’s defunct,” ee cummings’ elegy for another legendary showman, Buffalo Bill Cody. Here’s the Grateful Dead with “Dark Star,” plus the classic Rolling Stones rocker “The Last Time,” from the Oakland Coliseum Arena on Halloween 1991. We miss you, Bill. – GL

10/18/74 and 12/31/78 Wnterland, San Francisco:

The “Dark Star” recorded at Winterland in San Francisco on October 18th, 1974 is nicely representative of the nimble, jazzy group improvisations of that period in the Dead’s music, followed by what many consider one of the all-time great performances of “Morning Dew.” If that version sounds familiar, that’s because it provided the musical climax to the “Grateful Dead Movie,” the excellent concert documentary co-directed by Jerry Garcia and Leon Gast. The complete “Dark Star>Morning Dew” sequence is available on the Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack, a five-CD set that Grateful Dead Records put out some years ago, featuring all the music from the movie plus much more from that historic five-night Winterland run, which represented the last shows the Dead would play before commencing an indefinite hiatus from touring. Next up is the very next live performance of “Dark Star.” But it would take some time to get there. For while the Dead returned to live performance with a handful of impromptu gigs in 1975 and resumed touring a year later, it would be more than four long years after that October ’74 run before “Dark Star” would find its way back into the band’s repertoire, much to the dismay of many Deadheads. In fact, one fan took it upon himself to start counting the days since the last time the tune had been played in public, displaying the mounting tally on a banner flown from the upper balcony of Winterland whenever the Dead played Bill Graham’s fabled dump of an ice-rink-turned-rock-palace during its final year of operation. Ever the masters of suspense, the Dead kept that banner (and all of us) hanging right up until the night that Bill closed that old building down: New Year’s Eve 1978. Or to be more exact, the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1979. Beginning their third set somewhere around 4 in the morning, the Dead played that unmistakable opening figure, the building shook with joy, and that banner, which by that time read “1535 days since last SF Dark Star,” came tumbling down. Here’s what was almost certainly the most eagerly anticipated performance of “Dark Star” ever played: 12/31/78, available on the DVD and soundtrack CD set The Closing of Winterland. – GL

(I just learned that the “1535 days” banner was the work of Karen Hicks and her husband Marc Francis. I’ve known them for years and never knew that! – DG)

Ratdog 11/14-15/08 Tower Theater, Philadelphia:

Here’s a shining example of the way that “Dark Star” has continued its role as a great vessel for collective improvisation in the post-Grateful Dead era. We have a terrific version by Bob Weir and RatDog from their most recent tour of the Northeast. Well, actually, it’s two halves of a terrific version made one with a bit of artistic license and digital editing magic. You see, RatDog has continued the venerable Grateful Dead tradition of starting a song, going off on all sorts of musical detours and tangents, then returning to that song sometime later that night. Or maybe not until the next night. Or even later in the tour. In this case, “Dark Star” was spread across two nights at the Tower Theatre in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby. The band considerately provided a place where the transition between the two halves could be made as seamless as possible, yielding a final result that sounds uncannily like a single, uninterrupted statement. Here’s RatDog with “Dark Star” from November 14th and 15th, 2008. – GL

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