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by John Patrick Gatta
For David Lemieux, archivist and producer of the Grateful Dead’s wealth of concert material and host of “Today in Grateful Dead History” on SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead Channel, his annual workload goes something like this — listen, produce, release, listen, produce, release, listen, produce, release…
Those three actions work in favor for Grateful Dead fans who enjoy the high-end audio results — four Dave’s Picks concert recordings and a multi-show box set each year.
In 2021 the Dave’s Picks subscription series traveled from one musical era to another — April 15, 1978, Sept. 8, 1973, April 26, 1983 and finally July 18 and 19, 1990, Brent Mydland’s final shows – while the major release this year, “Listen to the River: St. Louis ’71 ’72 ‘73,” featured seven previously unreleased concerts on 20 CDs stored in a specially-constructed slipcase. The box set is also available digitablly.
Listen to the River offers a sonic evolution of the beloved band as it transitioned from different lineups — with and without Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, with Keith and Donna Godchaux — as well as the inclusion of material that stretched over five albums – Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, Skull & Roses, Europe ’72 and Wake of the Flood. There’s an excitement noticeably present among the bandmembers during these performances as much as there is for the listener to experience them.
The Dead played 60 different songs during these shows that included vibrant takes on “Beat It On Down The Line” and “One More Saturday Night,” explorations through “Dark Star” and “The Other One” plus tributes to the River City’s legendary son, Chuck Berry, with covers of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Around and Around,” “Promised Land” and “Run Rudolph Run.”
The Dave’s Picks series announced its two initial releases for 2022 – Baltimore Civic Center on May 26, 1977 and Winterland on Feb. 23, 1974. All four Picks plus bonus disc, which contains Winterland on Feb. 22, 1974, are exclusive to subscribers. The final date to sign up is Jan. 7.
I discuss with Lemieux what goes into creating these recordings, gain some background on the musical era that’s contained on Listen to the River, catch a few subtle hints of what to expect in future live recordings plus advice on picking the perfect avocado.
JPG: First off, Happy Birthday. One of the nice “presents” you got was on Billboard posted that Dave’s Picks 40 is the highest charting Grateful Dead album since 1987.
DL: Yeah, so it seems. This band…I won’t say I’m surprised but I am constantly impressed that 56 years into this thing that we call the Grateful Dead…I just find it immensely happy-making just to know how many people are still loving this band, and then new fans who are getting on the Bus. That is the most heartwarming part of watching the Dead legacy continue to develop is that I constantly hear from people who are much younger. There are people 25 years younger than you and me who are getting on the Bus and they are just as passionate about the Grateful Dead’s music as you and I were when we discovered it. And they’re just as passionate when they get a show they haven’t heard. Whether it’s through the Dave’s Picks series or whatever format they’re getting their music or they go see Dead & Company and they get the live experience.
People are getting off on it exactly the same we did because it’s still the same thing. It’s still Grateful Dead music, in altered forms, the experience and the passion. It’s the passion that people are bringing to their Bus ride that’s exactly what we used to experience. It just makes me so happy to see.
JPG: My wife and I did eight Dead & Company shows. It was a little weird because of COVID and dipping our toe into concerts again but we had such a blast being in that atmosphere, being around that music. The band was playing so good and was really into being together on stage.
DL: That’s it. They’re having fun. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything on this tour because there were still border restrictions with the Canada-US border when the tour was on. But, the few times I’ve been fortunate to see Dead & Company, I spent a goodly portion of my time digging the music and dancing but I also, very consciously, took a look around and to see, whether it’s 18 or 20,000 people at Shoreline or the stadiums, which are getting 35,000 to 40,000, the people dancing. It’s a similar experience that I had in Chicago six years ago for Fare Thee Well, where obviously I was focused on the music and dancing and being in that moment but also turning around and looking at this stadium. That was 71 or 72,000 people.
It brought me back to 1990 at RFK Stadium and seeing the Dead. That, to me is, I use the term ‘heartwarming’ because it reminds me of how longstanding this music is going to be.
I’m still putting on, whether it’s a Grateful Dead show from 1967, that’s 54 years ago, and I’m loving the heck out of it, or it’s a show that was recently released that is something that might’ve been on people’s radar, people are still listening to this music as freshly as we did.
I’d like to think people are going to be listening in 100 or 200 years. Again, here we are 56 years into it and I think the fanbase is growing. So, there’s no reason to think that at 100, 150 years it should still be growing.
JPG: Just amazing. A lot of people who apparently like licorice apparently. Remember that Jerry Garcia quote? (“We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”)
DL: Yeah, exactly. I’m most certainly a licorice aficionado when it comes to the Grateful Dead.
JPG: Let’s start with Dave’s Picks then talk about the St. Louis box set. I remember reading how Dick Latvala had notebooks regarding future Dick’s Picks releases. Because you’re doing Dave’s Picks and you’re doing the special releases and box sets, do you have notebooks or files with research and ideas for future releases? Do you have them separated? This show would be a Dave’s Picks versus a box set. How do you set everything up and organize it?
DL: That’s a great question. Okay. I take a lot of notes. Whenever I listen to the Grateful Dead, it’s virtually always in the guise of working, which is to say if I’m listening to the Dead, there’s always a part of me thinking could this be a release? If I’m certain that a show that I’ve been listening to is not going to be by the end of the first set, I might not take a lot of time to listen to that second set. But I take copious amounts of notes where pretty much everything is written down in spreadsheets generally. I do it digitally as opposed to manual. If I start listening to a show that I might not’ve listened to in a few years but I know it’s a good one, I’ll open up a new tab for that show and make notes about that.
In terms of a master [list]…I get asked quite a bit, “Do you have any plans to release XXXX as a future Dave’s Picks?” The answer is absolutely definitely not, that I have plans, that we have plans to do it. The reason I say that is because every single release we do, we put an incredible amount of work into that specific release. Before we ever pull the trigger and say, “Okay, this is going to be Dave’s Picks volume 41,” we’ve already spent six or nine months listening to that show to get to the point of being 100% confident and certain that this is a show that is worthy of release within the Grateful Dead’s archival release series.
When I say six to nine months, it means it could be a show that we’ve listened to 100 times over the last 15 years, knowing it’s a great show. But then when it comes time to maybe release something from a specific era, we might go to that show and that’s when we spend the six or nine months. There’s almost an epiphany where I can listen to a show 50 times and be very very sure that this show is totally worthy of release. Sometimes, I get to that 50th listen and I say, “You know what? It’s not quite there. It’s not quite the one.” Luckily, I’ve got many other shows that are ready to be listened to and give that time. That’s why we give so much time to listen to them.
But when we get to, almost like an epiphany moment, where you listen to it the 50th time, the 100th time, whatever it is, and you say, “Okay, with certainty this is definitely the show.” that’s when I let Rhino know. That’s when I let Jeffrey Norman (mixer/master) know, the archival staff in L.A. where the tapes are, know that the next Dave’s Picks is going to be this show.
So, in terms of having a master list of future releases, absolutely not. Every show is given its own world. Its own energy. Its own effort. And it’s also largely, every release, and I think a good way to put it, is a reaction to what we’ve done recently. For instance, we just released the St. Louis box from December ’71, October ’72 and October ’73. When I say every release is a reaction to what we’ve done around that time, it means that around the time that we released that box set, I could say with certainty that the final Dave’s Picks of the year, number 40, from Deer Creek, is not going to be from either December ’71 or October ’72 or October ’73. I had no idea that Deer Creak would be number 40. But I knew that it wouldn’t be something from that 22-month period in ’71 to ’73, the St. Louis era.
A good example is Dave’s Picks 39, which was a Philadelphia Spectrum show from 1983. It had been a show that had been on my radar for 15 years or more. I first heard an audience tape of it way back in my tape trading days in the late ’80s. I really liked it. Then, I heard the board tape probably 15, 18 years ago and I thought it was a great sounding board tape. It’s a magnificent show. So, I always knew.
If that came out August of 2021, the real work on that would’ve started a full year earlier. So, summer of 2020 I would’ve started making that decision that we’re going to release something from late ’82 through late ’83. Knowing that, again, this is when I go back to my notes. I know that that Philly Spectrum show from 4/26/83 is a great show and there’s a couple other great shows around then too, fall ’82 and things like that. I go back and I started listening to that nine-month era because that’s what I’ve decided I want to focus on for the next Dave’s Picks or a future Dave’s Picks in a year. That’s when it comes down to bringing it down to four to six shows from that era, which becomes two or three.
In fact, the Philly Spectrum show, Dave’s Picks 39, it was very nearly a different show. It came down to the Philly show I just felt was slightly better start to finish. I thought the first set was really really hot. I thought the second set was magnificent. The show that didn’t make the cut has gone back in the spreadsheet. But, this other show that came so close to being Dave’s Picks 39, that show is not on a future release list but I do know that when we go back, whether it’s a year or in five years and hit that era again for a Dave’s Picks release, that show would be given…doesn’t mean it’s going to be the one from that era but it means it will most certainly be given extremely strong listens because it’s a great show.
