Deadheads can usually look forward to one or more major box sets to be released annually from the legendary Grateful Dead Vault. This year’s entry, the 19-disc Pacific Northwest ’73-’74: The Complete Recordings, features six previously unreleased concerts played in that region.
The limited edition release includes Vancouver, B.C., Canada (6/22/73 and 5/17/74), Portland, Oregon (6/24/73 and 5/19/74) and Seattle, Washington (6/26/73 and 5/21/74). Each was mastered in HDCD from the original master tapes with artwork and packaging design that reflects the First Nations people located in that area.
There’s also a 3 CD compilation of the shows, Pacific Northwest ’73-’74: Believe It If You Need It, while the complete Portland Memorial Coliseum show, 5/19/74, comes out as a six-LP limited run on 180-gram vinyl.
Besides live staples at that time of “Jack Straw,” “Sugaree” and “Brown-Eyed Women,” the band previewed numbers that would appear four months later on “Wake of the Flood”(“Eyes Of The World,” “Row Jimmy,” “Here Comes Sunshine,” “Stella Blue,” and “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”).
Grateful Dead archivist and producer David Lemieux discussed this particular era of the band as well as what went into the creation of the box set and other matters Dead-related.
“It’s been a very busy summer,” he said. “It’s been a really busy time the last couple of years, which is great. As I’ve mentioned before one of my favorite things about working with the Dead and with Rhino is the variety of stuff that we do. At any given time we can be doing a Dave’s Picks or a box set or a Record Store Day thing, whether it’s merchandise, whatever it is, there is always something different.”
He added, “I get asked quite a bit, “What is a typical day look like for you?” and I honestly don’t have an answer for it because I’ve never had two days the same. No routine. It’s just constantly working on different projects, both long-term things like the box set, which can take up to a year to get rolling and make happen to something that’s more of an immediate and pressing concern like a movie wants to license some Grateful Dead music so we have to check out the script.
As usual, the excitement by Lemieux about the latest release is palpable. Listening to Pacific Northwest, it’s warranted. During his time working with the Dead and the team at Rhino Records, he’s been the consummate professional and meticulous in the details of each project yet remains a ‘Head looking for magic in the connection of musical notes and finding unending joy when he hears it.
“I’m doing well, very busy, and enjoying it as much as ever after almost 20 years. It just keeps getting to be more and more of an enjoyable job.”
JPG: Okay David, knowing you long enough I think this whole Pacific Northwest ’73-’74: The Complete Recordings box set is just an excuse for you to release the longest “Playing in the Band” the Grateful Dead ever did (from 5/21/74, Hec Edmundson Pavilion, University Of Washington, Seattle, Washington).
DL: Well, that’s a byproduct of such a great release. I totally get what you say because, as you and your readers probably know, I’m a big fan of “Playing in the Band,” but that is one of those happy bonuses.
I go through my mind, sometimes, of what box sets we’ve released in the last 15 years, starting with the Fillmore West box set from 1969. Then, we had the two Winterland box sets, the two Spring ’90 box sets, Hampton, Virginia and on and on. I could keep going for another five, six, seven box sets. Every one that I’ve worked on, every one that I’ve proposed or pitched or produced, I’m incredibly familiar with it and incredibly happy with how it turns out. It’s something that I do go back and listen to all the time – Europe ’72 , 30 Trips Around the Sun, on and on – but this one, there’s something very special about it. I think it’s because the music is exceptional and from an era that’s exceptional and it’s a very unique era. When you add to that all of the other things that make something very special in the Grateful Dead world – the sound quality of the music then you add the artwork, which we can get to in a bit, and the actual package design and we get Nicholas G. Meriwether’s liner notes and Richie Pechner’s photos and the archival items that were located. Add all those together and you end up with…this is what we always aim for when I go into a project.
I want to make sure that every aspect of it is as good as it can be. Is this the very best package design we can produce for this specific release? In this case it’s a bentwood box, which is an indigenous Canadian First Nations as part of the potlatch ceremony. The music quality? Without a doubt. The sound quality? Without a doubt. Jeffrey Norman [who mastered in HDCD from the original master tapes] spent months on this project.
The artwork of Roy Henry Vickers…could anything be more appropriate to define this era, this region? And the answer is “No. It’s absolutely perfect.”
It was one of these box sets where everything came together in a perfect symbiosis of…perfection. It’s the kind of thing where I have, and I’m sure you do and everybody who’s into these Dead releases, has an area in their home, whether it’s a shelf or closet or wherever it is, where they have these easily accessible. They’re not in a box underneath the bed.
All of that is in my studio space or in my office. I’ve got a studio space for primary loud listening and recording my radio show and then I’ve got an office where if I have to do scanning or printing. That’s where I keep all of my Grateful Dead releases, and it’s well-organized and easily accessible. This box set, I have a place in my home that is not in one of those two places, it’s in my living room area where I don’t have anything Grateful Dead on display. It’s just a regular living room but I’ve got a place where this box set will live. It’s right in the middle of this table that I have. It’s always been missing something. I don’t have any nice sculptures for it or anything like that. This is going there. Separate from the Grateful Dead, it is a beautiful piece of art. The fact that inside that box is some of the greatest Grateful Dead music ever performed makes it so incredibly special.
