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David Lemieux: The Grateful Dead’s Spring 90 (The Other One) and Onward

With the announcement of another major Grateful Dead release comes the desire to discuss it with archive producer David Lemieux.

The 23-disc Spring 1990 (The Other One) represents the companion to 2012’s 18 CD set, Spring 1990. Both contain shows from that tour’s six cities – Landover, Maryland, Hartford, Hamilton, Ontario, Albany, New York, Uniondale, New York and Atlanta. This time around the set includes the classic performance that featured special guest Branford Marsalis at Nassau Coliseum. (That particular show is also out as a separate 3 CD release, Wake Up to Find Out. )

Before I get to that – and, later, attempt to get a hint or two about what’s in store for fans in 2015 for the Dead’s 50th anniversary – I clear a small bit of confusion regarding Lemieux’s latest in the “Dave’s Picks” series (#11, 11/17/72, Wichita, Kansas)

JPG: I emailed you the other day about what was up with the Dave’s Picks 11 cover because the artwork in the press release was in color and the CD I received was in black and white. Also, in my defense, I was in a hurry when I got the mail that day so when I looked at it my thumb covered up Dorothy and the Tin Man…

DL: It’s funny because I did get probably six or eight emails from people saying exactly the same thing. “I got the email and a beautiful color cover and then I get it. Is this only mine? Is there a printing problem?” I kinda let it sink in because I heard from a lot of people…”Wow! It’s great! There’s the Dead in Kansas and there’s the Wizard of Oz cover. That’s really cool.”

JPG: Was the show picked not just for quality but an easy choice because it was already Dick Latvala approved for the Dick’s Picks series?

DL: I get a lot of input from people on stuff we pick but certainly when something is endorsed by Dick that carries a heckuva lot of weight. It’s a weird show pick-wise in that it probably should have come out a long time ago but for whatever reason it didn’t. We do a ’72, and it wasn’t like it got overlooked. We figured, “Now’s the time to do a ’72 with a “Dark Star.”” So, think of something like 9/21/72 from the Philly Spectrum, which, again, was another show, interestingly the Dick’s Picks 36. That was something that Dick had put up as a possible Dick’s Picks Volume 1 going way back to 1993, and it wasn’t picked. Then, we finally put that out in 2005.

I don’t want to say it slipped through the cracks but every time we put something out from 1972 and then I go back and listen to this 11/17, the Wichita show I say, “Oh, my goodness! We ought to put this one out.” All good things in all good time. Honestly, I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say in this context but it’s really true. We can’t put everything out at the same time so if there’s something good it’s still on the shelf. It’s going to come out sooner or later.

JPG: Going with that sooner or later line easily segues into the box set Spring 1990 (The Other One). First off, why split the Spring 1990 tour into two box sets rather than one massive box set?

DL: Excellent question. When we did Europe ’72 that was 2011, and that was a 73 CD box set, $450. That came out in the summer 2011. Fall 2011, we started thinking about what was going to be our big project for 2012. Everybody in that meeting, which is a good team at Rhino and myself and a few other people, we decided, very unanimously, “We can’t do another 75 CD box set or even a 45 or 50 box set. It’s too much at once to come out with two back-to-back mega mega boxes.” So, we said, “Let’s keep the next one ‘small’,” which was 18 CDs. The first Spring 1990 certainly isn’t a small box set by any band’s judgment except now that we’ve done a 73, it did fall in the small box set category. So, we said, “Let’s do something smaller. Let’s definitely keep it under 20. If it comes out in 10 CDs or 15 CDs, that’s great, but let’s certainly not do anything 50 or 60 CDs again.”

Then, we started talking about tours we wanted to hit and we thought of a lot of ideas. One idea we came up with because it’s been at the forefront of what we wanted to do was something big from the Spring of 1990. We pretty quickly came upon the idea of six shows, one show from each of the six cities on that tour. That was the philosophy behind it.

