The Grateful Dead, Dark Star Orchestra, and Representation

In a very interesting article appearing in November 2012, in The New Yorker (“The Vast Recorded Legacy of the Grateful Dead”), Nick Paumgarten writes about many aspects of the culture surrounding the Grateful Dead. However, his perspective is unique in that it focuses primarily upon the implications and practice of recording Grateful Dead shows, either acting in the capacity of an official recording engineer for the band (Betty Cantor-Jackson), or as any number of unaffiliated audience members.

One of the questions posed is, considering that the Grateful Dead were known primarily as a live act, buoyed by the Deadhead culture that followed them on tour, why did this practice of recording, and listening to live concert recordings, become so deeply imbedded in the experience of the fans of the Grateful Dead? Paumgarten rightly notes that no two shows were the same, and, due to the extensive improvisational tendencies of the band, “variation was built into the music.” This variation occurred not only within songs during performance, but also in the context of constantly evolving stylistic traits throughout the band’s four decades of playing live concerts.

These traits were instrumental tone (the Grateful Dead were pioneers in live amplification practices), as well as repertoire and idiomatic influences from a range of musics including the blues, psychedelic explorations, garage rock, folk and country, jazz, and prog-rock. It is the incorporation of these traits into the live performances that makes each era of the Grateful Dead, and, in fact, each year that they performed, musically distinct from all of the others.

It is this final point that I find most intriguing. The Grateful Dead were certainly a “band of eras,” each with a unique personality and sound. The sheer quantity of performances, and subsequent recordings, renders any attempt to qualify a particular song as a concrete musical object nearly impossible. But, as Phil Lesh regards this issue, “like fairy tales or folk songs, all versions are true [and] [t]he more versions there are, the truer it is” (Paumgarten 2012).

Where I find this most relevant is in the discussion regarding the Dark Star Orchestra, a group of musicians dedicated to recreating specific Grateful Dead performances, through replicating both the set lists played on a particular night, and the stylistic nuances of that era. Unlike many “cover” bands, Dark Star Orchestra does not imitate recorded versions of songs exactly as they appear, but makes use of extensive improvisation within the confines of the stylistic vernacular of the era being performed, much like the Grateful Dead may have sounded.

Where does the Dark Star Orchestra’s approach to playing the songs and sets of the Grateful Dead fall on the spectrum of playing covers to performing original material? The songs are certainly those of the Grateful Dead, but the improvisation cannot be anything but Dark Star Orchestra. However, even the improvisation is based on informed aesthetic choices modeled on the stylistic and idiomatic tendencies of the Grateful Dead from the era being performed and evoked (as opposed to imitated).

The informed playing of the Dark Star Orchestra is reminiscent of the practice of “period,” or “historically informed,” performances common in representations of early music ensembles in the field of classical music. A debate regarding these practices is how one achieves authenticity in performance practices that were not recorded and in which we must infer idiomatic tendencies from written accounts. One approach is to improvise and embellish in a manner that plausibly could have been used in the era in question. To those inclined towards period performances, this is more authentic than performing strictly adhering to the notation preserved in early music manuscripts, because there is bountiful evidence that improvisation was present in this music.

Dark Star Orchestra obviously have access to a tremendous library of recorded shows of the Grateful Dead to inform their own version of period performance. However, maintaining this multiplicity of musical styles, available for recall on any given night, requires a capacity to differentiate between eras of the Grateful Dead, faithfully reproduce the sounds of an era spontaneously, and to suppress the playing of anything sufficiently outside of an era’s idiom to disrupt the illusion, even if it is appropriate for another era of the Grateful Dead. By this point, it should be clear that I consider Dark Star Orchestra not as performing covers of the Grateful Dead, but instead performing THE Grateful Dead, and specific iterations thereof.

Paumgarten’s account of seeing Dark Star Orchestra perform reiterates this point. In his words, “[i]t was exhilarating to hear live a kind of music I’d previously heard only on tape and assumed, with the death of Garcia, I’d never hear again.” This is an interesting point at which the recorded culture and the concert culture of the Grateful Dead converge, albeit in the guise of Dark Star Orchestra. The countless fans of the Grateful Dead who know certain eras, and potentially their favorite eras, only from recordings, at least have one venue to experience this music live.

The parallels between Dark Star Orchestra and period performers of early music and classical music illuminate one approach to performing the music of others. In this approach, authentic representation is based on reproduction of practice and conception, rather than imitation of sound. This is certainly worth considering for all musicians performing covers of their favorite songs, or playing within a genre of shared repertoire, such as jazz, blues, bluegrass, or folk music. While the notes and chords we play remain important, conception and creative interpretation are equally essential, even, and especially, when we’re playing songs written by another composer.

This entry was posted in Ethnomusicology, Performance, Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *