The Grateful Dead played their last show on July 9, 1995, at Chicago’s Soldier Field. A month later Jerry Garcia was felled by a heart attack, and the band, which formed in 1965 and had a history of concerts ranging in quality from crackerjack tightness to sloppy discord, ceased to be.
In the annals of Dead Head-dom, their 1969 performance at Woodstock was considered among their worst, and one at MIT’s Kresge Plaza the following May one of their best. But a show they did on Aug. 27, 1972, at the Old Renaissance Faire Grounds in Veneta, Ore., a benefit for the nearby Springfield Creamery, has long been the stuff of legend.
Water was in short supply, temperatures hit the 103-degree mark. The 30,000-strong crowd was hot, but the band was on fire, tearing through 20 songs over three sets. Their instruments would sometimes go out of tune because of the heat, but the band members remained in tune with each other’s musical sensibilities.
The concert was filmed and dubbed “Sunshine Daydream” after a lyric in their song “Sugar Magnolia.” But it has only been seen in bootleg form over the years, including a shoddy YouTube presentation. On Aug. 1, Garcia’s birthday, a fully restored “Sunshine Daydream” will screen in almost 500 theaters across the country. The new film features high-definition visuals and gorgeously remixed and remastered sound, making room for nine complete songs, including a splendidly trippy, half-hour version of “Dark Star.”
Official Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux, speaking quickly and excitedly by phone from his home in Victoria, B.C., admitted to being a fan of the band and the film for many years.
“I started collecting Dead [audio] tapes in 1984 when I was 14,” he said.” I started collecting VHS tapes in 1987, and one of the first ones I got was this. I started seeing the Dead play in 1987, and it was a very different scene. This film was as close as I would ever get to seeing the epitome of the Grateful Dead scene that I’d envisioned in my head. This was a show where the performance matches the hype. You could consider this one of the top five shows they ever played.”
The film is being released through Rhino Entertainment, which owns the rights to its music, and for whom Lemieux works. But it was produced, all those years ago, by Sam Field, who’s now in management at the electronics manufacturing company Jetronics.
Laidback and slow-talking, Field spoke by phone from his office in Santa Rosa, Calif., about how the film actually got off the ground.
“My buddy, John Norris, and I had gone to a few Dead concerts, thought they were pretty cool, and that maybe we should find a way to share it with the wider world,” he said. “I wasn’t a filmmaker, but he was, and we knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. So we wrote a letter to Jerry and said we think there’s a film application in here somewhere. He wrote back saying, ‘Well, as long as it’s about the music rather than the scene, then sure. Give it a try.’
“That was in 1971. John and I decided to do some research, so we went on the Dead’s Europe ’72 tour to see what the band was up to, and to start plotting camera angles and check out who could be seen in what shots. Later that summer we found out there was going to be an outdoor concert in one week. We thought, ‘This may be our shot.’ And we took a chance.”
The film was made with four 16mm cameras that were synced to the sound, and remained focused on the stage, along with two additional roaming cameras for crowd shots. Along with getting the performance in a close-up and intimate manner, the film also captures what it was like to be there on that day.
So between a rollicking brief version of “Promised Land” with Bob Weir on lead vocal, a lengthy “China Cat Sunflower” with Garcia taking the lead vocal and trading fluid guitar lines with Weir, and a terrific “Jack Straw” with Garcia and Weir trading leads vocals and bassist Phil Lesh joining in for some three-part harmonies, there’s also plenty of casual nudity and substance abuse in the crowd scenes.
When filming was done, Field’s initial idea was to try for a 30-minute slot on PBS.
“Maybe just ‘Dark Star,’ or maybe a little bit here and there. We had no idea,” he said. “But when we started going through the footage we realized that we had more than that. So we capped it at 90 minutes because that was the length of movies in those days, and we started to think about getting it in theaters.”
Field and his partners were three-quarters of the way through the rough cut when they showed it to the band.
“For some reason, that didn’t go very well,” he remembered. “Possibly it was that problem with the instruments being out of tune because of the extreme heat. You can even see them tuning during the middle of some songs. Soon after, they started to make their own documentary, which would become ‘The Grateful Dead Movie,’ and it didn’t make sense to have them both out at the same time. So we got relegated to the bottom shelf.
“But with modern mixing, editing, and engineering tools, we can put them back in tune. We’ve gone back and mixed from the 16-track [recording], and brought up the piano, and now you can hear everybody when they’re playing. It’s been mixed and mastered and polished up, so it actually sounds up to standards.”
Yet even though the film became one of the most requested and sought-after, almost grail-like projects in the minds of Dead Heads, Rhino owned the audio, and Field owned the film, and there was no bridging the gap between them.
“I started working with the Dead in 1999,” said Lemieux, “and I remember in 2001 we had a big meeting between myself and Jeffrey Norman, who mixed the audio for the film, and Sam, and Phil DeGuerre, who was one of the filmmakers, and a couple of the executives from Grateful Dead Productions. We talked about making this happen, and it just never did. But I introduced Sam directly to Rhino, and it was worked out.”
Field remembers it a little differently.
“I’d been talking to David [Lemieux], who’s in charge of these types of releases,” said Field. “It had been so requested by fans, I think he got tired of saying ‘Well, some day.’ So last year we finally got together over it. I guess it was just the right time.”
But there’s still the question of why this particular show achieved such mythic status over the decades. Lemieux credits that lengthy performance of “Dark Star.”
“It’s brilliant,” he said. “I think that they’re locked in. What you’re hearing is five band members listening intently to each other so that when any one of them goes in a direction, one or two of the other guys will pick up on it, and then the other two will go in another direction. Or all five will go in the same direction and create something special.”
Field thinks the shared vibe was heightened by the fact that practically everyone at the concert was on LSD.
“I will say that of the attendees, very few were not,” he said. “I think having everybody, including the cameramen, all tuned to the same frequencies, enhanced the harmony. I think you can sort of tell that some of the band members were very well tuned.”
Local cinemas screening “Sunshine Daydream” on Aug. 1 at 7:30 p.m. include Fenway 13 in Boston, Legacy Place in Dedham, Framingham 15, Randolph Showcase, and Revere Showcase. It’s accompanied by “Grateful Days,” a short film of contemporary interviews with Wavy Gravy, Ken Babbs, Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia, and Sam Cutler. For tickets, go to www.fathomevents.com.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.