Arts

David Lemieux on the ultimate Dead box set

Long after the final notes of the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” three-night stand in Chicago July 3-5 have faded into collective memory, devotees will continue to savor the weath of live material the band continues to release on CD — presently including “Dave’s Picks,” the quarterly series for which David Lemieux, the band’s official archivist, culls choice shows from the fabled vault. But for those who want even more, there’s “30 Trips Around the Sun,” the extravagant new box set that Lemieux has compiled for release through Rhino Records in September. Available on 80 CDs and USB stick, the lavishly packaged set includes 30 previously unreleased shows, one for each year from 1965 to 1995. (Casual listeners can opt for a keen four-CD distillation, pictured above.) In a telephone interview, Lemieux talked about how this luxurious box was compiled.

Q. What were the criteria for selecting the shows included in the “30 Trips” box?

A. The first criteria, as always with everything we do, is the music quality, performance quality. And then from there, there were a number of them that kind of had equal weight — first of all, do we have the tapes, of course. And then sound quality, the mix on the tapes, making sure that they’re sonically up to snuff. Once things started getting set in stone, I realized that a lot of these shows were things that had been slated for release in the “Dave’s Picks” series, or other stand-alone releases — things like Cape Cod ’79 and Augusta, Maine ’84; the Branford [Marsalis] show at Madison Square Garden in ’91, the third time that Branford played with the Dead; Madison Square Garden ’87. Things like that. . . . I don’t want to say they should have come out a long time ago, but frankly, they should have. But other things come up, and then you put something else out, and then that one kind of becomes bumped down to a future release.

Advertisement

By doing it this way, it allowed us to get 30 things out that, I have no doubt, if we just kept going at our regular four releases a year in the “Dave’s Picks” series, we would have hit all of these shows at one time or another. And there are some serious A-level Grateful Dead shows in here: the ones I just mentioned, but the Shrine ’67 is really one of the biggest shows the Dead did, and the best we have from ’67. The sound quality, we mixed it from the multi-tracks. Miami ’89 is another one, a show that has been so close to being released many times.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Q. Was there an overarching theme behind your selections?

A. I don’t expect anybody to sit down for 73 straight hours and listen to the whole thing start-to-finish. But if they do, or if they spend, let’s say, a couple of weeks really digesting it, maybe listen to three shows a day — and I’ve done that before, I do it quite often — you’ll really get that sense of the Grateful Dead as a band that constantly not only changed, but they grew. And I think that’s the important thing. You listen to a lot of bands — I’m thinking classic-rock bands, if you want to call the Dead that — and you listen to them in the late ’60s, in the late ’70s, maybe a band’s comeback in the ’80s and the ’90s, and then on a 50th-anniversary tour, it sounds virtually the same in all years. They’re playing the same songs, the same hits. With the Dead, it’s the same guys making the music, the definable sound of the Grateful Dead — Jerry’s playing, Phil’s bass playing, Bobby’s rhythm playing, Billy’s drumming, Mickey’s drumming — yet the music itself changed and grew so dramatically. But you can absolutely tell it is still Grateful Dead music, whether it’s ’67, ’79, ’85, or ’93. And that, I think, is the important part of this box set, telling that narrative of the Grateful Dead’s live evolution.

Q. How was it even possible to find truly exemplary unreleased shows covering a 30-year span?

A. Oftentimes we’ll be working on trying to find a mid- to late-’80s show for a “Dave’s Picks” or something, and then we get really inspired by something from 1974, and we go in that direction. And that just happens, and then we’ve kind of in the process of that also maybe found something in 1978. So for whatever reason — but these were shows that really have always been high on our list, and a lot of these shows fall into that category.

Advertisement

A lot of the years in this box set are years where the Dead were consistently very, very good — anything from ’67 to ’74, ’77, the early part of 1978, ’79 had a lot of good stuff — so those are the years that there are a lot of shows remaining to be released. Whereas 1983, ’84, we’ve released virtually nothing, because the consistent quality of the playing isn’t that high. We’ve got a couple of great New England shows from ’83, ’84; as an example, we’ve got a Worcester show from October 21st of ’83. Whenever we’ve considered ’83 as a release, it’s always been this show, specifically this concert, and for whatever reason, we just never pulled the trigger on it. And 1984, the one show that was always head and shoulders above the rest was Augusta, Maine. That’s a show that forever, since the day of the show, has been considered one of the best Dead shows of the last 15 years. And that’s in a year where the consistency of the playing isn’t great, so when they did play really well, not only does it stand out as a great show from that year, it stands out as a really great show. So again, Augusta was a show that probably should have been released a long time ago.

