Interview from the Vault

A Conversation with David Lemieux

(Part 1)

First Appeared at The Music Box, February 2002, Volume 9, #2

Written by Eric Levy

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How do you please 10 million deadheads, all of whom have radically different tastes? It's not an easy task, but Grateful Dead vault archivist David Lemieux has risen to the challenge with skill and tact. I spoke with David by phone this past summer. He has a warm, enthusiastic manner and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Dead's concert history as well as the contents of their legendary vault. In the following interview, we discuss the vault release process in general and talk specifically about some of the more recent releases. At the time of the interview, Nightfall of Diamonds and Dick's Pick's Volume 23 had not yet been released, nor had the massive box set The Golden Road (1965-1973). Therefore, discussion of those is limited, but the interview does answer some long-unknown questions and provides insight into the process of archiving the greatest American band in history.

So how does it feel to have the greatest job in the world?

Well, you know, it feels terrific. It's still pretty thrilling coming to work here every day — no doubt about that. It's funny, the perception of the job is sitting around listening to Grateful Dead music 10 or 12 hours a day, which a lot people do anyway, but they don't get paid for it. But then there's all the not-so-glamorous stuff that people don't think about. Luckily it's easy to balance that out with the good parts of the job, which is pretty much 99% of it. So I can't imagine being in a better job. It's a lot of fun.

It's an enviable position, as I'm sure you know.

I can imagine, but hopefully we're getting enough music out there so that it doesn't seem like we're hording it. We're trying to get as much out as we can.

The release rate has really accelerated since you came on board.

Well, we're trying. I came here as a Deadhead. It's tough sometimes to get things through — as Dick [Latvala] well knew — about ideas for releases, specific shows, or even ideas for the content of a specific release. But when one does get accepted and it proceeds, it's pretty exciting.

You and I both started seeing the Grateful Dead in the 1980s. Do you have a favorite era?

I have a few. I'll give you some examples. Working on this recent box set, there were some live '66 recordings. I'd always been kind of a casual fan of '66, but then when you really listen to it during the mastering, you realize how good it is. When we did this recent Dick's Picks Volume 22 from '68, I really became enamored of [that year]. And then of course 1969-1970 kind of goes with out saying, as does 1972-1974. I was never particularly enamored with shows from 1971 until a year and a half ago while working on Ladies and Gentlemen...The Grateful Dead. I knew the material really well, but it never really jumped out at me until we combined 20 hours of it into the 5 hours on Ladies and Gentlemen…. And then 1972-1974 for the obvious reasons: I love [the versions of] Playing in the Band from '72, '73, and '74, but particularly those from '72; I love where they were taking Dark Star in '73, I love Eyes of the World in '73 and '74. I could put out every Eyes of the World. I like the laid back feel of 1976. [The year] 1977 kind of goes without saying — I love the funkiness of Dancing in the Street; I love the tightness of that era of the Dead. [The year] 1978 — when it's good it's unbelievable. Dick's Picks 18, for example, is really awesome.

Early Brent I really enjoy — I thought he was really funky and the band had good energy. Mid-'80s is tougher, but when I do find something like Dick's Picks Twenty-One or Dick's Picks 13, it just blows me away. From 1987 through Summer 1990 there was some pretty great consistent playing. I like 1991 a heck of a lot, while 1992-1995 is really hit and miss. Now when it's really good, it can be transcendent, but otherwise I have the same opinion as a lot of people about the 1992-1995 period, which is that it's a little less consistent, yet there are some pretty terrific shows. [The year] 1993 had some amazing shows, late '94 had some astounding performances, and then Spring '95 had some incredible shows, too.

So this isn't me sitting on the fence; it's me realizing that there is some really amazing playing from every era. You know these people who refuse to listen to the '80s or refuse to listen to the 1972-1974 era — I can't box myself in that way. I couldn't do my job doing that, but having gone to school for a long time you get as objective as possible. When you sit back objectively and take your own emotions out of it, you really find that there's some pretty good stuff. You can definitely say there's some pretty bad stuff in a lot of places, too.

