The penultimate post on Dead For A Year is Dark Star, a fitting way to go out. Perhaps the song that Deadheads crave more than any other and if you stick around and listen to this entire version (it’s just a shade over 37 minutes long), which you really should, it’s easy to see why.
I’ve had a number of selections from Dick’s Picks 36 on this site. I would rank it up there are one of my top Grateful Dead archival releases of all time. It’s that good. Oddly enough it seems that on the occasions that I put DP36 on in my car in the past year I’ve been drawn to a new cut and file that away for inclusion here. That was certainly the case here as well. Sometime in December I was annoyed with all of the Sirius XM stations and this was in my CD player so I let it ride for a few days. Dark Star is long enough that it covered a couple of different car trips. I tend to be more of an aggressive driver (being from the Motor City and having lived in Chicago, especially here in Denver) so I don’t always pay super close attention to the radio when driving but I find myself absorbed in DP36 whenever it’s on.
This time it was the jam near the end of this Dark Star. To my ears it is very heavy on the Beatles influence. It starts off with a general Beatles vibe, and then coalesces into what sounds like a Dear Prudence inspired jam to my ears. As I was listening in the car I just remember thinking to myself “this is SO Beatles!” When I got home I earmarked it for inclusion here and was floored when I noticed it was 37 minute Dark Star.
As I’m writing this I just finished listening to the whole thing and it’s like a time warp. Those minutes just melted away. Of course, some of that is trying to find the words to describe what I’m hearing, but even so it’s almost a magical version of the song. They never get around to the second verse here, but the Beatles jam is so awesome that you won’t even notice it. Trust me, once you make it to that part you’ll be enraptured with what the band is doing and amazed at where they’ve been and how they got to this point.
In short, this version of Dark Star embodies a lot of what the Grateful Dead were all about. It’s an amazing song to experience again and again.
They’ve eclipsed the 10 minute mark and still going strong. Jerry finds a single note and coaxes everything he can out of it. It sounds like he may be using a bit of wah-wah here? A bit after the 11:30 mark the main Dark Star theme re-emerges from the ether and Jerry launches into the first verse around the 12 minute mark. Phil and Bob usher the band into the next phase of jamming, the former tagging the a familiar Dark Star riff and the latter providing the foundational support. Soon enough Jerry’s guitar starts to bubble up and effusive flurry of notes. He doesn’t maintain that trajectory, as no one follows right away, and instead eases back into the more laid back groove. There’s a minor peak scaled after the 15 minute mark after which Keith and Bobby whip things into a bit of a frenzy. The release from this comes quickly and Billy, Phil, and Keith take center stage for a while. Bobby adding a few trills here and there, but really it’s Keith’s show with the rhythm section playing supporting roles. Keith remains a hesitant soloist, but what he does play is lovely you just need to really listen to it. Weir hits some tasteful harmonics around 17:10 – gotta love well placed harmonics and these are that. Keith remains in the driver’s seat for the most part. He’s playing whatever electric piano he had in his arsenal at the time and it meshes nicely with Bob’s mid-range heavy guitar tone. Jerry, it sounds like, is taking a bit of a break, but that just provides an opportunity to more greatly appreciate how amazing of a guitarist Bob Weir is and how crucial he is in the context of the Grateful Dead. Jerry re-enters the picture in the 19th minute.
Almost right at the 20 minute mark Jerry plays a Slipknot!-esque lick. I did not just make that up. The descent into the outer regions of the universe continue. Jerry’s either got some distortion going on or is over-driving his amp and playing minor runs that have a spooky effect. Keith apparently takes a cue and his electric piano sounds extra dirty in this section (in a good way of course). This is the type of playing that I assume had the ability to make folks in an altered state freak out a bit. At the 23:30 mark things start to get really crazy, the pace quickens and everyone is attacking their instruments in earnest. Things level out soon enough, but the changes keep coming. It’s as though the band is playing a game of musical duck-duck-goose and chasing each other around the circle, working things into a froth, and then sitting down quickly. Another major scaling of the mountain starts after the 25th minute and the tension and release is almost palpable. Jerry’s guitar screams its accomplishment upon reaching the apex. Phil drops a few bombs as Jerry and Keith vie for attention. Everyone steps back a bit to re-assess and to orient themselves to the next destination. Just before the 28th minute the band settles into a reserved and delicate jam. I don’t know if what follows is one of the “named” Grateful Dead jams, but to my ears it has a bit of a Beatles-esque quality to it. Ok, so after thinking on it a moment it’s a Mind Left Body Jam. But, just for a moment, imagine if the Beatles ventured into deep musical space – I think it might sound something a bit like this. There’s enough structure and melody to keep it interesting, but enough breathing room and composing on the fly to keep it weird. (Think John Lennon, White Album era Beatles.) Jerry starts to fingerpick some chords about halfway through the 30th minute. It sounds a bit like the arrangement of Mama Tried from the Family Dog release, but it definitely has a focused country vibe to it. I think there’s still a bit of The Beatles feel to it as well, if you think about their earlier skiffle type of playing.
One thing is for sure, there’s definitely a stronger groove at this point and more melodious as well. At one point I thought I heard Jerry play a lick that would have been at home in Dear Prudence. I’m not going to let this Beatles association go because it just sounds so strong to me. I think it’s the way Jerry picks the chords that makes the connection so strong this time around. Maybe it’s just me. Right before the 34th minute Jerry plays another familiar theme that I cannot for the life me place at the moment. The chromatic descending aspect of it along with the resolution is just too Dear Prudence to ignore. This is perhaps one of my favorite Dark Star jams because it sounds so much like a Fab Four jam. The last 8-10 minutes of this Dark Star are just sublime and completely worth the wait. The band oscillates between two chords at the very end, judging the correct distance to their next song before sticking the landing into Morning Dew. Amazing.