From Road Trip to Dave’s Picks: Tales from the Grateful Dead Archivist
It’s always a pleasure discussing Grateful Dead matters with David Lemieux, archivist, co-producer and producer of more than 100 CD and DVD releases. During our lengthy conversation (which will appear in two parts) he explains in his meticulous manner what went into the creation of the latest live releases from the beloved San Francisco act.
His answers balance the excitement that any Deadhead would muster while listening to the group’s Holy Grail of concert tapes contained in the group’s Vault with an attention to detail regarding performance and sound quality. While his stamp of approval is widely known via his list of credits, Lemieux now receives an elevated status. With the conclusion of the Road Trips series, a new set of releases come out 2012 under the Dave’s Picks moniker (The name of the series references the Dead’s original tape archivist, Dick Latvala, who went from fan to caretaker of the tape Vault and started the Dick’s Picks series, which encompassed 36 releases from 1993 through 2005). The four-CD subscription series begins with May 25, 1977, the Mosque in Richmond, Virginia.
Two years had passed since our last conversation. At that time I caught Lemieux finishing up his shopping at a farmer’s market. Since that time he’s made a greater effort to grow his own…vegetables including corn, spaghetti squash, apples and tomatillos. “It’s good. It’s satisfying, and if this whole music thing doesn’t work out, I’ll put out a series of jams called Dave’s Picks,” he said, laughing.
JPG: We’ll get to Dave’s Picks in a moment but first, why end the Road Trips series?
DL: I don’t even know if there was any particular reason except it was time for a change. That’s really about it. We’re all very proud of what we’ve done with the Road Trips and certainly there’s some great music that’s been released through the series. And when the series launched, it was with a message that we’re going to be focusing on compilations and taking the best of a few nights and compiling them down to a couple CDs. We got some great music that way. All of us — the record company, myself and Blair [Jackson], and the fans — started gravitating, and I think it was very natural it wasn’t a conscious decision, more towards full shows.
If you look, we did 17 Road Trips and around the fifth, sixth, seventh, we started moving into the full show world ( Road Trips: Vol 3, Number 1: Oakland, December 28, 1979 ). It wasn’t any grand scheme or drastic philosophical change. It was just the direction we went in, which was great. Everybody seemed to appreciate them. We certainly loved working on them.
As we got up to our 15th, 16th, we realized that we’d really gotten away from what the Road Trips had been announced as, which isn’t a bad thing…Bottom line is, good music is good music. It doesn’t matter what the series title you put it out under or anything like that. For us to keep going with the Road Trips, when we announced it as a certain thing, we just felt, it was no major philosophical decision or a change in philosophy of taking the music… It was just time for a change.
The Dick’s Picks model, which is really what we’re going to model the new series, on was primarily full shows, but and I remember we talked about this a couple of years ago, half of the Dick’s Picks were not complete shows and some of them were very dramatic compilations. You look at something like the London, Dick’s Picks volume seven, which to me is a fantastic pick, where you’ve got essentially nine or 10 CDs worth of music whittled down to three CDs from three very good shows. Likewise, Dick’s Picks Volume 12, the two shows from 1974. Same kind of thing, where you’ve got two fantastic shows whittled down.
So, to bring this back, there’s always a place for compilations but at the same time when a full show is really good, that’s what we’re going to do. The focus of the new series is going to be on full shows. Whether it’s dictated by the music, probably less so, occasionally, it’s going to be dictated by the tapes where we simply don’t have a complete show or maybe we have three partial bits, similar to what we had with the Lake Tahoe, Dicks Picks 22, where we didn’t have complete shows of any of those and if we did we didn’t know because the tapes were so poorly labeled. So, we essentially put out the very best, essentially everything we could release from that.
So, to answer your question…There was no real major reason except for it was just time for a change and we wanted to launch the new series with more of a message of the majority of people who have contacted us over the years, have let us know that, while they appreciate the compilations, and they like them, they would prefer complete shows. And we listened. And we largely agreed.
Again, compilations are fun. They can really bring to life a couple of shows that might have some very mediocre moments and bring them to life, into three CDs of pure bliss, but you have the Grateful Dead experience when you went to a show is, the journey of the complete concert and that is exactly what we want to present with this new series. It’s similar to View From the Vault in terms of the video world where the philosophy was, ‘Oh, sure you’re going to get your ups and downs of any Grateful Dead show. But when you listen to it as a complete journey, hopefully, you’ll be satisfied and you’ll get that experience.’ The Dead haven’t played in almost 17 years. You can go out and see the current band like Furthur and that kind of thing. To get the full Grateful Dead experience, with Jerry, the only way to do it is to listen back to the tapes. That is what we’re focusing on, bringing the Grateful Dead experience home.
JPG: As far as what you have available, do you ever see a time where you have a great show, but either there’s some little portion — a minute — where the tape got mangled or something like that and an audience tape will be edited in there or do you think you’ll ever consider releasing a really good audience recording that’s spruced up? Anything that’s released by Rhino or Grateful Dead Productions has to always be a soundboard and if it’s not a soundboard then it just doesn’t get released?
DL: I definitely wouldn’t say that. We haven’t put much thought into releasing audience tapes because we have so many good board tapes. But, we would absolutely certainly patch a board tape that has a nasty cut and, like you say, is missing a half a minute or a minute, we would patch it. Our first preference is to patch it with a board tape from the same show. Meaning, if we had a reel-to-reel and also had a cassette board we’d fix it with the cassette. That would be our first choice. And secondly, occasionally, we’ve taken snippets, a few seconds, of the same song from another show from the same tour. We’ve fixed it with that. We’ve done internal edits, meaning you can edit the cut together so that it sounds seamless. And the fourth choice would be to edit with an audience tape.
And we’ve done it before. We’ve done it on the Road Trips from October ’78 at Winterland, “From Egypt With Love,” there’s a snippet of an audience recording in there, at least a couple. So, we certainly would. I don’t know if we would do a complete show as an audience recording. I certainly wouldn’t say, ‘No.’ It really hasn’t come up because we have so many good board tapes.
I’ll put it this way. A tape cut has never prevented us from releasing an excellent show. If it’s only missing thirty seconds or a minute, as long as it takes to flip the tape, it’s really never prevented us from releasing anything. There are many ways to fix it. Again, the preference is, hopefully, there’s two board tapes of the same recording with overlaps. But if there isn’t there are other ways to do it. Virtually any recording from the ’60s and ’70s, even the early ’80s, is going to have some tape cuts that we’ve had to fix one way or the other.
You listen to any Dick’s Picks, Road Trips, anything like that; there are cuts in them that we have fixed. The Big Rock Pow Wow ’69 comes to mind as a recent one. Boy, we’ve done a lot of fixes and what we’re trying to do, obviously, is present a proper listening experience. We’ve had times where we actually tried to do an audience patch into something and it just doesn’t work, sonically. You’re presenting the music altogether. The bottom line is about presenting a good listening experience to the buyer and if there’s this jarring nasty cut that sounds terrible going from a bad audience tape from the early ’70s into a clean board tape from the ‘70s and it doesn’t work, we would just do a fade in, do an internal edit, which is butting up the two ends of the cuts together hopefully in a place that isn’t too jarring where the music sounds continuous.