“It’s been busy. It’s been an extremely exciting year in Grateful Dead world,” offers Grateful Dead archivist and producer David Lemieux. “The variety of things we do is, it’s so broad in terms of whether it’s the Dave’s Picks or the box set or for Record Store Day or working on a movie or two. All those kinds of things make my job, my day-to-day so exciting.
“It’s been an incredible year and, in typical fashion, as soon as we wrap up a major project or even, I don’t want to say smaller projects, we’re immediately on to the next one. Everybody’s super-excited, as am I, about Giants Stadium, and yet here we are in the fall of 2019 already putting a lot of thought into 2020 until all the way up tothinking up for 2021.”
Altogether, it makes the output a particularly good time to occupy the ears and eyes of Deadheads. Here, I discuss with Lemieux on two of 2019’s fall releases – the “final” Dead album, Ready Or Not and the box set, Giants Stadium 1987, 1989, 1991.
obviously, love what I do. It’s always different and that’s the most
fascinating part of it all.”
JPG: In your video
announcing the release you said the origins for Ready Or Not date back to discussions 15 years ago. The So Many Roads box set that came out in
1999 included some of the same tunes that on here. I see this as a closing of a
chapter but, as I noticed when I checked out a forum page on this, it’s also a
controversial period. Let’s start off by discussing the thought process behind
creating this album.
DL: Yeah, you’re right. It goes back to about 2004 when we started thinking about doing something with…it’s not all of the newer songs, some of them. There’s a lot more music to be released, I’m sure. It went back to some discussions I had with Vince Welnick actually where he was eager to be involved in putting together an album similar to this where it would have been live versions…around 1994 and very early ‘95 the Dead went into the studio and recorded many of the songs and they didn’t complete any of them. So, there are no finished takes that you could do a mix into it. It’s a project that I don’t think anybody wants to revisit.
What we decided to do because when any of these songs are generally played, I think the Dead played most of them in the range of about 40 or 50 times, there are certainly some very, very good versions of all of them. That’s the nature of the later Grateful Dead, ‘92 to ’95, that while the consistency that you would find in let’s say ‘89 or spring ‘90 or ‘77 or Europe ’72, the consistency night-to-night, start-to-finish, every show of excellence, they might not have quite been there in the later years but there certainly were moments, songs, entire sets and occasionally entire shows that for my ears are spectacular.
What I always look for is something that you could hold up and say, “This is a great show for the mid-’90s” and not have to ever add a qualifier. Either it’s a great show or it’s not, and it’s made with great songs.
we ended up doing for all of these songs, we talked to a lot of people and
we’ve been making notes, I’ve been making notes for over 15 years if you start
in 2004 when we really started looking at something like this. Then, I have
spreadsheets, both hard copies and notebooks and computer files where I’m
constantly adding things, where if I hear something particularly good, whether
it’s a whole show, I’ll revisit this maybe for a “Dave’s Picks” or it
might be a great version of a song.
Every time I hear a version of one of these songs that was particularly good, I’d write it down. When it came time to put the album together, for the most part, we didn’t listen to all 40 or 50 or 55 versions of the songs. We did listen to 10 or 15, and many of them upon an immediate listen you’d say, “Ehhhh, not quite.” You’d know it immediately. That’s the nature of any compilation. It was pretty quick to get it down to five or six versions of each of these songs. From there, it’s always a challenge to really bring it down to two or three, and then bring it down to that one where you’re just very confident, put it into a sequence with the other eight songs on the album and listen to it and say, “Yep. This is the one!” Then, maybe you want to switch it over to that other great version of the song just in case that one was it. So, it’s a pretty interesting project to do an album like this.
It’s really not the usual kind of project we work on when we usually do a box set or a “Dave’s Picks” or something like that. It’s more akin to rooting through each of the songs and finding that — I’m not gonna say perfect – most interesting version. I don’t even want to say best version but I do want to say most interesting and maybe definitive would be another good word for what we were looking for; something that you could stand up and say, “This is what this song sounded like at its peak.”
JPG: Since this is a compilation, was there a consideration to edit the songs, take sections of one version from another? For instance on “Lazy River Road,” while it’s a nice version, you can hear Jerry mumble the lyrics.
DL: Not really. First of all, the tempo, if we’d taken a piece from another show, the tempos were wildly different. That’s one thing we noticed. Let’s say we have three versions of a particular song that were the three main candidates, it was remarkable how different the tempos were of those things. Even though, I think in the later years they would play with a bit of a click track sometimes to keep it but there was some definite fluctuating tempos, not fluctuating within the song, but, sometimes, it was played a little faster or slower.