I totally agree. I love every era and I have every vault release. We've had some raging arguments on the DeadBase Dick's Picks Forum about this, and some people say, "I don't know why they bother releasing anything but stuff from the '70s." So it's really gratifying to hear that the person who is in charge of all this feels the way I do.

Well, if you look at what's been released in the last year, we've had a couple '91 shows, a '90 show, an '89 vault release coming up, some '68, some '73, some '78, some '76, and some '85. We're trying to hit as much as we can, and we know that as far as consistency's sake goes, there are a lot of really good shows from 1972-1974. We could continue just doing that, but the Dead's history and the legacy of what they left behind is too important to just focus on 4 years or 10 years or whatever without revealing the fact that this band was unbelievably dynamic and diverse.

I'm really grateful to hear that. Dick Latvala had a justifiably famous ear, but I always felt that he wore his biases on his sleeve.

He did. I definitely have some things that I love more than others, and if the Dick's Picks series was just for myself, I don't know if the same choices would be made. I love every single album I've worked on. I absolutely love everything. I find myself listening to certain eras a lot more than others, but it isn't about me — it's about the good of the band and the good of the historical legacy.

People have been clamoring for another 1972 release. Hundred Year Hall and Dick's Picks Volume 11 are the only vault releases from that year. Can we look forward to something in the near future?

Unfortunately, some of the best shows from '72 we just don't have. A bunch of the real famous ones that we all know about — some of the November shows, for example, we just don't have or we don't have in soundboards — there was a technical glitch going on with the recording process in October '72 so we're missing some of that, but we do have some really good ones, too. There's the 8-27-72 Veneta show, of course. We have got multi-tracks of that, so that's a possibility sometime. You know with the big vault releases we can't do more than one per year so this year's is obviously Nightfall of Diamonds. And that was a conscious choice. We did 1971 last year with Ladies and Gentlemen... and to have done something from 1972 this year wouldn't really be representing the band all that well, so we wanted to do something that hadn't been done in four or five years — which was Dozin' at the Knick — so we figured let's look around that 1989 period, and went with Nightfall of Diamonds.

Why did you choose that over the October 8th and 9th "Formerly the Warlocks" shows?

"Formerly the Warlocks" I will say — and you can put this on the record — I'm sure will be released some day. Why we didn't do it is that we wanted to do a complete show. With the two Hampton shows, it would have been impossible to do a six-CD set right now as a vault release. We did five CDs with So Many Roads, and we did four CDs withLadies and Gentlemen…. We've got 12 CDs coming out with The Golden Road. We said, "Okay let's do a nice tight two-CD set." I guess we could have done either the 8th or the 9th [from Hampton] — probably the 9th — but then it would have left off all that great music from the 8th. I think as far as the full show goes, 10-16-89 really stands up as the better all-around show of those three. If you listen to Nightfall of Diamonds start to finish — and it's a short show; it's only two and a half hours — it really does stand up as a good solid show representing an awesome era.

And even though it isn't the return performances of some of those songs, it does feature the newly revived Dark Star and Attics of My Life.

True, but we didn't pick it based on set list. I guess we seldom do. It was picked because a lot of people wanted this particular concert, and it's a heck of a strong show. I know people are going to say, "Well, it should have been Hampton because of the historical significance." Which is not to say Hampton weren't great shows — they really were — but the solidity of 10-16-89 is why we went with it.

I'm surprised that you don't choose things based on song selection.

No. Never. I don't think we've ever said, "Hey, maybe it's time we put out a song with this," and then searched for a show with that song in it. It's never happened that way.

I want to read you some statistics.

I know the statistics. Trust me we do not go and look for Tennessee Jed or Me and My Uncle. It just happens that way.

But certainly something like Dick's Picks 21 — it couldn't have been an accident that Spoonful, Gimme Some Lovin', She Belongs to Me, and Gloria, had not been officially released before.