And, on top of it, we get a 47-minute version of “Playing in the Band,” among many other great things. It is really some wonderful music. When the Dead took those chances and played a 47-minute “Playing in the Band” it indicates they were in a pretty “on” space. They wouldn’t have attempted something like that if they weren’t feeling it. They would have done a more standard thing, a more straightforward jam. And after the incredible jam that came out of “Truckin’” two nights before in Portland (5/19/74 Memorial Coliseum) I think they were feeling this momentum. They realized that 1974 — kind of the culmination of all the excellence of ’73 — then add to that the Wall of Sound and the freshness of it, and they were doing shorter tours. The Wall of Sound ultimately wore them out but in the beginning of that era…remember this is the very first Wall of Sound tour. The first show was in March and it was a one-off at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Then, this tour only started on May 12…14, 17, 19, 21…the “Playing in the Band” is only the fifth show of the touring Wall of Sound. It was still fresh and exciting enough that it had not yet burned them out.
JPG: I was watching your video discussing Pacific Northwest and your use of the word “personality” stuck out because it’s appropriate for this box set as well as the previous ones to describe the music, the band and the approach.
DL: Personality is such an important word for Grateful Dead music. Since I’ve become a more critical listener in the last 20 years since I started working with the Dead, I can really envision every show as having its own personality. I can hear a show that’s, let’s say, ferocious and it is driving, and it just feels like a Saturday night show. Then, I’ll check what day of the week that show took place and, sure enough, it was a Saturday night and it was in New York City or San Francisco.
Then, I’ll listen to a show, and I’m using days of the week as a minor example but it’s not always this way, and it’s much mellower but equally beautiful vibe that is a Sunday show.
Last night, I went to a show in a 500 or 600 person club. It was a Friday night. In Canada school goes back right after Labor Day. The energy felt like a Friday night show. It was packed. It was hot. It was sweaty. The band was on fire. If this had been a Tuesday night in the middle of the school semester, it’s a university city, it would not have had that same energy. So, I do very much see every show having a distinct personality in it. A show that opens up with an introspective, beautiful “Cold Rain & Snow” might be quite different than a show that opens with a really rockin’ “Casey Jones.” I’m not going to say they tailor their setlist to what they were feeling but would they have played a 47-minute “Playing in the Band” had they not been feeling they could pull it off, meaning they were in a space that they were extremely confident.
I really do feel that every show has its own personality and every box set does, too. The interesting thing about this box set, aside from the 30 Trips Around the Sun, which was obviously 30 years of Dead, it’s the first time we’ve ever done anything that wasn’t a tour or a run of shows from the same city or in the case of “Spring ‘90” half tour and then half a tour. It’s the first time we spent two years where we did, in a way, a geographical consideration — Vancouver, Portland and Seattle – but we wouldn’t have done it this way if the music hadn’t warranted it. If the first tour had been Vancouver, Portland, Seattle and then the next year they played a little differently and it was Victoria B.C., Takoma and Eugene, we probably still would have done the same box set if the music quality had matched what we have in here. It just so happened that it was three shows in the same three cities in almost the same venues with the exception of Seattle. It just happened that these shows were extremely complementary to one another, and that’s something that we always take into consideration.
When we choose a run of shows for a box set, the first thing, obviously, are all the shows that are in this box set great or are we just choosing them because it makes a complete run? Well, we wouldn’t do that if the music wasn’t great. And, do they complement one another? Are the setlists exactly the same? In this case they’re clearly not. Going back to “personality,” I can tell you the main theme of each of the six shows in here that make them each stand out from one another, and they’re all just very very different.
So, I do feel that the box set clearly has its big personality and each of the shows within are stand alone units; each of them on their own can be these incredible releases but you put them altogether it tells the story of the Dead’s growth between ’73 and ’74 but at the same time maintaining a lot of the same elements. Then, you add the change in the sound system and how much that changed the sound of the band. It’s really a remarkable time and a remarkable box set in terms of the story it tells, and that’s something that we always like to see. I think it’s fascinating.
JPG: You spoke about that May 19, 1974 Portland show and being on the list of releases due in part to that “Truckin’”>“Jam”>“Not Fade Away”>“Going Down the Road” section. How did it grow from that being a possible Dave’s Picks or some other separate release to eventually becoming part of a six show box set?
DL: There are some shows in the Vault that are certainly warranted to be released on their own as a Dave’s Picks or a Dick’s Picks previous to that but then there are some shows that warrant that we don’t release because in the back of our minds we’re thinking we can do something bigger with this; not to say that there’s anything small about the Dave’s Picks series. We print, I think, 18,000 of those. People seem to dig them…but there are times when we say, “Well, let’s just hold on to this one.” For instance, Cornell. Granted, we hadn’t had Cornell for many years but when we did reacquire the Cornell tapes a few years ago there was never any consideration to put that out as a Dave’s Picks. It had never even been considered to be separated from the other three shows that became that box set, while, at the same time, also releasing that Cornell show [separately].
