Well, gracious listeners, I guess now is the time to enter into one of the great debates in Grateful Dead listening history – is the 43 minute Dark Star from the Dead’s 1973 show at Cleveland’s Public Hall a masterpiece or a disaster?
The answer to that question is going to depend entirely on the listener’s appreciation of feedback and its roll in the Grateful Dead’s music, since some of the deepest parts of this Dark Star are composed of strong, almost overwhelming, moments of atonal noise.
So, if you, like me (and apparently plenty of commentators on the Archive), enjoy the role that some well-thought out (but not Donna-related) screeching plays in the Dead’s musical catalog, then you’re probably going to like today’s Dark Star. If you don’t like this kind of thing, then I’d still encourage you to listen to this show, but I’m not going to promise that you’ll enjoy the Dark Star.
Other writers far greater than myself have spent a lot of time documenting exactly how this piece of music evolves, so I’m not going to spend an hour rehashing every twist and turn. But I would like to provide a slightly less detailed roadmap to this Dark Star so that you know what you’re getting into.
The band starts by tuning up, and, as others have made clear (ie complained about), there is no clear indication here that the tuning has ending and the playing has begun. However, at a certain point several minutes into the song, Keith moves from his piano to an electric instrument and that’s where things really start to get moving. I will say this about this Dark Star – Keith and Phil are, without question, the headliners tonight. The first third of the song is driven almost entirely by Keith’s eerie stylings, which ebb and flow, but always drive both the pace and the tone of the piece. After about ten minutes have gone by, Phil drops in and the feedback builds as the pace picks up. These small squawks of noise are just a hint of what’s coming as the jam eventually slows down and then, towards the halfway mark, almost all of the music ceases. Out of this silence comes a drone that builds and builds as layer upon layer of noise piles on top of it until the room is pulsating with energy and the crashing almost impossible to take sound of feedback at the upper limits of amplification. As this dies down, Jerry Garcia finally gains command of the situation and wills the Dark Star theme out of the ashes. Several minutes later, the first (and for tonight, the only) verse appears, momentarily grounding us before Phil wrestles control of the piece away from the rest of the band again and bludgeons us with an earth shattering bass solo that soon devolves into an almost Seastones-esque level of noise. This is a thunderous passage and, while the other band members are still playing, it’s almost all Phil at this point, producing sounds that resemble a double bass being played with a bow through a broken speaker as the noise cascades over us. Eventually, and I do mean eventually, the band picks up the pieces and limps over the finish line into a spirited (given the circumstances) version of Eyes of the World.
So there you have it – 300+ words to describe a 45 minute piece of music. I obviously only scratched the surface, so if what you just read appears at all interesting to you, then imagine what this Dark Star actually sounds like.
Lest you think that this is the only good part of this show, we’ve also got a very nice China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider and a massive 17 minute Here Comes Sunshine that finds Jerry unable to stop soloing. Unlike some shows from 1973, there aren’t so many songs tonight that you find yourself getting overwhelmed before you reach the pinnacle at Dark Star – it’s just the right amount of “normal” music to balance out the crazy.
The Dead actually released the China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider and Dark Star>Eyes of the World from this show on the Road Trips 4.3 bonus disc – I haven’t heard it there so I can’t vouch for the sound quality. You can listen to the adequate but not incredible soundboard of this classic show here: https://archive.org/details/gd1973-12-06.132361.sbd.miller.flac16