That was a happy accident. That was a great show. And again, 1985 is a year where there are a lot of tape problems. The master tapes we have on cassette. And then we've got the PCMs, the Beta tapes, starting with the New Year's run of '82 up until about New Year's '87. We've got these digital tapes that are Betamax videotapes with no video on them, just an audio-only track. The earliest digital audio we have is from 1985. Early digital had real bass issues. It's really bass shy. We looked at quite a bit of it from that era. For instance the bonus material on Dick's Picks 21 from Rochester 9-2-80 with the tremendous Iko Iko — we thought about putting on the Space>Werewolves of London>The Music Never Stopped medley that opened the night before, and a lot of people said, "Why didn't they do that? They had 40 minutes." The reason is that the tape really lacked bass. It literally had no bass in the mix. It's those sorts of issues that rendered that specific tape unusable. So with '85 there were a few shows that I won't say we rated higher than Richmond 11-1-85, but that we equally valued, and they just didn't hold up as far as the sound quality goes. And the performance at that Richmond show is pretty amazing energy, and I think the energy that the band brought that night is what caused such an incredible set list. I don't think it was the set list that caused the energy. I think it was the band playing so incredibly tightly on that whole tour — that whole year really — that something magic happened that night and they probably walked on stage and said, "Let's mess it up a bit tonight." Hence, we got two Jerry ballads before Drums, and then the post-Space is stellar.

So to get back to your question, no we didn't say, "This is a cool set list." We don't go through DeadBase looking for unusual set lists. I know the set lists as well as anyone does. I know which shows are the sought after ones. We've done polls. I'm a tape trader myself so I know what's going on, and there are quite a few people involved in the process who [provide] input. Dick's Picks 21, specifically, was both a really good show and highly sought after. It happened to be a really good sounding tape, and it was very popular. With so much circulating now there's not really much left in the way of surprises. You know the criteria used to be: performance, then sound quality, then sound mix, and then the song selection. The fact is at number 22 in the Dick's Picks series we're not going to really find much in the way of songs that haven't been put out.

I would disagree there.

There's My Brother Esau and Might as Well. There are some, but there aren't 40 or 50 songs that we have in great shows where it's going to be worth putting out the whole show for that [one] song.

One that's really conspicuous in its absence right now is The Women Are Smarter.

Yeah, and Brother Esau. I'd like to see those [released]. We almost had a couple versions of The Women Are Smarter. We had a '91 show in mind, when we did Dick's Picks 17, that had a great Women Are Smarter, but there was a weird kick drum problem in the mix. I'm sure you've heard tapes that have really loud kick drums. It gets to the point where you can't digitally remove them.

So we'll get around to it. We'll get around to all those songs, but I don't think we'll ever pick a show for that reason.

Well, I believe you, but I've got to admit this is kind of shocking. I was going to go through how there was a brand new — meaning previously unreleased officially — song on virtually every release since the So Many Roads box set. For instance, Foolish Heart hadn't come out until View from the Vault II.

With the CD release on that one, we said let's put the Dark Star on as a bonus. And then Jeffrey Norman, who's got the stop watch, said we could also fit Victim or the Crime and Foolish Heart, so we get the entire Victim>Foolish>Dark Star, plus Box of Rain on the DVD.

By the time people read this, we'll probably have Nightfall of Diamonds and Dick's Picks Volume 23 out, but at the time you and I are talking, the current releases are Dick's Picks 22 and View From the Vault II. So I want to talk about those two a little. Apart from a handful of tracks on So Many Roads and Fallout from the Phil Zone, Dick's Picks Volume 22 is the earliest music to escape from the vault. More from the '60s is always welcome. How did this release come about?