Once that was set in stone — the format — it was just a matter of choosing the six shows. I won’t say we chose the six best shows because I certainly think that the eight shows that are in this are every bit as good as those ones. It was really just a case of what were the more complementary shows to one another. What created a very good six-show, 18 CD box set. And we were very happy with the ones that we picked.

I knew when we had that meeting in the Fall of 2011 that someday we would do volume two of this box set, where even the shows that didn’t end up in the first box set sooner or later – again, all good things in all good time – the other shows would come out. We just have to some patience.

It’s funny. As soon as we decided we were going to do this format – six shows, one show from each city — I submitted my initial list of the six shows that we selected and we didn’t go into production on that for two months. And in those two months I changed four of the six shows that were in that box, which goes to show that the list that I submitted I was 100 % confident it was the right list to submit and I was 100% confident that those were the right shows to do but the shows were so good, and as I kept listening to the other shows in those two months before we actually did set things in stone and start production, I changed. But now, it’s all a moot point because the other four shows that didn’t make it in that box set ended up in this box.

It was an interesting process. That first one was a very hard one to select the shows only because everything was so good and every show that we knew wasn’t going to be in that box was a great show that was going to not be released. But again, knowing that sooner or later we’d do Volume Two (The Other One) made the selection a lot easier.

JPG: As far as the Branford Marsalis show, 3/29/90 — I’m thinking that for myself I probably have three or four copies of it — was that held up because it had made the rounds for years among traders?

DL: Well…that’s a good question. It really had to do with not knowing how hard it was going to be to get the rights to it. As it turned out in 2014, I didn’t work closely with Branford’s management to get the okay to get this. By all accounts Branford and his manager were an absolute dream to work with. They were incredibly accommodating. They were completely supportive of the idea. It was definitely a collaboration. When you ask permission for something like that you never know if it’s something that Branford looks back fondly on or not and wants to come out. Certainly, he does look back on it fondly and we’ve read enough things where Branford has sung his praise of the Grateful Dead. You never really know until you ask.

I won’t say it was easy because I wasn’t involved in the negotiations but I’m sure it was pretty smooth It was something we didn’t explore on the first one, and I really don’t know why. We were very happy with the show that we did put in that box set, the 3/30 show, but when we decided to do the other eight shows we kind of knew that this show had to be in there. And if it wasn’t, all of sudden, you’ve got the other seven shows and you’ve still got a show from the tour that has not been released. So, I know Rhino worked very hard on getting the rights to it but Branford, again, was very supportive in making that happen. Now, we get to do the whole thing.

I think you know that show is being released on its own outside of the box [as Wake Up to Find Out ]. It’s such a classic, special show. It’s a show that is going to have a wide audience, quite a wide demand for it. We just wanted to make sure that the people who didn’t want 23 CDs, eight shows for $240 would still be able to get the whole Branford show sounding as good as it does.

JPG: It’s funny that you mention about rights. Since the version of “Eyes of the World” with Branford appeared on Without a Net years ago, I thought the rights and legal situation would have been taken of at that time.

DL: No, that would have been just for that one song. This is the whole show with him playing the entire second set, aside from “Drums,” plus “Bird Song.” It was definitely a lot more than that.

JPG: It’s kind of surprising that they didn’t take of that.

DL: Yeah, well, that’s just how it works.

JPG: How many shows did you attend during that Spring ’90 tour?

DL: I attended the first 10, the first four cities, 10 shows. I went to Cap Centre, Hartford, Hamilton and Albany. Did not go to Nassau or Atlanta.

JPG: Oh, so my question about your reaction to Branford coming out at Nassau Coliseum is not going to work.

DL: No, I did not attend the Branford show. And it was funny because I knew who Branford was because I was a big fan of the Police in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. A couple years after the Police disbanded Sting put out his first solo record, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. I really liked the album. I thought there were a lot of good songs on it. I distinctly remember this incredible sax player on the record. That was the first time I ever heard Branford Marsalis play. I hadn’t listened to it in many years, and I listened to it while working on this project. The key moments of the album that I constantly can think of are Branford-related stuff. So, I was a big fan of Branford because of that album.

