Jan 142009

What would JAMuary be without at least one visit from the “Mother of All Jam Bands,” the Grateful Dead? The legendary “Dark Star” was the opening cut on Live/Dead, the 1969 record of the band at the height of its JAM Powers. And JAM it is, a long, modal, free-form expansion of a 3-minute single into a 23-minute exploration into the outer limits of rock. It is not the most rockin’ of JAMS, but rather a contemplation of subtle interplay, tone, and feedback that you will concede rises far above any charges of mere noodling.

The Grateful Dead, “Dark Star”

Don’t miss Phil’s resonant melodic inventions, Bobby’s light touch on rhythm, and most of all, Jerry’s repeated reinvention of his guitar tone for each of the flowing sections. In fact, anyone with an open mind should agree that it sounds as if “it’s planned out” and not mind it at all.


  19 Responses to “JAMuary, Day 6: The Mother of All Jams”

  1. Mr. Moderator

    It’s time I ender the belly of the beast… This is the first time I’ve knowingly listened to this song in a good 25 years. I hope others will do likewise. We’re jammin’, people!

    Man, this is one tender opening passage. I’m turning my speakers up in work, hoping the Dead doesn’t kick into a screaming fuzz solo or double-drum fill and blow the walls down in my office… I know, it’s the Dead we’re talking about here, and Geo warned us that this would be a subtle jam. Maybe they’re tuning up. Hey, I think I hear the beginnings of a chord progression and light beat. Oh yeah, here’s Jerry.

    At this point, was the band already into space-age technology and those teakwood, pointy guitars with fancy inlays? They get such an identifiable, consistently weird guitar and bass sound. When I saw the band in Chicago in 1982 (you were there, right Sammy?), Phil’s bass tone was my anchor during especially bad points, like their horrible take on “Not Fade Away.”

    Here comes some singing. This sounds familiar. This is the little part on the Garth Hudson version, right? Is that some subtle bass feedback in the background? The organ sounds cool, like the organ in a breakdown on any number of Terry Riley recordings. I’m a sucker for that sound. Is that Pigpen? I think he would have been my favorite guy in the Dead. Do Dead fans play favorites? Do Deadheads meet up at shows and say, “I’m a Jerry guy” or “I’m into Bobby!” Is Phil the George Harrison? Was Pigpen the Ringo, or do the drummers have to fight for that title among fans?

    I’m reminded, as this jam develops, that when I saw the band live it was really hard for me to tell when one song ended and another began. Isn’t there a signature riff in “Dark Star”? I’m now 10 minutes into the song and I can’t remember whether I’ve heard it.

    The band played “St. Stephen” the night I saw them. At some point, before I could recognize the intro riff, everyone who knew what they were in for got really psyched up. It sounded like one of those pre-song tuning sessions to me, but the band’s fans tuned into something. Do you know when these songs are being played live, Geo, BigSteve, and other Deadheads within the Halls of Rock? Is there an element of “Name that tune” among fans at their shows?

    At the 12:20 mark there’s some twisty riff that’s getting a bit cacophonous. The Terry Riley organ (or is it a guitar played way down at the bridge?) is creeping back. I like this, although it’s quickly slipping away. Someone just stepped on an effect box, giving the guitar a real midrangey sound that I’m a sucker for. I wish the band was doing something along with the guitar. They’ve got two drummers barely making a racket, and Phil’s way in the background too. I guess I should admire their restraint. It’s not what you play but what you don’t play, right?

    It’s 15 minutes into the song. How do I know it’s “Dark Star”? I’m not being critical, exactly, just honest in expressing my ignorance. What’s the main theme?

    Now it’s picking up some steam. At 16:50 there’s another twisty lick with some tone in between an organ and a guitar. Hints of feedback creep through. I like that. Now they had to go and get quiet again. Come on, man, I can’t be this mellow! This is, like, a tantric jam.

    Hey, here’s that little chord progression that first signalled the band was done tuning, way back when. I guess that’s the main theme. All those glorious high-tech Sears guitar tones are back in play… And now they’re once again getting quiet. Wow, someone hit a bad note! It’s cool, though, with Jerry’s leads, you know whatever he plays he’ll quickly loop back and play it again, with feeling. I like the way he keeps playing this riff. The band’s picking up some steam with him. This is the moment I expect the Dead to kick out the jams and become Television, a band that never gets tantric with its jam. Even on a long jam Verlaine and Lloyd can’t wait to explode. Jerry must have been amazing in bed.

