OPENING THE DEAD'S VAULT: DAVID LEMIEUX

David Lemieux has one of the greatest jobs on earth. Not only does he get paid to listen to Grateful Dead music that no one else has access to, but he also helps decide what we actually do get to hear. As the Grateful Dead's archivist, David holds the key to the much talked about Vault. Lucky for us, David has decided to open the doors and talk about both the past and what may be in store for the future. Welcome to The Vault.


JamBase: What was your first Grateful Dead show?


David Lemieux in The Vault
Lemieux: March 26, 1987. The opener was "Midnight Hour" into "Cold Rain and Snow," and even then, when I was 16, I thought "Man, that's how they would have opened a show in 1967!"

JamBase: How long have you been working as the archivist for the Grateful Dead? What were you doing before this and how did you come about this dream job?

Lemieux: I started working with GDP [Grateful Dead Productions] in early 1999, on contract, cataloguing the video collection. Throughout most of 1999 I kept coming down here from Canada, working different contracts for the band, cataloguing different parts of the video and film collection. Then around early-September, 1999, I became the full-time tape archivist. Prior to that I was the audiovisual curator at the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, taking care of the province's film, video and audio collection, amongst other things.

JamBase: What percentage of the archive have you listened to?


The Grateful Dead by Jay Blakesberg
Lemieux: Well, certain years of the collection, such as 1972-1974, about 100%. For others, such as 1984, probably closer to 50%. For instance, if a show has absolutely no release potential due to the tape being poor quality, I generally don't spend too much time critiquing it, unless I'm listening to it for pleasure.

It must be a challenge to figure out what shows to put out. What are the criteria for deciding what music to release on CD or DVD? How involved are the band members in this process?

Generally, we begin with a year. The recent Dick's Picks Volume 33 is a good example. We wanted to hit 1976 again, so we take a good overview of what we have from that year in the vault. Then we narrow it down to the best five or six shows, and then go through them very critically, taking input from a few good ears. Then, we settle on a Pick after months of listening and comparison. In terms of how that year is selected, we look at what has been released recently, say, the last six Picks, and try to mix things up. With video, we have so little that the selection process is really a matter of going through the 20-25 releasable concerts we have and determining what is the right release for the time.

The band members are all very busy on current and future projects, so they are not actively involved in production of the archival Grateful Dead releases. However, whenever one of the band members calls the studio or vault, they are always very curious and encouraging about what we're up to.

When you were putting together the new box set, Beyond Description (1973-1989), how did you choose the bonus songs that you included with it? What do you do with the bonus songs that don't make the cut?


David Lemieux
With each album, we included music that was from its era. Our first choice is usually excellent rare studio outtakes, as those always make great additions to an album (except a live album, of course). For Wake Of The Flood, though, we knew early on that it was essential to include a live "Eyes Of The World," as it was played so well in 1973. In the case of Blues For Allah, we found some excellent studio outtakes, so although there are loads of excellent live versions of the songs on that album, these rare studio jams were too good to pass up. The two live albums in the boxed set, Reckoning and Dead Set, have been expanded to two-CD sets, with live music from those Warfield and Radio City 1980 shows (with a couple of bonus songs from 1978). For those albums, we had somewhat limited choices, as much of the multi-track tapes from those shows have been erased for a number of reasons. However, much of the best stuff in the run was mixed back in 1981, and those tapes were our sources for these albums' bonus songs. We did manage to get more than seven hours of bonus songs onto the box, and about 80 more minutes that did NOT make the cut was released as a bonus CD for those who ordered the box set directly from GDP (including the stunning 3/23/75 "Blues For Allah" jam).

What has been the most popular Grateful Dead release in your tenure? Is it your favorite?

One of my favorites has been Dick's Picks Vol. 22, from Lake Tahoe in 1968, and it is NOT the most popular. I think the most popular release has been Steppin' Out with the Grateful Dead. Ladies and Gentlemen... The Grateful Dead, The Closing Of Winterland, and Dick's Picks 18 and Dick's Picks 29.

Have you ever considered putting out a whole tour or is that impractical because of the varying quality of the shows?