Certain years, I do think in this box we have found the best shows from those years. I think 1986 we’ve got a Cal Expo show, which is a great show, and I don’t need to add that qualifier: “for 1986.” Likewise ’84, likewise ’79. We’ve got other ’79 releases ready to go, but I do think that Cape Cod ’79 – again, one of the most highly requested and highly regarded shows that we have in the vaults from that era, from Brent [Mydland]’s first year in the band, and it should have come out a long time ago. That show and Madison Square Garden ’87 are a couple of shows that were almost, I hate to say, too obvious. These are shows that I’ve had in my tape-trading collection for almost 30 years for the Garden, for Cape Cod even longer than 30 years. It’s almost like we try to dig a little deeper sometimes, but sometimes it’s just so plain and right in front of us that we just don’t do it.

So to answer the question, there is so much great music in the vault — and some years there’s a lot more great music, which is why we release so much ’72 and ’77 and years like that — but there is so much great music left. Of the 2,300 shows the Dead played, we have 17 or 18 hundred of them in the vault, of which maybe 1,400 or 1,500 are unreleased — of which maybe of those, seven, eight hundred are releasable based on based on sound and mix quality. So from there, we’re still looking at the very best shows from those 700, of which obviously there are many. And that’s the thing about this box: We feel the level of performance is consistently great from start to finish. None of these shows are second-tier shows. I’ve been asked, did we withhold anything for future “Dave’s Picks” release — absolutely not. Everything in here is because it was the right show for this year. At no time did we listen to a show and say, Gee, I’d really like to hold onto this for a “Dave’s Picks.” Nothing like that. There were shows that we actually had earmarked for “Dave’s Picks” in the next 18 to 36 months that we just decided, now’s the time.

Q. In terms of the vast span of physical materials that you must have on hand, what kinds of audio sources are you working with to prepare the box set?

A. It was all two-track recordings, just like Betty Boards [soundboard recordings made by Betty Cantor-Jackson between 1971-80], the same stuff we use for the “Dave’s Picks,” and then from the early ’80s it was cassettes, cassette P.A. board tapes, and then by the mid- to late-’80s it got into the digital world, where we have digital audio tape, we have Beta PCMs. And two of the shows in the box were mixed from the multi-track, and the philosophy there was, whatever the best show of the year is, regardless of the source assuming the source is good, we’re going with it. And in the case of ’67, the best thing we had was the Shrine, and we also happened to have eight-track one-inch analog tape; in 1967 that was as good as it got. And for the 1989 show in the box, the show that really stood head and shoulders above the rest, and that we’d wanted to put out for a long time, was Miami, the final night of the tour, with the biggest, gnarliest “Dark Star” since the return of “Dark Star” in ’89 — it really harkens back to some of the deepest, darkest versions of “Dark Star” since ’73, ’74, and that was from a 24-track. So in the middle of mastering everything from two-track, [engineer] Jeffrey [Norman] actually knocked off for six weeks and went into Bob Weir’s studio and mixed those two shows.

Advertisement

Q. At $700 retail, “30 Trips” obviously is a big-ticket purchase. Do you have any sense of how the box is moving so far?

A. I won’t say we were concerned, because obviously if we’re releasing something, we have faith that people will be interested. But, you know, we put years of work into this, a huge production budget before even selling a unit, and so I think we all had faith that it would do pretty well, very well. I don’t have the actual numbers, but I will say the numbers I saw a little while ago, after it had been on sale for the first week and a half, were exceptional. It far surpassed our expectations, and frankly, our expectations are pretty high. We have no doubt it will sell out, and it’ll probably do that sooner rather than later. It’s not going to be available for all that long.

Again, everything we do, we have faith in, or we wouldn't do it, but at $700 it’s unprecedented. But you know, we did [73-CD set] “Europe ’72” at $450, and that was unprecedented, and it did extremely well. This one is almost double that, and it’s done very well. I think people really got on board because the concept that we had for it — which is to say, to really tell the narrative of the Grateful Dead and to do it in the perfect way, which is live concerts — I think people got on board with that.