We got lucky as far as its not being a circulated show. There was a little area of the vault that had somehow been overlooked. I don't think Dick ever listened to it. Usually when he'd listen, he'd label the song list right on the box, and this one didn't have a label. I think that because it was part of the Anthem of the Sun sessions, it might have been put aside. Jeffrey and I found it. Jeffrey was mastering Dick's Picks Volume 21, and I pulled up the machine. I wanted to do it in the studio because I wanted use the good HDCD converter because the first time you play a reel could be the last time, if there are problems with it, and you want to make a really good copy. So I set up the HDCD system, 24-bit backup, and a DAT. I sat there with headphones and Jeffrey thought, "Okay, David's going to go off in the corner and listen to some 1968, while I work on the task at hand." And all I wanted was a reference copy. I wasn't looking for a Dick's Picks. We had something lined up for Dick's Picks 22 anyway. So I started listening, and the first tune I put on is that Viola Lee Blues. The sound quality is terrific considering how old the tape is. It even had left and right drum separation, and it had pretty decent vocals — [although they were] a little low at times. So anyhow, Viola Lee Blues started, and I looked back at Jeffrey and said, "Jeffrey you're not going to believe this." And he just moans. Ten minutes into Viola we're still going hard. I turned around and said "Jeffrey I've got to turn this up." So I take the headphones off and turn it up and Jeff says, "Oh man, this is really good." And this was with no EQ — this was straight transfer — so I kept listening. I spent three or four hours transferring it. Unfortunately on the 22nd — people might want to know — there were no vocals recorded to tape. There was a tape labeled "Tape One" and it had some of the same songs as tape three and four so we're kind of assuming that it's the 22nd. It definitely was three nights, February 22-24, but there were no vocals at all recorded to tape on the first night. It was a really useless tape, but I listened to it anyway to get the song list. There was a Morning Dew, a Beat It on Down the Line, things like that. So I get to another reel and start listening, and I thought, "Oh terrific there's an Alligator on here. Great! I've been looking for an Alligator for ages." Then Alligator just — BOOM — cuts and goes right into China Cat Sunflower, and I'd already listened to the reel that had the Dark Star>China Cat Sunflower>The Eleven. And I was thinking, "I wonder what they'll do. Maybe they did it twice in a row…" — BOOM — The Eleven. "This is great. What are they going to do next?" And then they go back into Alligator! And then all the little songs, the Morning Dew and the Hurts Me Too, and then there was The Other One on which Billy [Kreutzmann]'s not even playing. I talked to Billy about it. Billy was skiing all day, and he was so tired that he sat out for a couple minutes. So on The Other One, there's no Billy.

He remembered that?!

He remembers being so tired from skiing all day, getting to the show and just saying, "Oh man I'm exhausted, I don't know if I can play." When I explained, he said that must have been what happened. I saw him the day it came out, and he was telling me about how much fun it was. Mickey [Hart] raved about how much fun these shows were — a bowling alley with ten-foot ceilings packed with all these Tahoe hippies.

So I put it on a tape, and there were probably about three and a half hours total. Some of it was unusable due to cuts. There were a couple repeated songs — and I don't mean the China Cat>Eleven which are within jams so they don't count as repeated songs. I mean another Morning Dew. So we put it together the very best that we could, going primarily by reel number. Even that was kind of dicey where it said Reel One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, maybe Seven. It was 10-inch reels at 15 inches per second — which is pretty much as good as you can get from that era — two-track quarter-inch tape. We looked at it, and we did it chronologically. Reel One and Two were pretty useless — that was the first show I guess — and then the second and third shows were what Dick's Picks 22 comes from — the 23rd and 24th. We're pretty sure that CD One is the first night and CD Two is the second night. People say, "Well the poster says 8:30-2:00." But when you really think about it, the opening band probably didn't come on until 9:00 or 9:30. They played until 10:30 or 11:00. The Dead came on at midnight and played for two hours, so it does make sense. We're not holding a whole bunch of jams, needless to say. This would have been a three-CD set if it warranted it, but the fact is that I don't think we even had three CDs worth of material. What we did have was a couple repeats, another Morning Dew, another Hurts Me Too, and a Beat It on Down the Line — all without vocals. So we did the best we could. What you get might be a compilation, or it might not be. We don't know.

I kind of like that it was a two-CD release.

So do I! It felt good, and that's why Nightfall of Diamonds is feeling so good, too.

Is that two CDs also?

It's two — perfect. 68-minute CD One and 77-minute CD Two.

And just a straight whole show, nothing more, nothing less?

Nothing more, nothing less.

My dream release!

And all the space between songs is there, even between Memphis Blues Again and Let It Grow — when the crowd sings Happy Birthday to Bobby and Jerry plays it for two minutes — it's there. For you Eric, you'll like it.