Jerry Garcia by Jay Blakesberg
About the closest we have got is the six-CD Dick's Picks, Volume 29. That is two complete shows on a great tour. I don't think the impediment to doing a whole-tour release is varying show quality, but rather putting out a 20-CD box set. Fall Tour 1972 and Fall Tour 1973 are worthy candidates for whole-tour consideration, certainly.

What show has been the most requested (by the fans) for you to release?

Hmmm, many of the most-requested shows have been released: 5/2/70, 2/13 and 2/14/70, 12/31/78, 10/16/89. Of course, 8/27/72 (a very good possibility some day, with great multi-track master tapes to mix from) and 5/8/77 (not in the vault) are the other top-of-the-listers.

How long were you working on producing The Grateful Dead Movie DVD? What kinds of changes did you make from the original? Was it one of your biggest projects since taking over as the archivist?


David Lemieux in The Vault by Kayceman
The production took about a year, with preliminary work being done on-and-off for a couple of years before 2004. Not a single frame of the original movie was altered. We even included the original theatrical 5.1 Surround Sound audio mix, in addition to a new 5.1 mix and a new stereo mix. However, we added A LOT of bonus material on Disc 2, including almost 100 minutes of never-before-seen footage from the original 16mm negative, mixed in 5.1 sound; three new documentaries about the movie and the DVD; and several other cool items. Oh, we also had a great commentary track with the original film editors who worked on the movie with Jerry. This was by far the biggest project I've worked on since coming here. The quantity of material to go through, as well as all of the technical issues 16mm film raises, was quite a challenge, but Jeffrey Norman did a great job making sure the audio was perfect, and we had quite an extensive technical team involved in the overall production. It's a really satisfying project.

Do you have any other big projects that you'd like to tackle?

A couple come to mind, the biggest of which would be another two-DVD set of the other outtakes from The Grateful Dead Movie. There is still plenty of material, both live musical performances and backstage and interview footage to include.

What percentage of shows have video as well? Was there a point when the band decided to record video for every show?


Weir and Garcia by Jay Blakesberg
There are about 100 shows on video in the vault, of which maybe 20-25 are releasable based on performance, video and audio quality. The bulk of these concerts are the screen-feeds that people would have seen at stadiums or at Shoreline. That's about it. So, no, a decision was never made to tape every show. Luckily, the live directors of these screen feeds (Len Dell-Amico and Bob Hartnett) hit record on a professional-quality video recorder to make these masters.

In the late '80s when Dan Healy was doing his ultra-matrix, are there pure soundboard versions or just his mix?

Not really. When the ultra-matrix is what was recorded for any given tour, that's all there is. The tapes from 1987-1990 are particularly hit-or-miss in this regard. When the matrix (audience mics and soundboard blend) was dialed in perfectly, these tapes sound outstanding.

Which of the Grateful Dead's sound engineer's produced the best mix?


Jerry Garcia by Jay Blakesberg
I say this not only because I work with him, but I really do think Jeffrey Norman's mixes are outstanding. Very sensitive, democratic and dynamic. In saying that, though, I also think Bob and Betty, Dan Healy and John Cutler were excellent studio mixers, and perfect for this band. They shared an understanding of this music and what it required in the mix.

Are there any shows for which soundboards don't exist because of recording problems or any other reason?

Plenty. Some shows simply weren't recorded, some have gone missing over the years, and some (some of October, 1972, for example) were recorded as audience tapes only.

Would you ever digitize the archive to make it available for download?

Yes, and this is something that we've been looking into for a number of years. It seems the technology is just about there, which means it's time we start looking at it seriously. I'd love to see it happen.

What era do you feel has the best sounding recordings?

I'm quite partial to Betty's tapes, 1976-1977 in particular, but Bear's 1969 recordings and Kidd's 1973-1974 recordings have a special clarity.

What does 2005 hold in store for the music of the Grateful Dead?

Stay tuned. Likely several great releases in many forms: DVD, vault release, Dick's Picks. Currently, though we're just finalizing what to do for 2005, so nothing is definite.

For a look at all Grateful Dead CDs and merch, go to the Grateful Dead store.

Sam Elkin
JamBase | Head Quarters
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[Published on: 12/16/04]

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