The bottom line is, some of the hardest of hardcore Deadheads have looked at the list of the 30 shows and said, “You know what? These are really good shows. These are shows that I would buy all 30 of them as standalones.” And that was really the thing: We didn’t want to go B-level. We didn’t want anything but A-level Dead here. This is what we do as Deadheads: We look at these lists and go, “Yeah, this is O.K., maybe for this year they could have done that...” — but every show on this has been very positively received.

And that has been, I think, what’s really put it over the top; when you look at 30 shows at $700, if you were to buy them individually you’d be talking closer to $1,000. You’re getting it all at once, and you’re getting it as part of this extremely limited-edition thing. The last box set we did, I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but the Dead got their first-ever Grammy nomination for the box set “Spring 1990, Volume 2,” and that was for the package design. And the same team, the whole package-design team, is back at it for this one, and they are so inspired by the content, by the size, by the scope of it. So if people thought that “Spring 1990” looked good — and clearly the Grammy folks did — this one is significantly more impressive. It’s something that you’re going to be really proud to put on a shelf.

Q. What was the thinking behind offering a USB version?

A. We’ve had a lot of people — well, clearly not a lot when we’re talking 6,500 boxes versus 1,000 USB, but we have had people let us know that there is interest in high-resolution digital data. And you know, I’ve heard some people talk about the price being the same, and the box manufacturing for the CDs is expensive — but really, the primary costs in these really go to song publishing, song royalties, and it is high-resolution music, which is generally pretty expensive. So it’s expensive, but it’s worth it, and the packaging is pretty darn cool.

Q. I’m going to hold your feet to the fire now and tap your encyclopedic knowledge of Grateful Dead lore and recordings: What’s your favorite Boston show?

A. Oh, great question, favorite Boston show. One show I’m really high on is 4/2/73, which is the last show of the spring tour of ’73. That was a Boston Garden show, and it was interesting, because they’d been playing the Music Hall for a long time, and then in ’73 they played the Boston Garden, but then they came back later in ’73 and played that famous three-night run back at the Music Hall. That was the first Garden show, I guess. And then another big one I really love is June 9th of 1976. That was the comeback tour; they started the tour in Portland, Oregon, and then the first East Coast show in almost two years — actually, since August of ’74 — was the Boston show. And I like all four nights of that Boston run, but the June 9th show I think is exceptional. Those are the ones that have always really pleased me. They kind of took a bit of time off in the ’80s from playing Boston; they played Foxborough and places like that, of course. Worcester became a big home for the Dead. And then of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention May 7th of ’77, the night before Cornell. I think that’s also an exceptional Dead show.

Q. Is that show still missing from the vaults?

A. It is. It is still missing. We know where the master tapes are, and we’ve told the owners we would love to get them back. Maybe someday that’ll happen; nothing imminent, but we would love to get that. And that includes the whole run of shows of Boston, Cornell, Buffalo, etcetera. It really is a classic show. I remember getting the three — the Boston, the Cornell show, and the Buffalo show of May 9th — all at once in in the late ’80s, 1988. I loved them all. I obviously loved Cornell, and Buffalo has such perfect energy to it, but then the one that I always kind of considered the party show, and the one that always really raised my spirits the most, was the Boston show. I don’t know if it’s the best of the three, but certainly for me, it’s the one I reach for a lot. There’s a “Terrapin Station,” there’s a “Bertha,” and they just are on fire. And there’s a lot of nuances in that show — there’s nuances in every Dead show, but there’s a lot that are really unique to that show. It’s the kind of thing where you can hear half of a song and you’ll know, Oh, that’s the Boston show.

Exclusive audio

Listen to recordings of the Grateful Dead performing in Cape Cod and Boston, specially chosen by band archivist David Lemieux from the “30 Trips Around the Sun” box set and available exclusively here.

“Candyman”(Live at Cape Cod Coliseum 10-27-79)

“Help On The Way”(Live at Boston Garden 10-1-94)

“Slipknot” (Live at Boston Garden 10-1-94)

“Franklin’s Tower” (Live at Boston Garden 10-1-94)

“30 Trips Around the Sun” and the four-CD compilation “30 Trips Around the Sun: The Definitive Live Story 1965-1995” will be released on Sept. 18; www.dead.net.

Interview was condensed and edited. Steve Smith can be reached at steven.smith@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.