Well thank you! One thing that really impressed me on Dick's Picks 22 was Bob Weir's playing. He was much more than simply a rhythm guitarist.

Oh yeah! You hear those little notes underneath Viola Lee Blues and on Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, The Other One, and Caution that really stand out to me. That's what Jeffrey said too, "Man, he could play!" This is just two-and-a-half years into the band and he's playing that well. It was pretty incredible.

The vocals seem a little low here and there on the first disc like the beginning of Turn on Your Lovelight and Jerry Garcia's vocals on The Eleven and on Born Cross-Eyed. Was that due to the equipment they were using at the time?

Yeah. I don't think this was a PA tape. I think this was a mix tape, straight to two-track. And I guess they just mixed it low, which is exactly why on the first night the vocals and drums are missing. I think it's Billy's drums that are missing, and all the vocals. Obviously that didn't come through in the PA or people would have strangled the soundman. It's a function of the taping going down that way. Maybe it was on purpose. Maybe they didn't need the vocals because it was specifically for Anthem of the Sun, and they had the studio vocals they wanted. I have no idea; this is just speculation. So the vocals are a little low. We would have preferred them a little higher, and if we'd had multi-tracks obviously we would have brought them up a bit.

It doesn't take away from it.

No it doesn't, and that was an issue. Jeffrey and I sat down with our checklist. Performance: I don't think there's any doubt that it's worthy. Sound quality: Jeffrey's been here since the beginning of the Dick's Picks series — he was here for the first one — and he said this was to him what Dick's Picks was always supposed to be: the occasional raw, rare gem that's just really stunning.

"Warts and all."

Exactly. So I think we nailed it with this one — the two-CD set is really slick. I've got one in my car right now. It's nice to have that kind of Dick's Picks Three feeling, you know, two-and-a-half hours of perfect music. Not to say we're veering away from the whole-show releases, even if there is a weak version of a certain song or a blown lyric.

I'm glad to hear that!

Oh no. I think the next Dick's Picks will be a full show. I think you can count on that. Nightfall of Diamonds is a full show, and that was intentional. We really enjoy full shows — Don't Let Go was a full show. That was a pretty strong era for the Jerry Garcia Band. We could have done a mix and match and just put out a bunch of songs that had never been released, but the Don't Let Go show itself just stood up too well. Even if there were a couple songs that had already been released, it was too important to not put it out as a full show or to mess with it.

And then you have that incredible Mighty High bonus track that had never been released.

Right. You know Mighty High was only played for those six months — July through November of 1976. With the Jerry material coming out so preciously — we've had so little of it — that with Don't Let Go coming out followed up by Shining Star, who knows when the next one will be. I can pretty much guarantee it wouldn't be [taken from] that six months of 1976. We'd probably aim for something else, maybe a different line-up. Mighty High was too good a song not to put out. I'd been archiving the collection, and I've heard every Mighty High. I've always loved that song, but when I heard this version in particular, especially Donna's singing, it's just so powerful. It's so emotional; she's so into it. I said, "We've got to do it." I pitched it, and sure enough anybody who heard the song said, "Yeah, why not." It doesn't detract from Don't Let Go being a great show; if anything, it adds to the release.

Back to Dick's Picks 22: I love the Bid You Goodnight Jam during Alligator.

That was another thing. I said, "Jeffrey, hear this!" and I hit the button. This was about a week and a half before they first played We Bid You Goodnight.

And two years before Jerry Garcia put that jam into Goin' Down the Road!

Exactly. It was very cool to find that. And I think it was sometime in early March. It was two weeks later when he actually started singing the song, so that was very cool to find. That whole 35-minute chunk is just outstanding. Dick's Picks 22 is one of my favorite Picks so far.

Mine too. Two From the Vault has always been one of my favorites, so to hear more from '68 is such a thrill.