I have notes, a lot of them. It’s nothing like a master list nor is it anything like this is going to be a Dave’s Picks while this is going to be a box set…There’s not a delineation like that either. If we’re going to switch gears slightly in our conversation, a good segue into St. Louis is 10/18/72, the second night of the three nights in St. Louis ’72. That was a show that many many times over the last 20 years has come very close to being a release as either a Dick’s Picks back in those days or a Road Trips or a Dave’s Picks. I always had it in mind because I thought the other two nights from that run were also exceptional — the first night, which didn’t have a “Dark Star” or an “Other One” but is extremely well-played, the third night is really well-played, the 10/19 show.
I always had that in mind, “I’m going to hold off on releasing 10/18 because I do hope someday we’re going to do a St. Louis box from 1972 and include all three shows.” Then, through six months of work, ended up morphing into a seven-show 20 CD box that you hold in your hands now.
Over the last 20 years when it came time to pick a show for release from the fall tour of 1972, it was always given extremely high consideration but it was always held back with the hope that someday there would be a St. Louis box set from those three shows, which turned into the seven shows.
Luckily, any time we wanted to do fall of ’72 for a release, whether it was a Dick’s Picks or a Dave’s Picks or even in the 30 Trips Around The Sun box set — we included one of the September shows — there was so much great material from August, September, October and November of 1972 that it made it a little easier to leave 10/18 on the shelf a little longer. I’m grateful that we waited.
That’s a good example of the process of how we work in terms of holding things.
JPG: Is it easier for you to put together a Dave’s Picks because you don’t have to bring it to Rhino with a concept of putting together x-amount of shows for a box set? Dave’s Picks, you can focus on simply whether this is a good show, we haven’t done this era, let’s just do it versus if you’re going to do a box set, here’s the reason for the box set and here’s what we can include…
DL: I’ve got to say the team at Rhino, and I certainly do consider them a team, specifically [Rhino president] Mark Pinkus who runs the place and is extremely involved in Grateful Dead decisions, and [Rhino Senior Director of Marketing] Doran Tyson and [Rhino Global Product Manager] Ivette Ramos. Those three people and myself are the team that decides the format and the concepts and stuff like that. While it might be that months and months of discussions about concepts and deciding on a box set, generally we all trust each other so much. By the time I bring a concept to Rhino as a box set idea, for instance St. Louis, by the time I bring it to them I have spent so much time, whether it’s six months or a year working on everything about it. There’s really nothing left to decide in terms of how that box set should look.
In the case of St. Louis, when I brought it to Rhino I said, “Look, for the 2021 box set I have a concept and it depends on whether you want to do it as 15 CDs or 20 CDs. Both of them work extremely well. I just need to know which one you would prefer.” They immediately — we’re talking this whole process — took about a three-minute phone call because by the time I presented it to them it was so well-developed that it really comes down to asking what they would prefer in terms of box set. In this case they said 20.
Originally, of the two concepts, one of them was just the ’72 and ’73 shows and one included the two 1971 shows with Pigpen. It’s a team that trusts each other extremely well. Ivette coordinates everything and Doran oversees so much in terms of artwork and marketing and I work with Jeffrey Norman on the audio side of things and making sure it sounds great and work on content and find the liner note writers and the photos and the archival materials.
Then, whoever is doing the packaging at that time, in this case it was Rory Wilson (art direction) who did a great job, sometimes Steve Vance, Lisa Glines (creative supervision)who also did work on this, and Doran, and then Mark overseeing the whole enterprise as the executive in charge. It’s a great team.
Going back 11 years when Mark and I were both put into a position of working together, Mark and I had a dinner. Mark said, “I heard about your Europe ’72 idea. I think it’s a great idea.” This is an idea that some previous people had pretty much laughed me out of the room when I pitched the Europe ’72, 73-CD box set (which contained the entire tour). Mark saw that it was a cool idea. Mark’s a Deadhead. That’s what it all comes down to. He sees things from a Deadhead’s perspective, “Yeah, that would be cool. I’d buy that.”
That’s what it really comes down. Would I buy that? Would I think this is a cool addition to my Grateful Dead collection? The answer’s “Yes” and that’s how we work on things.
Again, it’s a team. A lot of people say, “Oh, you’ve got a great job and you’re very lucky.” I am. I’m very aware that my job’s pretty darn amazing. In addition to all of the great stuff that everybody sees, which is that I listen to Grateful Dead music and I’ve worked on the merchandise and things like that, the best part is I respect everybody I work with and I genuinely feel everybody I work with respects me. That is really the most important thing, knowing the people I work for, the people I work with, there’s mutual respect. We have a lot of discussions about things and we debate things a lot but they’re always done with respect and they’re always always done to end up at a place that is the best thing for the Grateful Dead legacy.
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