David Lemieux Brings The Sunshine and Shares His Grateful Dead Origin Story

Dean Budnick on September 13, 2023
David Lemieux Brings The Sunshine and Shares His Grateful Dead Origin Story

It’s been nearly a quarter-century since Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux began working with the organization. He initially reached out and offered his assistance as a film preservationist. Lemieux received a master’s degree in the subject and pursued this vocation at the National Archives of Canada, as well as the British Columbia Archives. Then, the longtime Deadhead taper inquired as to whether the band might be able to utilize his skill set in the physical repair and storing of film as well as video cataloging.

While serving on a short-term contract, Lemieux found himself in proximity to revered Grateful Dead audio archivist Dick Latvala. After Latvala died of a heart attack in August 1999, Lemieux was tapped to serve in a similar capacity.

He recalls, “That’s when I really moved into the audio side of things. I started working very closely with Jeffrey Norman, the Dead’s engineer and producer, selecting music for release and then helping him in the studio—assisting him on the engineering side of things and proofing the audio. On the video side, we did the View from the Vault series, starting in 2000, and there were a few other video projects here and there. The Closing of Winterland in 2003 and The Grateful Dead Movie in 2004 were huge projects, but audio was a huge component of them too because we had to mix the multitracks. So I ended up doing a little bit of everything—producing the videos and the audio, and also helping Jeffrey by assisting him with the engineering as much as I was able to.”

In 2012, the Dave’s Pick’s archival series debuted, a nod to the Dicks’ Picks releases initiated by his mentor. For well over a decade, Lemieux has also produced an annual box set of the band’s music. The latest offering is Here Comes Sunshine, a limited-edition, 17-CD collection that draws together five remastered, previously unreleased Dead shows: Iowa State Fairgrounds, Des Moines, Iowa (5/13/73), Campus Stadium, UCSB, Santa Barbara, Calif. (5/20/73), Kezar Stadium, San Francisco (5/26/73) and Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Washington, D.C. (6/9/73, 6/10/73). Four of these shows are three-set affairs and the second RFK date features a guest appearance by Merl Saunders as well as The Allman Brother Band’s Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks (anticipating the Watkins Glen Summer Jam to take place seven weeks later).

Of the music that appears on Here Comes Sunshine, Lemieux says: “It bridges the gap from the spring tour right through the later July stuff at Watkins Glen, and then in August when they were recording Wake of the Flood. They’re so good and so inspired. It’s a perfect bridge.”

Back when I was collecting Grateful Dead tapes in the ‘80s and ‘90s, very little from 1973 circulated, even though they played over 70 gigs that year. I had a few shows like Dane County [2/15/73], Kezar and the second RFK but not much else. Why do you think that was and what are your thoughts on the band’s music from ‘73 in general?

I got into tape trading around 1985 and spent the next few years amassing a pretty substantial tape collection. During those first few years, the only ‘73 shows I had were 2/9, 2/15 and a couple of others—I had 5/26 at Kezar and 6/10 at RKF. But I don’t think I had anything else from that era.

The Dead weren’t doing FM broadcasts at that time, but if you think of 1971, almost that entire October tour and a lot of the November and December shows were broadcast on the radio.

In my early tape-trading days, we all had 2/13 and 2/14/70. We also had 4/28 and 4/29/71. But those were shows that were made by the Fillmore East crew for the most part and they were circulated outside of Grateful Dead circles, whereas ‘73 was recorded entirely by Kidd Candelario, Betty Cantor-Jackson or Owsley. Those tapes ended up back in the vault and copies weren’t made.

That’s what I think happened because my tape collection was extensive and had all usual suspects, but what it didn’t have was very much 1973.

I loved what I did have, though. Kezar Stadium and RFK were two shows that I listened to often, and that made me want to get more.

I remember when I started working for the Grateful Dead in 1999, I had a three-month contract. As I was finishing up, Dick came up to me and said, “Hey man, you’ve been here three months and you’ve never asked me for a single tape. Is there anything you want me to make a copy of?” I said, “Dick, I can’t ask you for that.” He goes, “No, it’s cool. I’ll make you a copy. Just don’t circulate them.” He said that with a wink, of course. So I remember making a list of 10 shows from 1973. There were 10 shows that I’d never heard before, that nobody had ever really heard before—there were no circulating tapes of them. I remember when I gave Dick the list, he looked at it, then he looked at me and said, “Man, you know what you’re doing.”

I went back to Canada, but when I returned to California a month later for another contract, Dick came up to me, handed me two boxes of DAT tapes, and said, “Don’t make copies of these, and if you do, don’t tell them where you got them.” He had made me all 10 shows that I’d put on the list— all the first sets and second sets. I had totally forgotten that I’d even given Dick this list, and at most, I would have expected that he would have made me one set.

That was in June of 1999 and that was when I got really into 1973. So, all of a sudden, my 1973 collection went up by 10, and it was mostly the October, November and December shows that I’d requested.

