Picking Dave’s Brain: The Grateful Dead Archivist Discusses May ’77 and Sunshine Daydream
When you had the grand vision of doing Europe ’72 as a whole tour, at any point, was there any consideration of trying to push all of Spring ’77?
Not really and the reason was several fold. One was that six of the shows had already been released. So, there was that. Secondly, we’re missing four of the shows. So, 10 of the, however many shows are on this tour, 10 of them were, I guess you could say, unavailable. Of course, we could put the other six that we’ve already released into the box but it’s one thing with Europe ’72. We’d already released Dusseldorf. That’s one of 22 shows. We’ve done most of Hundred Year Hall. That’s another one and then we’d done the compilation from England on Steppin’ Out. But we’re really talking the total of maybe three or four shows out of 22 had been released. A lot of it had been incomplete.
In the case of Spring ’77, six complete shows had been released in very good quality and very good format on Dick’s Picks and things like that plus the four that were missing. So, no it wasn’t really considered. It would have been cool but I don’t think it would have been a project for this time either to give people a 73 CD box and then an 18 CD box (“Spring 1990”) and then come back with another… what would this have been? Probably another 60 or 70 CD box. It just didn’t seem the time to ask people to spend another four to five hundred dollars.
Hitting Spring ’77 again, do you ever feel like, “Oh, I’m going to that era again” or is it just a matter of it’s so good, it doesn’t matter?
It’s really never been a consideration that we put out too much from it. As you say, it is so good and it is some of the most widely requested material, so we try to give the people what they want. But we also try to make sure that it is of an extremely high quality. If we’re releasing something it should really be the best. This stuff, really, is some of the best music and this is the kind of music that we want people pulling off the shelves in 30 years putting on and just being blown away and really being a good representation of the Grateful Dead.
I don’t think if we’d done, say a 1978 15 CD box set of five shows, we would have had the consistent level of quality of performance that we have from ’77. S. it comes down to performance quality is what it was, and there aren’t that many eras in which you have five nights that are consistently this great. That’s really what it comes down to.
There are several eras that are certainly — ’69, ’72 to ’74 — there are a few runs that are four or five nights long that are consistently this great from those years and I think ’76 to ’77 there are some, ’78 maybe. I think ’78 is a little more hit and miss in terms of performance quality, consistency. There are some absolutely spectacular nights in 1978, but they weren’t spectacular every night.
On Spring ’77 we can all agree that they were consistently great. It wasn’t even every night was great. Every song was great. What I find amazing about the spring of ’77 is that even when they might make a big musical mistake or whatever, they dig their way out of it and create gold out of it. A lot of eras when they start something, say a song falls apart or something, that’s the end. It falls apart and they just kind of dismiss it and say, “Oh, that wasn’t a very good version of ““China Doll“” or something. On the Spring ’77 when that stuff happens, they instantly go into the Group Mind. They were playing so tight that they dug their way out of it almost immediately and created gold out of it and that’s what I dig about it. They’re so on the edge and yet they always seem to end up on the right side of it.
Yep. They were playing really well, man. This was some of the, again, most consistently great, tight, interesting, exciting, music I think by the Grateful Dead and certainly up until this point in their career at 12 years, certainly one of those incredibly consistent you hear from the band. I’ve seen interviews where they say, “Yeah, in the early days we had a lot of duds.” If you listen to a lot of nights, say in 1970, again some of the greatest music they’ve ever played is 1970, but also some of the sloppiest music ever played was 1970. Whereas, this stuff, Spring ’77, you really don’t get that flip side where you get sloppy music.
Do you have a theory as to the reason why because I read Steve Silberman’s essay in the box set’s book and he talked about Keith Olsen producing Terrapin Station and bringing a degree of discipline during the recording session and how that possibly influenced the band’s playing afterwards.
I think that is a big part of it. I talked to Mickey about it very recently and he said the same thing. “Yeah, you know, we’d been in the studio where by definition we were playing a disciplined brand of music.” They really worked hard on that album, as you hear in “Terrapin Station.” It’s a really, really well-played album, well-recorded and well-played, and a lot of very complex songs like “Estimated Prophet,” of course “Terrapin Station,” the disco arrangement as we call it of “Dancin’ in the Streets.”
It’s a very, very tight album. Keith Olsen had many credits at the time, most significantly was Fleetwood Mac self titled album that he had just done it at the studio. He was co-engineer and producer at Sound City, which is a great documentary by the way, the Sound City that Dave Grohl did. A lot of interviews with Keith Olsen are in there. He came from this studio background where he’d been playing with musicians who were extremely good musicians and you listen to something like Bobby’s “Heaven Help the Fool” a year later and, again, that’s Keith Olsen producing that. Just the performance that he got out of some of the best L.A. sessions is remarkable and certainly some of the tightest music and I think you nailed it at the beginning of this question — the discipline and the drummers are playing in really, really close tight sync and playing some wonderful complimentary stuff to one another.
