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David Lemieux on Sharing the Grateful Dead’s Light 40 Years Later

Give the people what they want. That seems to be the motto for those at Grateful Dead Productions and its label, Rhino Records. With each passing year the team puts out an archival release that’s been highly anticipated by fans. This year is no different with a 40th anniversary celebration of the show that’s been at the top of the wish list for those who believe that it was the band’s finest moment.

Following years of circulating among tape traders who dealt with multiple generations of clarity, the legendary May 8, 1977 concert at Cornell University’s Barton Hall has been released in multiple formats – three-CD set, limited edition five-LP set, digital download and streaming.

That show is also part of the already sold out 15,000 limited edition May 1977: Get Shown the Light box set, which compiles the Cornell date with New Haven (May 5), Boston (May 7) and Buffalo (May 9).

Due to demand and a desire to get the music out to as many people as possible, a May 1977: Get Shown the Light – All Music Edition is available. It includes the remastered audio from the four concerts on 11 CDs in four folios and a booklet of liners, housed in a slipcase.

Of course, none of this would have happened if the Dead did not acquire the wonderful-sounding Betty Board Master Tapes from that era. Several of the tapes have already been released as part of the Dave’s Picks series. While they are being scrutinized for their physical quality following years of being stored in less than hospitable conditions for magnetic tape, it’s still likely that fans haven’t heard the last notes of goodness from the Bettys.

In my interview with Grateful Dead archivist and producer David Lemieux we discuss the May 1977: Get Shown the Light box set, acquiring the Betty Board tapes for this and other releases and that particular era of the Grateful Dead.

JPG: I saw your video announcing the May 1977: Get Shown the Light box set and it brings up several things. Let’s start with the Betty Boards. It sounded as if there were years of negotiations and then you finally got your hands on them six months ago or was it earlier?

DL: I have been working for the Dead almost 20 years, coming from a tape trading Deadhead background. These were shows. I won’t say tapes at that point. They were shows that were incredibly well-known amongst Deadheads. We all traded them going back to the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s as the copies got better.

I remember getting my first cassette copy of Cornell, Boston and Buffalo. New Haven came for me a bit later. Those three from the seventh, eighth and ninth of May got around, probably in 1988. I remember that I was so excited that I got fourth generation from the master cassette tapes. “Wow! Fourth generation of these great tapes and they sounded fantastic.” As the ‘90s rolled on and DAT started becoming more popular and, then, of course, CDs after that and then digital copies, we all got copies that were a little better.

Then, 20 years ago almost, I started working for the Dead and I instantly had to put my love and listening of those shows sort of on hold. The only reason I say that, the bulk of my listening is spent on things that we can release or are going to release or considering releasing. When any of those Betty Boards that I was listening to — Cornell 1977, all that April ‘78 stuff on and on — I didn’t really have the time to listen to that because we couldn’t do anything with it. So, for me to have a limited amount of time to listen in the day, I found myself in those first many years working for the Dead only listening to things that we were working on, things that we could release. I’d occasionally, just for pleasure, “You know what? I’ve got to hear Buffalo. I wanna hear it a couple times. It helps some things. I’ve got to hear Boston with that great second set and the great first set.” Of course, Cornell was a given that I did listen to quite frequently…

Around 2013, we started discussions with the people who owned the tapes with specific interest that we obviously wanted to do something that was very major for the 50th anniversary in 2015, which of course became the 85 CD 30 Trips Around the Sun box set. It’s something we’re absolutely thrilled with but one of the first things we considered was, “Hey, let’s do Cornell. What could be bigger? What could be more exciting for Deadheads than doing Cornell?” We really worked hard to make that happen and we just couldn’t get it together on both sides. And it wasn’t a malicious ugly negotiation. There were so many details to it because it was a lot of tapes that we just didn’t make it happen. We knew we needed a good six months at least to get into production on it.

So, it didn’t happen. That’s fine. And then we kept the discussions going with the owners [of the tapes]. Again, they were really good. Around mid-2015 that’s when we decided to really work hard on making it happen or try to make it happen for the 40th anniversary. Right around that time we started working closely with Rob Eaton on behalf of the owners of the tapes, and Rob’s a good guy and also a well-known person in the Dead community. Then, a friend of his named Prescott [Carter] and Rob and myself approached this strictly as Deadheads. “Let’s make this happen. Let’s just do this.” They were representing the tape owners. I was working on behalf of Rhino and the band. We worked through ideas.

In 2016 we released a five-show box set from July of 1978. Those included the two very famous Red Rock shows, the first time the Dead played Red Rocks. They also included the three shows that really nobody knew. There were some audience tapes but there were no board tapes that circulated. I don’t know why they never got copied but, nonetheless, we were very happy and the shows were exceptional. So, we worked with the owners of the tapes on those shows. We said, “As a gesture of good faith, to show you that we’re serious, we would love to do a release with these.” We worked out arrangements. We ended up releasing that box set. Everyone was happy with it — the band, myself, Rhino, Deadheads, and the owners of the tapes.

JPG: Now, those July ‘78 shows, all five, those were all Betty Boards?

DL: They were all from the collection, correct. They came as one from the owners. So, we acquired those and put that box set out. That was when it really heated up; almost right after we released that mid-2016.

That’s when we all got very determined to make the rest of the stuff happen. With the 40th anniversary of Cornell, Boston, Buffalo and New Haven coming up in May of 2017, we really wanted to make that happen. We worked through the summer of 2016 and, then, around September is when everybody got on exactly the same page and said, “Okay. Let’s just get this done.” We did and it was pretty quick.

Once we realized that we were all on the same page and wanted the same thing — we wanted what was fair for all parties — we went into it and by, I don’t remember the exact date, but it was sometime late 2016, around October when all of the tapes were delivered to the Dead’s archives.

Then, we went through a very, very, very active phase of reviewing them in terms of determining what preservation needs they had, which ones needed more treatment in terms of special care. Some of these tapes, as the story is well-known, particularly by a story by Dean Budnick What’s Become of The Bettys? from a few years ago. Some of the tapes were not stored in the best of conditions. It was pretty crazy. We spent quite a bit of time.

The first ones we analyzed, of course, were those four shows. They were beyond fine. They were phenomenal. Then, probably around the middle to late October we pulled the trigger on setting it in stone that this was going to be a big 2017 release. Since then we’ve been working fulltime—the entire team of everybody involved. Plangent Processes did the transfer and restoration and Jeffrey [Norman] did the mastering. And then we’ve got the same designer Masaki Koike who did the first May 1977 box a couple of years ago. It’s been a really wonderful, wonderful situation to see it come together and, honestly, musically, I don’t know if there is any box set that matches this, maybe Europe ’72. We’ve done some pretty spectacular box sets. This one is really gorgeous. And (Dead scholar) Nick Meriwether wrote liner notes for the ages for the box set. For the Cornell stand alone, he did a separate note.

It’s nice to go back but it’s not a case of everything could come out now. We’re going to be very diligent in making sure that the preservation of the tapes is fine, that everything is in good shape. So far, so good. We haven’t run into anything that is problematic…yet. But, there’s a lot of tapes in here. They’re very well-known tapes. We all know what they are — anybody who has been trading tapes since the late ‘80s — what tapes are in the collection.

In addition, being all that great material from ‘76-’78, there’s also a very, very good amount of ‘71-‘73 and, in particular, the Dave’s Picks is from December 7, ‘71 at the Felt Forum. That one is in there, too. There’s a lot of material in here. The Dave’s Picks from April 2, 1973 Boston. That’s also from the collection.

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