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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Rock Music's Finest Hour

Rock Music’s Finest Hour

It was 49 years ago today that the Grateful Dead took the stage at the Fillmore West and delivered a musical performance that is arguably rock’s finest hour.

The iconic version of Dark Star was performed in what was then its typical sequence: followed by Saint Stephen, into The Eleven and ending with Turn On Your Love Light (though just as often terminating with Death Don’t Have No Mercy).

The set was immortalized on the band’s fourth album: “Live Dead.” Unbeknownst for many years, the quartet of tunes was actually a graft of two concerts. The Eleven and Love Light were from the Avalon Ballroom a month earlier, but the collating was seamlessly engineered and thousands of listeners remained none the wiser.

"Live Dead" by the Grateful Dead

The improvisational tour-de-force that is Dark Star evolved over the years. Various themes came and went, but it was this period, early 1969, that will forever represent the canonical form—because of the impeccable version performed on this night.

Those unfamiliar with the early years of the band might think it laughable to laud Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing, as it decayed so rapidly, first into a “delicate doodling” and then, after discovering heroin, into a putrid pantomime of hard rock.

But here’s what Phil Lesh had to say of the band’s improvisations at the time:

“We orbit around a common center that is impossible to define but it has something to do with making good music of any kind.”

And more often than not, in those early years, it was the winding fluid runs of Garcia that surged from that center, tugging the other musicians along a spiraling accretion disc of musical exuberance.

The 2-27-69 performance of Dark Star ranges from the exquisitely sublime to the ecstatically euphoric. The band is fully 100 percent in the moment. This is the essence of ensemble improvisation. No rock band before or since comes close. Though the various sections/themes that they run through are standard for the period, there are moments of inspiration where Garcia finds notes he never played before and never did since.

It was said that the Dead could make time stand still. Many are the Dead Freaks who “blew their minds” listening to this performance on acid. 

On the album, the tune appears to slowly emerge out of an ambiguous musical ether. But the actual 2-27-69 performance is a set of six consecutive tunes that begins with the jug-band rag Dupree’s Diamond Blues, which then flows into the ballad Mountains of the Moon. Both of these are played acoustically (though Phil is playing his electric bass), and Mountains ends with a little jam, during which the boys discard their acoustics and uncork their electrics. It is this moment that the Dark Star track on “Live Dead” picks up the performance. A minute or two of teasing then lands with stately confidence into the belly of Dark Star proper.

And thus it begins. Twenty-one minutes of musical majesty. Forty-nine years ago today.

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