So, you’ve got that level of tightness and then you’ve got everybody else playing extremely well. There’s a lot of good new music, too. You’ve got to remember that “Passenger” and “Fire on the Mountain” and “Terrapin Station” and “Estimated Prophet” and “Sunrise” were all debuted between February and May of 1977. So, you’ve got all that new music. And again, some of it is pretty darn complex stuff.
Talking about “Terrapin Station” reminded me of when Bill Kreutzmann was at the Rock Hall and he did an interview session like you did. He was talking about the song “Terrapin” and they had used up all the tracks yet wanted to put strings on. To get them on something had to be deleted, so it ended up being Mickey’s timbale part. He said, “It wasn’t very nice. You don’t erase people’s tracks. You might ask him, “What do you think about this?“” Mickey, of course, got an unhappy surprise with that.
Yeah, sure. You know it’s interesting because when the Dead recorded — we talked about being limited to 16 tracks or around this time go up to 24 track machine — when the Grateful Dead recorded the Warfield and Radio City shows in 1980, they solved that problem by syncing to 16 track machines. So, all of those recordings were 32 tracks. So yeah, record as much as you can and deal with it late, but boy, erasing that hurts.
I was never a big fan of the strings in that song. I would have voted to keep the timbale.
It certainly is a very different sounding Grateful Dead record than anything they’d done previously.
Back to the box set, each of the shows ended up being a three disc set except for the second night in Chicago, which is two CDs. Was it just the way that it fit together or was there a reason for it being shorter?
I guess what you said. It fit on two. And any time we can put the show on two CDs, we prefer to do that than three because then it’s a little more manageable in a box. It’s a little less expensive for the buyer. There’s a lot of reasons for that. But yeah, it was simply a shorter show. And we didn’t have to cut anything or edit or anything. It was just a slightly shorter show than they were normally doing at the time. I would love if more Dead shows fit nicely on two CDs like this but they just generally don’t. Oftentimes, they’re just a shade over, maybe six minutes over the length of two CDs. That prompts us to do a three CD set virtually all the time.
That’s the cool thing about the Dead is that they did play so long. My point is more that I wish that CDs were longer. I wish CDs were a hundred minutes or whatever. Nonetheless, it was just a slightly shorter show than what they’d been doing up to that point. It’s interesting in the show length. In typical Grateful Dead fashion, no show is like the previous one, and then here we’ve got on May 13 a relatively short show, as you say, on two CDs and then a couple of nights later in Tuscaloosa is the final show on this box is an extremely long show. The first set goes way into the second disc and then the second set begins on the end of the second disc and then the third disc is the big jam of the second set. Over the course of, what’s that four nights apart, you’ve got a huge discrepancy in the length of the show, not to mention the set list.
That’s what I love about the Dead is that nothing is the same and you really can’t rely on anything to be consistent in terms of the show format. And I love that. I think we all do.
Also, in regards to Tuscaloosa I thought it was nice, and not too surprising, that “Sunrise” was played there and a couple other numbers where Donna was highlighted since it was kind of a hometown show for her.
Exactly. And I think that’s part of it. “Sunrise: had only been debuted a couple weeks before. It’s amazing that the Dead got to play in Tuscaloosa and apparently it was a pretty big crowd. It was a nice big arena. Yeah, I love this show. This has always been one of my favorite shows from the tour. So, I’m very happy that this one is out there now, the Tuscaloosa one. I like them all. I think they’re all great shows but I think the Tuscaloosa show is just a monster.
And then, in a bit of what you could call musical perversity playing “Promised Land” to start the set with the first show in St. Paul yet they didn’t do a Chuck Berry tune when they were in his hometown of St. Louis.
Yeah, that’s interesting because even more recently Bobby’s played St. Louis with whether it’s RatDog or The Dead or whoever, they certainly do pay tribute to that and play something if not even get somebody up onstage to play with them. I never even thought of that. There you go. That’s the thing. The more you think about things and then you’re like, “Wow!” and before you know it there all these little nuances that are just unique to the Grateful Dead.
Do you think at some point if this sells out will the individual shows some day be available?
I don’t think so. It’s a similar situation to the Spring 1990 box set where we put those six shows inside the Spring 1990 box and when they were gone, they were gone. We did not release them individually. We did a terrific two CD compilation from the tour but certainly not the individual shows. I believe that’s the plan here. So, if you want these get them in the box. Certainly, it’s five shows absolutely worth having. Maybe people would be interested in picking and choosing. Ultimately, it’s five really good shows. I highly recommend it.