Then, I sought out some other stuff he did in the late ‘80s. Before internet in 1990 on this tour information still spread quickly, not as quickly as it would through Twitter and Facebook and emails but it spread pretty quickly because at a good show — we were all pretty obsessed with the stuff – you would get calls right after a show. And I distinctly remember getting the call just as I did after Hampton [when the Dead in 1989 were billed on the marquee as the Warlocks] and things like that. I got the call after the Branford show, 11:30 or 12, from my friend Larry. “Branford Marsalis came out.” “Oh wow! The sax player from Sting’s band.” “Yeah, he came out. He played the whole second set and “Bird Song…”

We talked about how special guests with the Dead didn’t always work that well only because the Dead had been playing together so long that all of a sudden you throw in a new element that doesn’t necessarily have that ability to jump right in with the Dead’s music and they kind of had to tone it back a bit. With Branford it was the complete opposite of that. He pushed them forward and the band played to an incredibly high level to meet Branford’s incredibly high level as a jazz musician. And the songs they selected and the type of music was absolutely perfect for Branford. Even the end of the show with “Lovelight” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” it’s absolutely perfect music for a sax player.

And hearing that, I remember I couldn’t wait to hear this show. On that tour the Dead weren’t giving out board patches all that freely because they were recording Without a Net and they didn’t want a lot of board tapes going out. So, it was really tough to find a board recording of the show, which, fortunately, we did hear one shortly after but I heard audience tapes and Larry was taping in the audience.

I could not wait the week it took for that package to arrive with the Maxell ll-S with an audience tape. I was just blown away.

JPG: I used to work in a record store with a friend who also attended shows, and we used to play Without a Net all the time. I just remember loving that version of “Eyes of the World” with Branford.

DL: Yep. I remember right before the Dead played Europe — three of four weeks before — Without a Net came out. I remember going into my local record shop in Ottawa and getting it on CD and putting on the “Eyes of the World” and it just blew me away, how good it was, how well it flowed. You take Branford out of that mix and it’s an incredible “Eyes of the World.” You add Branford and it’s literally one of the top five versions I can think of ever hearing.

Yeah, it was something special. It was a special guest appearance that beyond worked. It was perfection in terms of the two musical styles and how much they were compatible with each other. And that’s not always the case when you have a special guest sitting in with the Dead.

JPG: I agree. I’m a _huge- Who fan and I remember watching the video when Pete Townshend joined the Dead in Germany [March 28, 1981 Grugahalle, Essen, Germany]…

DL: …and he looks a little confused, right?

JPG: Yeah. I remember during “Not Fade Away,” which should be a pretty basic one to play, but you can tell that he’s not sure if he should play or solo or what…

DL: Yeah, exactly. Looking around like, “What do I do here?” That was exactly the thing. With Branford it worked perfectly.

JPG: Because he played with Sting in a loose rock format I wonder if he was able to transition into what the Dead did easier than others.

DL: Yeah, exactly. I think it did help, for sure.

JPG: The other thing about the box sets, do you have any idea why the band was so strong night after night?

DL: Not being a musician and not being all that tight with the band members, particularly back then when I was a guy in the crowd. I think relative to the matter, they were all very healthy at the time and that certainly contributed. I think that they knew that they were playing well and they didn’t want to let each other down. I don’t think they wanted to let the fans down, obviously. They were just really enjoying playing. That’s what you get out of it, where Brent was now a really equal member of the band. He was singing two, sometimes three songs a night and his contributions to every song, he wasn’t adding color, he was leading the way a lot of nights. Jerry was playing incredibly inspired music. Bob and Phil and the drummers were locked in perfectly. The sound was great.

Everything was working really well for them, and I do think they were all very healthy at the time. That certainly comes through vocally and instrumentally how healthy they sounded and how tight they sound. It sounds like they’re listening to one another, and that really comes off as being a band that is enjoying playing. That’s the thing. They really seemed to really have fun on this tour.

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