The Longest of the Grateful Dead’s Epic Long Jams: “Dark Star” (1972), “The Other One” (1972) and “Playing in The Band” (1974)

As a ded­i­cat­ed fan of the long jam—I always felt like I should try to dig the Grate­ful Dead. I did­n’t not dig the Grate­ful Dead. But I suf­fered from under­ex­po­sure to their music, if not to their rep­u­ta­tion as end­less noodlers. By the time I gave the Dead a chance my head was full of ideas of what a long jam should be, from the likes of Kraftwerk, Coltrane, Neil Young, Vel­vet Under­ground, Son­ic Youth, Pink Floyd, Sun Ra…

Here­in lies a dif­fer­ence. Some jams are struc­tured, con­trolled, almost orches­tral, build­ing into move­ments or dron­ing on into a haze of noise and son­ic wash. Then there’s the Dead, the world’s finest pur­vey­ors of mean­der­ing end­less noodling. I don’t mean that to sound deroga­to­ry. One could say the same thing about many jazz ensembles—like Sun Ra’s Arkestra or Miles Davis’ Bitch­es Brew period—without tak­ing away from the bril­liant abstrac­tion, the keen con­ver­sa­tion­al inter­play, the dynam­ic range and moments of antic­i­pa­tion, the phe­nom­e­nal solos.…

Maybe there’s a lot more going on than noodling, after all, even if the “end­less” part can seem accu­rate when it comes to the Dead, a point on which I’ve seen Dead­heads agree. Of what might be the band’s longest jam—a near­ly 47-minute live ren­di­tion of “Play­ing in The Band” from 1974 (top)—one Red­dit fan, MrCom­plete­ly, writes, “Playin’ is sig­nif­i­cant­ly longer than it is good.” Form your own opin­ion. Your atten­tion span might make up your mind for you.

A far more com­mon top­ic  in forums like Reddit’s r/gratefuldead are con­ver­sa­tions about not only which live song ranks as the longest jam, but how bliss­ful and mag­i­cal said jam was and whether the Dead­head saw the jam or for­ev­er regrets miss­ing the jam. One Dead fan, Pyrate­fish, cites “The Oth­er One” from 9–17-72 as “a beast” to beat them all. “Forty minute ride in to the far reach­es of the uni­verse that cul­mi­nates in a bat­tle for your very soul.” Top that.

Maybe we can, with anoth­er can­di­date for longest jam, a per­for­mance of “Dark Star” in Rot­ter­dam in 1972. Men­tion of this jam brought up oth­er con­tenders, most of them ver­sions of “Dark Star” or “Dark Star” med­leys. One fan, lastLeaf­Fall­en, even sug­gests a “jazzy, exper­i­men­tal, and mind-bend­ing” ver­sion of the song from 1990, but they don’t get any tak­ers on that one, even though “Bran­ford Marsalis sits in on sax mak­ing this jam espe­cial­ly spe­cial!”

The Grate­ful Dead were gen­uine jaz­zheads and meshed well with musi­cians like Marsalis and Miles Davis. But they didn’t play jazz them­selves so much as they used loose jazz fig­ures and ideas to make exper­i­men­tal rock. When done well, it is done excep­tion­al­ly well, as in the inevitably-over­stuffed, 48-minute-long Rot­ter­dam “Dark Star” fur­ther up. We can hear strains of future post-rock bands like Tor­toise and even late Radio­head, hints of music that hadn’t arrived yet on the plan­et. And oth­er long pas­sages that sound like some­thing only the Grate­ful Dead could play.

Just as their ear­ly fusion of coun­try, rock, and blues had pro­duced some­thing unlike any of them, their fusion of jazz and rock could syn­the­size new forms. Or it could fall apart, or both sev­er­al times over in the same song or at the same time. Hear the full 1974 con­cert at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Seat­tle at the site Live for Live Music. The epic, 47-minute “Play­ing in The Band” is track 17. Sug­gest oth­er can­di­dates for longest Grate­ful Dead jam in the com­ments.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Grate­ful Dead’s “Wall of Sound”–a Mon­ster, 600-Speak­er Sound System–Changed Rock Con­certs & Live Music For­ev­er

Take a Long, Strange Trip and Stream a 346-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Live Grate­ful Dead Per­for­mances (1966–1995)

Stream 36 Record­ings of Leg­endary Grate­ful Dead Con­certs Free Online (aka Dick’s Picks)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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