    Twenty-one minutes and counting. Oooh, here comes that chanting vocal part. I like it! I feel the dew of my lover’s body next to me. The sun is setting. Lovely.

    Thanks for posting that jam, Geo. I’ll have to listen to that song some more, on my home stereo, in a much more relaxed state. It makes more sense that it did when I heard it in my late teens and early 20s. I’m sure much more sense could be made of it yet. A huge key, right now, was the minimal singing.

  2. “Do Dead fans play favorites? Do Deadheads meet up at shows and say, “I’m a Jerry guy” or “I’m into Bobby!” Is Phil the George Harrison? Was Pigpen the Ringo, or do the drummers have to fight for that title among fans?”

    I am a veteran of about 25-30 shows from 1982 to about 1989 or so. Ironically, the thing that finally killed it for me was moving to San Francisco and working at a guitar store Haight Ashbury Music, although my interest was starting to wane while I was still on the east coast. I still don’t mind some of the music but the fans really ended up annoying the crap out of me.

    The pecking order is:
    Jerry – by a long shot
    Bill and Mickey are tied.
    Then the keyboard players in chronological order from Keith to Vince. (Nobody knows that Tom Constantine was in the band)
    Then Bob
    Then Donna

    Pigpen had a kind of mythical status by the time I started going to shows so I think he is in a category by himself but if lumped in with the rest of them, he’s either right above or below Phil.

    That’s about right, Geo, isn’t it?

    “Is there an element of “Name that tune” among fans at their shows?”

    Sometimes my friends and I would all throw in a buck and guess which song they would open with. If no one got it, we’d throw in another buck and guess the second song. I don’t recall it going past the second song.

  3. Pigpen was alive when I first saw them, but too sick to tour. It was their American Tour in support of Europe ’72, and I think thae tour that they recorded that on was his last tour.

    I agree entirely with your rankings, except that Donna was thoroughly disliked, probably with good reason because she took away way more than she added. I think Weir floated down in the rankings as time went on. When i was paying attention in the mid ’70s, there really wasn’t the generally negative vibe that I get from folks who met up with them in the ’80s and ’90s. His singing became more overbearing and out of tune, but I think the real problem was that he assumed the responsibility for carrying on the Pigpen Groove Daddy persona, and it just didn’t jibe with his own pretty surfer boy persona.

    The organ player on Dark Star is Tim Constanten, a music school pal of Lesh’s who was in the band from 67 to 70 or so. Pigpen did play organ, but usually on earlier garagey numbers or Blues workouts. I suspect he went in the back and drank during long jams that weren’t built around his biker/MC/Backdoor man persona.

    Sorry about the drums. Remember this is just one third of a much lengthier piece. The Drums become prominent in St’ Stephen/The Eleven and then pretty much take over in Turn on Your Lovelight.

  4. BigSteve

    Live/Dead is way before the pointy guitar phase. I’m pretty sure Jerry was still in his Gibson SG period when this was recorded, and he would go through a long Strat period before going pointy. 1969 would have been before effects pedals too, no? And I think Phil would have still been playing one of those big hollow-body basses.

    I think there is a sense sometimes that you can tell they’re going to go into a particular song, but remember that there were standard sequences of songs. So you pretty much knew St Stephen was coming after Dark Star.

  5. Yes, I would say Jerry is playing an SG and Lesh is playing an Epiphone semi-hollow body bass. I still think Garcia sounded best on the SGs. I understand that the Fender made more sense sonically when they went into the countryish phase, but I really like the body that he got from the SG, especially since he wasn’t prone to muddiness.

  6. Mr. Moderator

    Good stuff, Deadheads. I will go ahead and buy this entire album. It can’t hurt me to have this one officially released live document that all Deadheads seem to agree is a keeper.

    I hope others will follow my lead to the teets of rock jamming.

  7. BigSteve

    I’d keep it a secret from plurbie, if I were you, Mr. Mod. He had very harsh words last summer during the Grateful Dead Package Deal thread for people who listened to the Dead. Let’s just keep this our little secret.

    The current version of Live/Dead that’s available comes with the studio version of Dark Star as a bonus track. Clocking in at 2:41, it has no drums at all, and it was actually released as a single.

  8. Mr. Moderator

    I’m sure Plurbs has a sort of spam filter that won’t allow him to even see this post.

  9. trolleyvox

    Yeah, even I like Live Dead. Definitely worth your time.

  10. dbuskirk

    Funny, I’ve picked up some of the Dick’s Picks from this era but I’ve never sat down with this, the official one (wait, now that I think about it I might have some semi-beat-up vinyl of this album around, a hard one to find in good shape; thanks stoners).

    This is a pretty stellar jam, although I think Garcia might be my least favorite element, his tone is almost too identifiable somehow. It’s all the textural stuff I’m really digging, especially the barely audible drumming along with Lesh’s bass. I should dig this up although I’d bet this is the undeniable highpoint for me. Nice play-by-play back there Mod.

    Thanks for unearthing this cornerstone rock jam for us Geo, I’m still waiting for the backlash. This must be as alienating to some folk around here as the sports talk is for me.

  11. Mr. Moderator

    But at least when the sports talk heats up, people like yourself and General Slocum speak up. We’re getting deep into Jamuary, and I have to wonder whether the lack of participation and dialog on these stellar jams is the result of alienation or a sign that Townsfolk are really giving the jams all the time they require.

  12. Ok, I tried… I REALLY tried. This sound like a band that has never met. Phil sounds great. Love his bass tone (just bought myself an Epiphone Hollow-Body Bass) and Jerry’s noodlings are…well, they are Jerry’s noodlings.. He’s the best at this kinda playing.

    The rest of it sounds like a band that is trying to tune and check their monitors. When it finally gets to the “song” it still sounds like they are making this song up as they go along. Nobody is playing together,they are all off on their own trip maaaan.

    I like American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead… the jams just leave me cold

    (but you have to SEE them)… I did in 1989 at The Omni in Atlanta. 7-8 great songs and an hour of pointless “feedle-deedle” which was a shame, cause when they were covering Dylan or doing Box Of Rain they were fantastic.

  13. Mr. Moderator

    Way to go, Jungleland2! Your commitment is to be appreciated, admired, and let’s hope followed!

  14. I listened to it, and I liked it! I especially like the rise and fall and rise of Jerry’s guitar tone; at one point, there’s a nice bark that reminds me of Fairport-era Richard Thompson. My second-favorite element was the spooky organ noodling.

    One thing about the Dead, they sure are recognizable. Based on what I’ve read about “Dark Star” over the years, I was almost convinced it could be some truly mind-altering psychedelia. But no, it’s just the Dead; kinda bluesy, kinda jazzy, very laid-back etc.

    The minimal playing from the two drummers annoyed me, but I re-read the comments while listening, and Geo and BigSteve provided much-needed perspective on how this song would lead to more rhythmic pieces in concert. That I appreciate.

    All in all, an enjoyable 23 minutes, but not a song I’m dying to hear again.

  15. Mr. Jungleland,

    While I like some Dead song oriented albums, particularly Workingman’s Dead, I’m not sure that stuff generally profits substantially in live performance. I don’t particularly like the Dead doing straight feel rock songs, the singing and the focus of the playing just isn’t there. For example, although I think that Lesh is a brilliant bass player and does a wonderful bass part on a Chuck Berry-lite Weir song, “One More Saturday Night”. But as great as the part is in isolation, it doesn’t do whatever a bass in such a song should do. the song flat-out does not rock, and one of the reasons is the interesting but inappropriate bass part. Their most effective songs for me are the slightly funky, syncopated originals, say along the lines of China Cat. To hear them do a more traditional mid-tempo straight feel rock or Country tune especially in their later years, can be painful for me

  16. I would hesitate to call “Dark Star” rock. Much more like modal jazz. Notice how Lesh provides the pulse, while everyone else is orbiting around him. So the key to really enjoy this epic track is to think of it as a hippie version of something like Miles Davis, “In a Silent Way.” BTW, Davis, in his autobiography, states that he totally got what the Dead were doing.

  17. Dr. John,

    Absolutely. I might even have mentioned Kind of Blue in my defense save for the feelings of some people that my consider that an affront to that sacred Miles artifact. I still would call it rock, not jazz, but that probably has more to do with how really nebulous genre boundaries can be.

  18. So we all agree, not about liking this jam, but that All of the “Glue” is in “The Phil Zone”

    Geo: I get where you are coming from on the Dead “clicking” on funkier stuff better than straight ahead stuff

    I kinda like Terapin Station, where it’s almost Steely Dan sounding

  19. Mr. Moderator

    As we go through JAMuary, I don’t think there’s a need to split too many hairs over whether “Dark Star” is rock or jazz. It’s found in the rock bins. The Dead made rock star money hand over fist. Etc. On the other hand, Miles’ late-60s jams rock harder than a lot of rock music, so I’ve got no beef with celebrating, say, Jack Johnson. Jam on!

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