The way it worked out with Portland. There were two shows in this box that have long been considered possible stand alone releases – Vancouver ’73, which we didn’t have a complete recording of it. We were missing an entire reel plus the material we did have had some pretty chopped up bits in it. If you’ve been listening to the Vancouver ’73 show since your tape trading days, you were probably listening to something that was patched with a few other audience sources and missing bits. When we reacquired all these tapes, one of the shows that came back was an alternate recording of the Vancouver show in its complete form. Likewise, the Portland ’73 show – a show that we always had in pretty good quality – we got a much better recording.
What happened was we put out the two “Spring 1990” boxes. Then, last year we did two, I don’t want to say smaller box sets, but we did the Cornell (“Get Shown the Light”) box, which came in at 11 CDs. We did a much smaller box with the six CD RFK 1989 box. For any other band that’s a career retrospective but for the Dead, because of the quality and quantity of material that’s in the Vault, that’s kind of a smaller thing.
Towards the end of 2017, as we started having meetings, it’s usually around August or September, about next year’s releases, we wanted to do something that was a little bigger but not huge. We didn’t want a 30 to 40 CD box set. They’re very expensive for people to buy. They’re expensive to produce. They take an extremely long time. We can’t do one of those every year…maybe we could but we can’t do a Europe ‘72 every year or 30 Trips Around the Sun. So, we thought we’d do something in the 15 to 20 CD range. That’s kind of where it starts.
The next thing that I do is I look through what are the last few box sets that we have released. We’ve got an ’89, a ’77. We did July 1978 before that. We look at what haven’t we done in awhile. We did the Spring ’90 sets before that. So, we kinda hit the Brent [Mydland] era quite a bit. We’ve hit ’77, ’78, the classic recordings that sounds so good. One era that we haven’t done anything big but we have done them as Dave’s Picks is from ’73 and ’74. From those two years, which are one and the same in terms of era and yet they’re very different, which is why I use “complement.” They complement each other very well.
I started thinking about the Pacific Northwest runs, and I always had this feeling that if we do a Pacific Northwest run, which is the one we should do first, knowing full well that we would do both of those runs someday. I wasn’t going to say which is a better run because I don’t think either is better. They’re both exceptional but different. I’d go through a long list of pros and cons while at the same time listening to those ’73 shows relentlessly. Likewise, I’d do the same thing with 1974.
Then, it just hit me to put them altogether and make the definitive Pacific Northwest ’73, ’74 box set.
To add to that, in the back of my mind, my best friend is an author who has been writing books with Roy Henry Vickers for almost 10 years now. They’ve written many extremely successful, well-received and critically-acclaimed books. Some of them are children’s books. They’re all First Nations stories, Indigenous Canadian stories, with Roy who is Canada’s preeminent First Nations artist. It’s Roy’s artwork and traditional stories generally.
So, I always thought, going way back when my friend started working with Roy, that if we ever released anything from the Pacific Northwest we would ask Roy to do the artwork for it. His artwork is so definable as the Pacific Northwest in terms of every aspect of it, and Roy is such a talented artist. I just felt he’d really be able to capture the Grateful Dead sensibility with his own sensibility and create this ultimate Grateful Dead piece of art that is completely regionally defined but is also incredibly authentic. You really couldn’t find somebody who was more in tune with this region. He knows British Columbia. He knows this area. He knows the First Nations. He is a member of First Nations.
As soon as we set in stone in September or October of last year that this was going to be the box; all the folks at Rhino, as I pitched it, got really excited about it. Once we decide what we’re going to do, the next question is the logistics of how are we going to package this? What is the art going to be like? We had a meeting and I said, “I know this artist up here and I think he’d be perfect. I don’t know if he’ll be interested but I have a good feeling he will be.”
My best friend, Lucky [Budd], who’s the co-author on these books, set up a meeting, I think, in December. We brought along a few of the Grateful Dead’s box sets of the last four or five years. We let him know that we don’t have a format. It’s always completely wide open but this is the quality of work. The Dead have been nominated for three of the last five Grammys in Best Package Design for our box sets. The Dead have a recent legacy on the box sets on the work Rhino’s been doing; a couple people in particular at Rhino who have been doing an exceptional job, overseen by Doran Tyson and her whole team of artists and package designers and layout people. They just do an exceptional job as proven by the Grammy nominations.
So, we had the meeting with Roy and he just lit up. His eyes, his smile, he was so into this. He started throwing out ideas immediately. They were so inspiring, and he was so inspired by the Dead’s imagery but also the regional imagery. I introduced him to the folks at Rhino. Everybody loved Roy and his artwork and loved working with him. He is a dream to work with. He’s a collaborator is the best way to describe it but at the same time he directed a lot of the aspects of this in terms of how this box set would come about.
You asked about how the Portland ’74 or Vancouver ’73 became this six-show box, that’s kind of how our box sets work. There’s an overall concept. Nothing is done arbitrarily. Everything is well thought out. When we have these visions – in the case of the six shows and Roy’s artwork — we generally pull them off.