Then, when I started working in the Dead’s vault full-time in September of ‘99, I started making archival backups of a lot of the other material, including some of these shows that are in this box set: Des Moines and Santa Barbara, which I’d never heard before. I’d also never heard June 9, the first night at RFK Stadium. So I started making those backups and realized that everything was as good as the shows I already knew. It wasn’t just that the shows I already had happened to be exceptional shows. Everything else was that good as well.

We’ve done a couple of great box sets from the year already and I’m sure we’ll do more. There’s so much good music from a band reinventing themselves. In March ‘73, just before they hit the road with those Nassau shows, Pigpen passed away. That’s the definitive moment when they realized, “OK, Pigpen is not coming back.” Although he sat out some shows in 1971, he came back and he played the Europe ‘72 tour. Even after that, there was still a hope that he would get healthy and come back in the later part of ‘72, although that didn’t happen.

Then, after that moment when Pigpen passed, they said, “OK, we are now going to be a band going forward that doesn’t have Pigpen as a frontman.” That’s a huge change and they ended up becoming a band that focused on songs like “Eyes of the World,” “Stella Blue” and “Mississippi Half-Step,” a very different Grateful Dead. It’s also an incredibly fresh Grateful Dead.

Keith had been in the Dead for a year-and-a half, while Donna pretty much joined full-time for the Europe ‘72 tour, and the songs and the arrangements started being tailored to her vocals. So you had her contributing quite mightily to a lot of songs in ‘73 and that would just keep growing into ‘74. Then, of course, in ‘76 she really exerted herself and sang some incredible parts from ‘76 onward.

Dick passed away just a few months after you began working in the vault. Can you talk about your relationship with him?

Dick was my initial contact into the Grateful Dead world. I was a Deadhead. I saw the band a lot, and it was my life for a lot of years. Then in ‘98, I wrote Dennis McNally an email through Susana Millman, his wife. I mentioned that I was working on a master’s thesis in film, and I was really fascinated with the Dead’s archive. Then Dennis put me in touch with Dick. I wrote Dick an email in the spring of 1998, and I said, “I’d love to see how you hold your video collection within what’s primarily an audio archive.”

A few months went by, and I never thought of it again. Then Dick called me a couple of days before I was going to see The Other Ones at Shoreline. That was the first band after Jerry had passed, featuring Phil, Bob, Mickey and a bunch of other incredible players, including Bruce Hornsby, Steve Kimock and John Molo. Dick said, “I found your email and it looked important. You sound like you’re legit.” I told him: “I guess I’m legit. I work in a film archive. I’m working on a master’s.” He invited me to the vault the day before The Other Ones played on July 24and 25.

So, on July 23, I spent a couple of hours with Dick in the Dead’s vault. I can’t express how incredible an experience that was. Dick was so generous with his time and his information, and he even let me take pictures of things.

Then John Cutler brought me into the Grateful Dead studio. John had been the Dead’s producer for many years. John and I hit it off, then I went back to visit Dick again, and then I left. That was it. I never thought I’d have any contact with them again. In the fall of ‘98, I wrote them each a thank-you letter. The letter to Dick was more of a Deadhead’s letter, whereas John Cutler’s letter was more of a professional letter.

I wrote, “P.S. if you need somebody to catalog your video collection, I’m free to do it.” John called me a week later and he said, “If you’re serious, we’d love you to do it.” So that’s how it happened. I came down on Feb. 1, 1999, almost 25 years ago.

Dick offered to put me up at his place for three months. He had an extra bedroom, although I ended up getting a little sublet in Marin County. Dick was also generous with his time. I’d be working in the vault on the video collection, cataloging it, and Dick would come in and he’d put on Dead music and leave. Then he’d come back and flip the tape.

I was hanging out from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. every day, just having a blast cataloging the Dead’s video collection.

Dick always included me in things. He was very generous with information about the archival practices that he used. He’d done an incredible job organizing the audio collection, but video wasn’t his expertise. I don’t think he had much interest in the video side of things. That’s why it was fine with him for Cutler and Grateful Dead Productions to hire me to do the video stuff.

Every day when I got in, Dick would have already come in quite a bit earlier because there were a couple of feral cats that he liked to feed. Then I’d just hang out with Dick all day. He was my boss, my mentor, my friend and he was Dick Latvala.

Another fascinating thing was watching him produce Dick’s Picks releases and how much care he took in every single one. He had no master plan. I’m often asked if I think this show or that show will ever be released as a Dave’s Picks. It reminds me of the way Dick used to work. There’s no master plan, no master list of the next 20 releases. Instead, every single release is treated like the most important release ever—it’s treated as its own entity. That’s something I very much learned from Dick, where you’ve got to have the flexibility to change course if you get into production on something and realize, “You know what, this isn’t the show I thought it was. We need to go in another direction.”

What I loved about working with Dick was that he treated every show with respect. He would give it a listen and he’d take notes. He’d get really deep into a show and then, if it wasn’t the right show for release, that would be OK because there are always plenty more that are. So that’s the way we work on things.

