But even the most perceptive Deadhead could not have forseen the strange events of the opening night – how about a first set Dark Star?
I can’t say enough about the sound quality here. When these tapes first made the rounds, it was a revelation – live Dead in glorious multi-track stereo sound – of the entire run of shows. There’s a good mix of audience ambiance and the crowd reaction as Dark Star begins is one of surprise and delight. Pig had just lead the band through a funky and spirited Hard to Handle and after some tuning, the band drops the intro.
The band plays it straight, jamming on the opening theme. Pigpen’s keys have a lovely harpsichord-like sound that remind me of some of the more “Baroque” readings of Dark Star from the late 1960s.
Garcia’s begins the vocal far away from the microphone with great effect as he leans in close – it makes you completely overlook his flub of “Dark Star flashes” instead of “crashes.”
After the first verse, the structure falls completely apart into a quiet ambient passage of cymbals and stray notes, until a squall of rich feedback signals the gentle opening of Wharf Rat – the first ever played.
It’s a brisk and solid performance of the song. The band plays it cool, being mindful of chord changes and dynamics. The absence of Keith Godchaux’s piano makes for a very raw and minimalist rendition of the song. But, just like the debut of Bertha and Loser earlier in the set, the band fucking nails it, especially Jerry, who sounds confident and overjoyed to be playing these new and powerful songs for the crowd. The outro jam is brief and the band is quick to retreat to the safety of the Dark Star theme once again.
When Arista Records compiled the So Many Roads box set, they lifted a 4 minute and 33 second fragment from the post-Rat jam and dubbed it “The Beautiful Jam” – and beautiful it is. It’s a thematic jam that is completely unique to this performance. It’s a perfect example of that glorious “Lightning in a Bottle” Grateful Dead magic. Garcia’s leads are so rich and bright. The whole thing just shimmers with ecstatic improvisational joy.
As the Mirror Shatters, the band finishes up this brief and brilliant Star before Bobby gives us a rough and tumble Me and My Uncle. 1971 would only see eleven more performances of Dark Star and it would soon evolve into the billowous psychedelic epics of 1972 and 1973. This is one of the last performances of Dark Star with the “outro”.
The rest of the run is definitely worth checking out, and the second night was officially released as Three From the Vault, but the other nights are available in taper circles.
By the way, it’s worth mentioning that the next first set version of Dark Star would come over twenty years later. Taking everyone by surprise on a hot afternoon at Shoreline Ampitheater on August 16th 1991. It’s a fairly brief rendition, but it’s an interesting footnote.
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the –> Dark Star is one of the best Dead jams I’ve ever heard. Heartbreakingly beautiful.
For a full review of the Port Chester run, in context, check out the three-part blog entry starting here: http://moderndeadhead.blogspot.com/2009/10/port-chester-february-1971.html