Also, as much as it is a representation of those nine songs, we definitely wanted it to be an archival, live Grateful Dead record. We didn’t feel it was a place where the So Many Roads box set, which was done as something for the hardcore fans and also an introduction to people who might not know the Dead. That version of [the song] So Many Roads did have an edit in it and that was a producer’s choice, which I very much respect.
a different philosophy on this one. We really did want it to be a live Grateful
Dead archival release and that’s why one of the songs clocks in at nearly 19
minutes. That’s because we included the jam that came out of it, not just the
body of the song, which would have been really hot. We decided to include the
jam because we wanted it to really represent that Grateful Dead of the
mid-‘90s were playing all these incredible songs but they could also improvise
right there on the spot on any given night. They could be the Grateful Dead of
old and create something new that was an interesting and exciting. There wasn’t
even a thought of fading that out and cutting it to just the end of “Corrina.”
The bottom line is we just felt the versions were good enough and if there was a little bit of a vocal thing, that’s just part of the show.
JPG: Being a single disc on CD and 2 LP Blue/Red vinyl, there’s only so much you can put on there. I noticed that there are no Phil Lesh tunes from this period. Is there an explanation for their absence?
DL: I don’t think there’s any real explanation aside from that I think that there’s an album similar to this down the road, hopefully. There’s three full songs and then there are a fair amount of really interesting cover songs that the Dead were doing at this time. If people dig this album, I wouldn’t be surprised if we do a volume two someday including the songs that didn’t make it on here of the newer ones and hopefully some of the cover songs too. They also did some songs that hadn’t been in the repertoire for quite some time, whether that’s “Casey Jones” or “Here Comes Sunshine” or “Unbroken Chain,” there’s quite a few songs that came back.
Our CD comes in at a full 80 minutes and our two LPs come in at a full 20 minutes
. There really wasn’t any room to include anything else. It really
comes down to that and making choices on what can go on this record and then
what will be going on the next one. Reminded me a little bit of “China Doll,”
which was a song the Dead started playing in very early 1973 and yet they had
to save it for a whole year-and-a-half until Mars Hotel came out because Wake
of the Flood was already full. It’s just the way it is.
JPG: You mentioned about cover tunes that were done by the Dead. I was wondering if it might be nice in the future to have a compilation or box set featuring covers throughout the years.
DL: Throughout the years will be tough because there’s literally hundreds but if we did them by eras or we’ve done the Dead do Dylan (Postcards of the Hanging). There’s always been an idea of maybe the Dead do some of the country songs – “Big River, “Mama Tried,” “Me and My Uncle,” songs like that. For something like this, it might be more era specific, where from about ‘92 to ‘95 there was a certain batch of covers that were unique for that era. I think that would be an interesting concept to do something that would be eras because if we really started reaching…there are times when almost half of a setlist could be cover songs. So, I don’t know how that would work. There is like literally dozens and dozens and possibly a hundred. I think by eras or by genres, maybe, there could be something there. With Chuck Berry, we could do a two LP, one side country songs and one side Chuck Berry songs. That would be kinda cool.
JPG: Moving on to the box set Giants Stadium 1987, 1989, 1991…
DL: The way I work is the project that we’ve finished, aside from, obviously, talking with you about it, my involvement kind of ended two or three months ago and we’ve already moved on to the next one. So, I love talking about this stuff with you because we’re talking about the current project, which for me, is a little bit in the past.
JPG: I noticed that some of the recent box sets focused on specific places — Red Rocks, RFK, Pacific Northwest, well, that’s more a region, but you know what I mean. Do you see future releases being like that or dealing with a specific venue such as Giants Stadium?
DL: That’s a great question because to bring up the first part of that question is do I foresee in the future? And from there comes the question. I honestly don’t know. And I say that because it’s not like we ever had a grand design three years ago to say, “Hey, let’s do some venue specific things,” like you said Pacific Northwest where we span two years, same venues or at least same cities in Seattle’s case. Likewise, Giants Stadium same venue spanned over four years. We never went into it with anything like that. It was more a case of, I certainly don’t like to use the word “spitball” because we are very methodical in the things we do. We think very hard about the things we do, and we spend a lot of time, months if not years, coming up with a release concept. It was never like, “Oh, we should do a Greek Theatre box or a Red Rocks…” which might happen, but there’s no grand plan for anything.
the thing. We have very good ideas of what are possible releases, let’s say, in
the next five to seven years. There’s no master list that list out what the
next five to seven years looks like or seven to 15 years but there are ideas. Europe ‘72 was a good example of that.
That was something that had been sitting on the Dead’s Vault shelves for
almost, at the time, 40 years, and it was time to do something cool with it. We
ended up doing as cool as you could do, which was the box set.