Another thing about Dick was that he was a straight shooter. He reminded me a lot of Ramrod [Shurtliff ], who I got to know pretty well in my years with Grateful Dead Productions. When he spoke, it meant something. He was speaking from the heart, whether it was about Grateful Dead music or it was about people. Whatever it was, there was no BS with him. I’ve tried my best to follow that example.

With Dave’s Picks 50 approaching in 2024, coinciding with your own 25th year in the organization, do you have anything special planned?

Right now, we’re working on Dave’s Picks 48, the one that comes out in November. We’ve put 47 to bed pretty much and I’m focused on what’s happening with 48. The show has already been selected. It’s now a matter of working with Jeffrey Norman on the audio. What is 49 going to be? That’s the one that comes out in February 2024. I don’t know. I’ve got some ideas. I’m doing a lot of listening, but in terms of what that’s going to be, it’s not like we work our way down through some master list.

So have I earmarked anything for 50? The answer is absolutely not. That’s because if there’s a certain show that’s great and it hasn’t been released yet, and it’s from a year that we haven’t done in a while, then we’re going to release it now. We don’t save things.

For instance, when we did the 30 Trips Around the Sun box set in 2015, it was one complete show from every year, 1966 to 1995. We didn’t hold back anything. We didn’t say, “This is a great show, let’s save this for a Dave’s Picks.” Every single show that’s in that box was there because it was exactly the right show to exemplify that year’s Grateful Dead sound and performance style.

It’s the same thing with Dave’s Picks 50. If there was a great show that I had my eye on a year ago and I had said, “Oh, we’re gonna save that for 50,” we would have just released it then.

I love to think that every release we do is something special. I’m sure I will put as much work into 50 as I do into every release. My first show came out as part of the Dave’s Picks series because it’s a great show. It had nothing to do with the fact that it was my first show.

I knew my first show was great because I loved it, and it changed my life. But even Dick was like, “Holy shit, that was your first show? That was an exceptional first show.” It wasn’t until three or four years ago that Jeffrey Norman worked on the tapes and realized, “Wow, I can actually make these things sound really good.”

That’s when we went and released that show as Dave’s Picks 36. It was a Hartford show from 1987. That would’ve been a great example of earmarking something for Dave’s Picks 50. But it came out as Dave’s Picks 36 because that was the right time. It’s an incredible performance, but it’s the tapes that I had always been concerned about. Jeffrey did his magic and they sound great.

A similar thing is this spring 1973 box set that’s coming out now. It’s funny because we went into production on it over a year ago. This has been in the works going back to the spring of 2022 and has been a full-bore production since late summer 2022. There was no consideration that it was the 50th anniversary of the 1973 shows. It wasn’t until we got deep into production when we realized, “Oh, and by the way, it’s coming out right around the 50th anniversary of these shows.” It had nothing to do with that.

It was like Europe ‘72—we released that in the year of the 39th anniversary of those shows. It wasn’t the 40th anniversary. We do what’s right for exactly that moment and sometimes things do work out nicely. For instance, the spring ‘73 box happens to be coming out on the 50th anniversary.

In thinking about the five shows that appear on Here Comes Sunshine, can you point to some of the surprising moments that people might not expect?

Each of the five shows features a huge, massive jam—a second or in some cases, a third-set jam. In the case of the first three shows, they’re generally focused around “Truckin’,” “The Other One” or “Eyes of the World.” Those jams are what you’d expect from the era—they’re incredible. Then there’s the second batch of jams. They’re not second tier, but they’re second in terms of their scope. Those are “Playing in the Band,” “Here Comes Sunshine,” “Bird Song” and “China” > ”Rider”—there’s a lot of these jam vehicles throughout the box set. The Dead were playing to really big crowds at these outdoors, daytime shows, and these jams just soar.

As for the things that you don’t expect, it’s the little rockers—they’re so inspired. There’s a certain nimbleness to the Grateful Dead sound at this time. I’m thinking of songs like “Bertha,” “The Race Is On,” “Big River” and “Around and Around.” It’s incredible how tight the band was on these smaller rock-and-roll songs.

There’s also a “Dark Star” from RFK on 6/10 and it delivers what you’d expect from “Dark Star.” That’s also true of “Here Comes Sunshine,” “China” > “Rider” and “Bird Song.” But, to me, there’s a certain freshness about these little songs. It’s all this material that had come about with Europe ‘72: “Brown-Eyed Women,” “Ramble on Rose,” “Jack Straw.” Then you have all the solo material from Jerry and Bob’s records in 1972. That’s “Deal,” “Sugaree,” “Looks Like Rain,” “Greatest Story.” Plus, they’ve got all this new material that they had debuted in ‘72, like “Stella Blue” and “Mississippi Half[1]Step.” Then, of course, they had all of the later Wake of the Flood stuff that they had debuted in February ‘73, like “Eyes of the World.” That’s also when they debuted “China Doll” and “Loose Lucy,” both of which wouldn’t come out on an album until Mars Hotel in ‘74.

So there is some incredible music, but it is the smaller songs that make this some of the most compelling music the Dead ever played. There’s so much good music in the smaller things, and some of these shows have over 30 songs. The band was certainly enjoying this fresh music and now we can as well.