Day 60: Dark Star, 10/31/71

Grateful Dead Dick's Picks 2 album cover artwork

This is NOT an April Fools joke!

Quite frankly I’m shocked that I’ve made it to day 60 of this project and only now selected a Dark Star. That seems almost criminal.

For many Dark Star is the quintessential Grateful Dead song. Well, song may be a somewhat liberal term here. To say it’s an anything-goes jam held together by a few key riffs might be more accurate, but regardless of the label you use to describe it one this is clear: Dark Star is awesome.

The only real issue I have with this recording is that Keith is virtually absent. I assume he was there that night, but I listened to this on good headphones and could detect nary a hint of piano, keys, anything. This is especially disappointing because we’ve already seen how well Keith integrated with the band (see yesterday’s Bertha post).

This one starts off in a very laid back manner. No noodling here, but the band is certainly not in a rush. Right around the 2 minute mark Jerry seems to be running through scales up and down the neck. Phil and Bobby and meandering down their own stream and Billy is laying way, way, back. Nice and easy.

One of the main Dark Star riffs finally makes an appearance around the 4:30 mark, but Jerry makes the statement and then moves on to say something else. It seems like everyone is listening to each other very carefully. You can almost feel them listening. Another familiar theme crops up right around the 7 minute mark, and Jerry delivers the first verse. Phil plays some eerie chords on his bass during the “transitive nightfall of diamonds” section.

Now that the singing is out of the way Jerry is on a mission to find the sound again. Just after the 9 minute mark everyone reaches for the upper register. Phil stays there a little longer and seems to inspire a new direction. Jerry’s found his thread and everyone follows along as the pace quickens. As one peak is summited the band descends back to the valley, only to rise again. “Rise and fall…” Indeed…

A new theme emerges right before 13:30 – I love this section of this version, especially Bobby’s guitar part. It almost sounds like a Tom Jones type of song, but it just works and gives the rest of the band something to groove on for a while. Around the 19 minute mark the once cohesive jam devolves into the ether once again. At about 22:15 the pace quickens and it seems some direction is identified, as teases of the dulcet tones of Sugar Magnolia can start to be detected.

Complete Setlist 10/31/71

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2 Comments
  1. Oh man, this version lights up right away, with lots of dynamic swells and very intense playing on the part of one Mr. Jerry Garcia. As the first verse hits somewhere after 7 minutes in, Garcia’s voice is just-right raspy and sincere. This is hot. Way too soon after, Weir strikes the first sliding chord of “Sugar Magnolia” and throws the jam into a certain level of chaos while everyone figures out what to do next. They decide to stay the course while adding extra steam. A burning jam begins in earnest, then quickly calms to a more introspective groove. What follows is quintessential Grateful Dead – not jazz, not rock, and something only they have ever done quite this way. It is several songs played at once, and one big song all the same. Just before 13:30 a two-chord jam emerges that just had to be the impetus for “Eyes of the World”, finished a couple of years later. Here, it sounds kind of light in the loafers compared to the heaviness of “Dark Star”, but welcome just the same. The tone darkens a bit soon after, but a second round of “Eyes” surfaces, this time with just a bit more menace. Jerry is not afraid to worry the hell out of one high note for a good while before bending it up and ripping a bit. Around 18:20, we are nigh on a proto- “Fire on the Mountain” for a few bars before an insistent rhythm section corrals the herd into a spaced-out breakdown. It looks like the second verse is lost now. Hardcore space jamming leads somewhere, somewhere. Where? First to a mean, low trainwreck. Then, Bobby finally forces the issue and the rest come reluctantly along to the happy-hippy sweetness of Sugar Magnolia.

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