Losing Then Grateful for Finding the Dead
2015 will mark 50 years of The Grateful Dead. During their 30 year career, the Grateful Dead played 2,300 live shows. Of those about 1,700 were recorded and archived. So who cares, right?
It’s not like the Dead were ever huge chart toppers or hit makers. Name a hit song by the group. See? But the number of top ten hits is not what makes this group special. What does make them more noteworthy than anything else was and is the loyalty of their fans and the groups’ devotion to them in turn. David Meerman Scott wrote a whole book about this, “Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History.”
So in 2013 when Carolyn Garcia (Jerry’s former wife) mentioned that she’d found a small box of reels among Garcia’s belongings, and she read off the labels. David Lemieux, archivist who knows the Dead’s collection better than anyone, instantly recognized that they had struck audio gold. Lemieux had Garcia send the reels to sound engineer Jeffrey Norman, who eventually gave him the good news: these were indeed recordings they didn’t know existed, and better yet, they were from very important eras. Despite the fact that the reel sat for 43 years in less than optimal storage conditions, Lemieux says the sound quality is great — it’s an Owsley Stanley soundboard recording. Even more important, the performance quality is outstanding.
“It’s a show of incredible historical significance,” Lemieux told Rolling Stone, “because it’s the Grateful Dead, but they weren’t billed as the Dead.” The show was promoted as Mickey Hart and the Heartbeats and Bobby Ace and the Cards from the Bottom of the Deck, giving the Dead an extraordinary amount of freedom to do whatever they wanted.
“So they didn’t perform a full three- or four-hour electric psychedelic Grateful Dead concert,” Lemieux said. “They played an acoustic set, and it was a long one.”
The 80-minute show ends with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan playing six songs solo acoustic, sitting on a stool and building his legacy as not only an incredible bluesman, but also an especially adept guitar player.
April of 1970 was what Lemieux – who hates the terms “crossroads” and “reinventing” – describes as a “transitional” time for the Dead. A month before this particular show the band had been in the studio recording Workingman’s Dead, and a little later in the spring and early summer they went back to record American Beauty. Widely considered the Dead’s two classic acoustic albums, those records were a departure from their Sixties sound. “[This is] massively transitional Dead,” he emphasized. Lemieux said that they’ve got a host of new stuff planned for the 50th year Grateful Dead anniversary in 2015, and for the 2014 releases due out this spring. He said there was a show from 1971 in Garcia’s box that’s “really hot” and has no known set list and hinted that he’s been immersed in 1983 and 1984 Dead.
“People are going to be pretty shocked by what’s to come,” he promised. A self-described “vinyl-head,” Lemieux considers the Family Dog show the perfect Record Store Day Release. According to Norman, who still does all the Grateful Dead mastering, the vinyl versions of the shows are “like listening to them in color for the first time.” As an archivist, though, this show is particularly exciting for Lemieux, because it means that come Black Friday fans will be able to hear something no one knew existed six months ago. “It’s very rare, it’s unique, and collectors are going to flip out on it,” he said.
In October, 2013 Rhino Records issued 7,500 vinyl copies of the lost show. A notice on the album cover says, “This rare recording was made on a non-professional machine at low level and contains some tape hiss and other undesirable stuff. Several procedures were employed to clarify the sound, but artifacts may still be heard. However, the music shines through, and the performance is too good not to bring to you.”