Giants Stadium, the new box set, there was no grand scheme three years ago to do a Giants box. What happened with this one in particular is about 18 months ago, maybe two years ago, we were thinking of the Meet Up at the Movies for 2018. I started thinking about the Giants Stadium shows, three in particular, the two from ’89 and then the second night from the 1991. We don’t have video from ‘87. I think the first night in ‘91 is very good but it’s not to the level of the second night. So, we talked to Rhino about it and I said, “We’ve got this Giant Stadium but I’m really a little torn because we’ve also got these incredible shows from ‘89 from Giants Stadium too. I would love to see one of those become our video for 2018 Meet Up at the Movies.” Then, we started talking and somebody said, “What about the ’87? Do we have that?” “We don’t have the video for that, unfortunately but we do have multi-track audio, which is great. Someday, maybe, we could release it.” I’ve always loved that Giants ‘87 show, performance-wise. I always thought that could be released. In the meeting somebody said as we were talking with Giants Stadium, ‘89 and ‘91, “What if we package those two years, ‘89 and ’91, as an audio release someday?” And I said, “That’s a great idea but maybe we’ll also put in the 87 show.”
The reason we limited it to these five shows and didn’t go into the later ‘90s, didn’t go into the 1978 show is these five shows we had multi-track audio. They recorded ‘87, of course, for Dylan & the Dead, ‘89 because they were building up material for what eventually became Without a Net and ’91, very fortuitous because ABC television, they had the TV show ABC In Concert, they insisted that it be recorded to multi-track because they wanted it to sound as good as possible for television. So, we very luckily have these, what I originally thought were 24-track audiotapes in the Vault but they turned out to be 48-track — two 24-track machines synced up.
So, that’s how we ended up coming up with the concept. We wanted it to sound sonically unified, which means if we had a PA DAT from1993 — very good shows in ‘93 that maybe someday would be released — but they just sonically wouldn’t quite hold up to the same level of the ‘87, ‘89 and ’91. And also a box set, you do have to put a limit somewhere on it. If you look at Europe ‘72 or 30 Trips Around the Sun maybe you don’t, but we do like to put a limit. “Let’s make this a 14 CD box. Nice and concise. It’s got the story of it being the late Brent [Mydland] era. You’re at the beginning of the Vince [Welnick] era with Bruce [Hornsby] also.” Plus, it’s got the multi-track that gives us a sonic unification that all sounds good; similar to the way the Pacific Northwest sounded very similar because the recordings were made by the same recordists with the same techniques and the same equipment. Now, if we put in some Pacific Northwest, let’s say ‘77, into that box it wouldn’t have sounded at all the same because we would have also had Betty [Cantor] recordings in there, too. That was kind of how that ended up going.
the meeting we brought up what about putting in the ‘91 show, the second night,
6/17, as a video as well, which then added another level, which is mixing it in
Surround Sound, which is incredibly exciting.
And as part of that whole process, that’s when it was decided that Meet Up at the Movies 2019 would end up being the ‘91 show. So, that’s the process. It’s very methodical but at the same time we have a lot of flexibility. Here we are in September and about three months ago as we wrapped up the bulk of the production work on Giants, that’s when we started putting a lot of thought into the 2020 box set. And that’s kind of how we end up on that. We look at what have we done in the last few years. We did a ‘73, ‘74, an ‘87, ‘89, ‘91. Recently, we did the Cornell box from ’77. We did a ‘78 box the year before that. We did the RFK ‘89. So, we look at what we’ve done in the last few years and say, “Okay, what’s right for this time? What’s right in terms of content? What’s right as the size of it? Do we want a 40 CD box? Do we want to keep it another 10 or 15?”
those kinds of decisions that start happening really around July, August every
year, so that by September and October we can go into production and be done by
January, February and get it out early in 2020 or whenever they put it out in
the summer. That’s the process of how these things happen.
JPG: Why was the ’91 show done in 48-track?
DL: It might have been ABC saying, “Here’s your budget.”I don’t know how that budget things works for “ABC InConcert.” My guess is there was some cost splitting when it was offered to do as a 48-track…it’s obviously a heck of a lot of work. You’re basically syncing up to 24-track machines, running with time code, locking them together. What it allows you to do is…let’s say a 24-track, you have two of Mickey’s drums on one track and then two more on one track. Out of24 tracks, the drummers might share seven eight, nine, let’s say 10 of them, and 10 tracks sounds like a lot when you think a vocal track would be one. So, Bob’s vocal track would be one track of the 24 as well as Jerry’s. When you’re talking about the drummers, maybe having eight to 10 tracks combined for the two of them, the 24 track, it gives you a lot more flexibility of what you’re going to do. Likewise, it gives you a little more flexibility to have maybe a couple of extra audience tracks so you can really create that live feeling.
This is what they did in 1980 with the Radio City [Music Hall] and Warfield [Theatre], they recorded to 32-track, not 48, but they had two 16-track machine synced up, which allowed them to have extra audience tracks. That’s why something like “Reckoning” and “Dead Set” sound so alive. You really get the feeling for the audience of the room and it’s because they were able to put those extra microphones around the room to get more of a live feeling to blend into the final mix with the instruments.