When we were listening to this, we kept putting on Two From the Vault, which sounds significantly better. But aside from the astounding New Potato Caboose, I find that Dick's Picks 22 really holds up to Two From the Vault performance-wise. That Viola Lee Blues, although it doesn't hit some of the crescendos later versions have, is astounding. There are these licks in it that you never hear anywhere else, and then there's that little drum break. Some people think it was a cut on our part — that we actually fucked with it. Some people think it's a power outage, but you know, the band was tight and they just did a little drum break. I've heard people say, "I've heard every Viola Lee Blues ever performed and I've never heard one with a drum break, so therefore there's no drum break on this. It's false." If that's what people want to believe then that's fine. But it's not true, and it's a great Viola Lee Blues.

Another added bonus to this particular release is that you get to play the did-it-end-up-on-Anthem-of-the-Sun game.

The big one in particular is the weird siren sound during Feedback.

At 3:17?

Yeah.

So I'm not the only one hearing that.

The minute I heard that — Jeffrey was in the room — I first listened off the master reel directly, and I know Anthem like the back of my hand, and I said, "Hey Anthem of the Sun!" And there's a couple bits during The Other One that I'm sure were used, but I took a look at the master reels of Anthem before the mix and it actually says, "Use King's Beach Feedback, 13 seconds worth," so they planned it. They knew what they were doing.

It's such fun putting the pieces of Anthem together.

Totally.

Speaking of which, was 2-14-68 considered?

No. It's a multi-track. We've got an eight-track of that in the vault.

A possible release someday?

Yeah, I'm totally sure. That's a great show, and that's something we've all had forever because of the FM tape that was done originally. It's a very similar show to Dick's Picks 22. In places the energy is a lot better. I like the set list for Dick's Picks 22better, but I agree 2-14-68 is just incredible. Another nice thing about the King's Beach show, I've got to say, it will probably be one of the last Dick's Picks to consist of something that doesn't circulate. It's sad to say, but it's true, so I hope people recognize that. We're not going to find another cache of tapes. This was a rare situation, but I'm glad it happened. I love the album. The material that's been released from the vault over the years is, of course, the best stuff. The people who had access to the vault wouldn't give their friends any weak shows. It's all good. So everything that's really good, by nature of it's being good, gets released in unofficial ways. It's out there for the traders, so the best we can do is to try and look for the best shows and provide really terrific upgrades. I hope there are some more surprises, but I know every square inch of this room right now.

I think what you're talking about is really important. Like about the upcoming Nightfall of Diamonds, some people are saying, "Why release that? Everyone has the tape." And Dick Latvala himself even said that in the earlier years.>

Well, in the early years of course. I've heard Dick's interviews about Cornell where he says, "Why would we release that, everyone's got it."

And Veneta!

But look at Dick's Picks 4 and Dick's Picks 8.

Not to mention One From the Vault.

Exactly, everyone had that. The fact is, we could have intentionally gone for something else from that '89 to early '90 multi-track period, but I don't think it would have been as strong a show. I think that the good concerts are out there because they're good.

And there have to be a lot of people out there buying these things that are not tape traders.

This is true. Ladies and Gentlemen... is a good example of that, too. These are shows that are not only in circulation, but they've been in circulation since 1972 in pretty good quality. So the fact is, with the multi-tracks, Nightfall of Diamonds sounds incredible and is an upgrade for those who had the tapes, but I think a lot of people just aren't tape traders. With the amount that we're releasing now, this is their tape collection. With 22 Dick's Picks, 7 or 8 vault releases, a box set, and these videos, you could amass 200 terrific, quality hours without having to be a tape trader. I think for a lot of people, the official releases are their source of music. So we do what we can. We try to get the best shows out there despite the fact that they might already circulate. It was kind of the philosophy from the beginning of the Dick's Picks series that — as much as it's good to put out the rare stuff — if something like Dick's Picks 4 or Dick's Picks 8 or Dick's Picks 15 happens to be the best, then it gets released.

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Of Further Interest...

An Interview with David Lemieux: Part Two

An Interview with David Lemieux: Part Three

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Golden Road (1965-1973) is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Dick's Picks, Volume 22 is available from iTunes.
To order, please Click Here!

Don't Let Go is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

View from the Vault II is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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