All told, the Grateful Dead played over 2,000 concerts across their 30-year career. During that time, the 1980s represented a major shift in the way that the Dead operated. Between 1980 and 1987, the Dead didn’t release a single studio album, instead choosing to concentrate their focus solely on live performances. The band formed a new identity, bolstered by new keyboardist Brent Mydland, that saw new material filter in with every new year. That new material sometimes came at the expense of older and beloved classics from the band’s discography.
In the pantheon of legendary Dead songs, few tracks are as iconic as ‘Dark Star’. Although the original single version of the song clocked in at under three minutes, the composition was less of a traditional song and more of a constantly-evolving vehicle for the band’s exploratory jamming. It wasn’t uncommon to hear versions of ‘Dark Star’ reach 20-plus minutes, or for other songs to filter in and out of the song’s sequence before the band returned to the form.
After the song’s lengthy appearance on 1969’s Live/Dead, fans clamoured to hear ‘Dark Star’ in all its extended glory. It’s not certain how many times the band played ‘Dark Star’, with numbers ranging from around 230 to 250 across three decades. It would have been more, but ‘Dark Star’ experienced long stretches of dormancy and rumoured retirement throughout the Dead’s live career.
The longest stretch without ‘Dark Star’ came in the 1980s. Across ten years, the Dead only played the song six times. From 1980 to 1989, the song was only played twice. Here are all six performances of the track from that decade and the context around when and why ‘Dark Star’ was played at those particular shows.
December 31st, 1981 – Oakland, California
The Dead were always ones to celebrate the end of a year in style. This particular New Year’s show featured a guest set with Joan Baez, sit-ins from the likes of Matt Kelly and John Cipollina, the final performance of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, and author Ken Kesey ranting and raving in between sets on mic. All in all, a very memorable night for the Dead.
But what fans didn’t know at the time was that the encore performance of ‘Dark Star’, the first in over two years, would also be the final performance of the track for another three years. The ’80s represented a time of change for the Dead, and ‘Dark Star’ just didn’t have a proper place in the constantly-changing setlists.
July 13th, 1984 – Berkeley, California
The lore that surrounds this particular performance of ‘Dark Star’ is as legendary as the song itself. Was it true that the band and the audience saw a shooting star that night, prompting the band to dust off the first ‘Dark Star’ in nearly three years? Did the nefarious energy of the date falling on Friday the 13th have anything to do with it?
What is known for sure is that the crowd goes absolutely bananas when the Dead arrive back on stage for their encore and drop into ‘Dark Star’. The excitement and jubilation helps mask what is a relatively meandering version of the song, but at this point, any version of ‘Dark Star’ is welcome. What followed was another five years of wilderness for ‘Dark Star’.
October 9th, 1989 – Hampton, Virginia
1989 represented a rebirth of the Dead. Having achieved a new level of commercial success thanks to 1987’s In The Dark, the Dead were also now one of the biggest concert draws in the world. Having achieved one of their most elusive goals, the band felt a newfound freedom to embrace their past and make Grateful Dead shows representative of the band’s entire career.
Part of that meant bringing back ‘Dark Star’, but now in a more frequent capacity. Between 1974 and 1988, ‘Dark Star’ was performed just five times in total. From 1989 to 1994, the song would be played another 32 times before finally being retired on March 30th, 1994. This show also saw the first ‘Attics of My Life’ since 1972, proving the Dead were starting to lean into their beloved previous songs more and more.
October 16th, 1989 – East Rutherford, New Jersey
Since the bust out of ‘Dark Star’ a week earlier in Hampton had gone over so well, the Dead opted to hastily bring back the song when they pulled into East Rutherford for the last of a five-night stand at the Brendan Byrne Arena. Dedicated Deadheads who caught all five shows were given a major reward when ‘Dark Star’ kicked off the first set.
This particular version of ‘Dark Star’ technically lasted close to an hour, but that’s only because the band kicked off the set with the first verse before steering into ‘Playing in the Band’, ‘Uncle John’s Band’, ‘Drums/Space’, ‘I Will Take You Home’ and ‘I Need a Miracle’ and then finally crashing back into the second verse of ‘Dark Star’. The Dead also ended the show with an early-years encore favourite, ‘And We Bid You Goodnight’, making it a potent celebration for Deadheads old and new.
October 26th, 1989 – Miami, Florida
Just ten days after the previous ‘Dark Star’, the Dead trotted out another version of the classic track in Miami. By this point, word had spread among Deadheads that ‘Dark Star’ was back permanently. That kind of expended appearance might have diminished the band’s spirits a bit, considering how this version of ‘Dark Star’ was more discordant and aggressive than previous ones.
Feedback was always an essential sonic element to the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic sound, but it became less and less prominent as the band members grew older. This ‘Dark Star’ brings back the screeching tones that made up the late ’60s versions of the song, along with new MIDI sound effects and wild drum passages. It’s an especially dark ‘Dark Star’, if that’s your kind of thing.
December 31st, 1989 – Oakland, California
Just as it had started, ‘Dark Star’ ended its ’80s run at the band’s annual New Year’s Eve show. At the same venue where the band surprised fans with the first ’80s version of the song, the audience was greeted with another ‘Dark Star’ to close out the decade.
This version of ‘Dark Star’ showed how unpredictable the song could truly be. Only the first verse of the track is sung at this show, and the band don’t revisit the form at all for the rest of the concert. ‘Dark Star’ would see many revisits during the 1990s, but the Dead leave the ’80s with one of their most iconic tracks now once again firmly in their setlists.