On October 27th, 1979, the Grateful Dead pulled up to the third stop on their fall tour that year — the Cape Cod Coliseum in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts — for the first of two concerts there. It was not an auspicious setting. The venue was a long, drab box of steel and cement that typically hosted minor-league hockey games and World Wrestling Federation matches.
But that night, the Dead – guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and keyboard player Brent Mydland, the latter in only his sixth month with the band – played one of their best shows of that road era. “They are on fire,” the group’s archivist David Lemieux tells Rolling Stone. “There was always something about the Dead in New England – they were pretty darn spectacular. But some of the jams in this one are incredible.”
Lemieux cites the half-hour joining of “Dancin’ in the Street” and “Franklin’s Tower” in the second set and a long run, right after that, through “He’s Gone” and “The Other One.” “On top of that,” Lemieux goes on, “the first set is meticulous – songs like ‘Lost Sailor’ and ‘Saint of Circumstance,’ played so beautifully.” Recorded, as usual, by the band to soundboard cassettes, that gig is, Lemieux notes, “one of the most requested shows we have in the vault.”
It will finally come out on September 18th as part of the largest box of live Dead ever officially released: Thirty Trips Around the Sun, a 50th anniversary monument of 80 CDs with 30 complete, previously unissued shows, one from each year of the Dead’s touring life. The collection – issued by Rhino in the wake of the Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 3rd through 5th – is now available for pre-order and is limited to 6,500 numbered sets.
The box includes a bonus vinyl 45 that bookends the concert saga. The A-side, “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks),” is from the Dead’s earliest studio session in 1965. The B-side, “Box of Rain,” is the encore from the Dead’s final show, at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 5th, 1995 – the last song the band played together before Garcia’s death that August.
Thirty Trips Around the Sun also comes as a lightning-bolt-shaped USB drive, in a run of 1,000. The list price, for both variations, is $699.95. A four-CD companion set, Thirty Trips Around the Sun: The Definitive Live Story 1965-1995, features one song from each show in the box, with an emphasis on rarely anthologized songs such as “The Rub” by original organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and “Althea” from the Dead’s 1980 album, Go to Heaven.
“This is, without a doubt, the biggest thing we will ever do,” says Lemieux, who has been the Dead’s archivist since 1999, when he succeeded the late Dick Latvala. “I know we said that with Europe ’72,” referring to the 2011 beast of 22 shows from that storied tour. “But this tells the entire narrative of the Grateful Dead live: how they changed from year to year, how they grew. Lots of bands change, but they don’t grow. The Grateful Dead grew, and this set tells that story.”
Dripping With Energy
Other fabled nights in Thirty Trips Around the Sun include November 10th, 1967 at the Shrine Auditorum in Los Angeles, the first date recorded by the Dead for the concert-studio-acid alchemy of Anthem of the Sun, their second album; and September 18th, 1987 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, “the best show of that year,” according to Lemieux, and one of the first he selected for this box.
A particular highlight of the second Garden set is the Dead’s deep walk back to “Morning Dew,” a signature cover on their 1967 debut, The Grateful Dead. Written by the Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson, the song was first performed by the Dead, as their opening number, at the Human Be-In in San Francisco on January 14th, 1967. At the Garden, two decades later, the band plays Dobson’s delicate blues, about a world after nuclear holocaust, at an even slower tempo, with Garcia’s frantic, chiming guitar and plaintive, reaching vocal lighting up the sorrow.
Garcia is the reason for another standout performance in Thirty Trips, this time from his last, troubled years: October 1st, 1994 at Boston Garden. “Frankly, in 1994 and 1995, Jerry on many nights was the weak link,” Lemieux acknowledges. But Boston “is one of the good ones. At the end of the first set, they do a version of ‘So Many Roads,’ and Jerry is so invested it. He’s engaged and present. And there is a big ‘Terrapin Station’ where Jerry’s level of engagement puts it over the top.”
The Dead will announce additional shows in the set on their website as the release date approaches. But in this interview, Lemieux exclusively revealed two more concerts that affirm the high standards of repertoire, attack and turning point in Thirty Trips. A February 22nd, 1969 date at the aptly named Dream Bowl in Vallejo, CA catches the Dead in high, transportive gear a week before the San Francisco shows that became the Dead’s first concert album, Live/Dead. “It’s got that bridge,” Lemieux says of Vallejo – the Dead charging the sublime galactica of 1968’s Aoxomoxoa with the epic, improvising peaks summarized on Live/Dead.
Also in Thirty Trips: The October 12th, 1984 show at the Civic Center in Augusta, Maine, a legendary highpoint during a harrowing low in Garcia’s health, cited as one of the 20 best, unreleased concerts in a 2013 special Grateful Dead issue of Rolling Stone. “That’s the kind of shows we were looking at,” Lemieux says. “The criteria were, first, great music, and second, shows that people have been requesting for decades. Some of the shows are a little under the radar, which I think people will be blown away by” – whereas the 1967 Shrine gig “frankly should have come out decades ago. It just hasn’t for some reason. Finally, it is. It is just dripping with energy.”
Going Big for the 50th
Lemieux first proposed the idea that became Thirty Trips at a 2012 meeting with Rhino staff. “We started out by saying, ‘We gotta go big in 2015.’ We knew we had to do something impressive, but what do you do that equals something like the Europe ’72 set and also represents the band’s 50th anniversary? We couldn’t do a single tour like ’72 or ’77.
“So I said, ‘Okay, guys, brace yourselves,'” Lemieux recalls. He ran down his proposition for a set with one show for every year. “Everybody went completely silent – then grew these great, big smiles.”
There were immediate limitations. According to Lemieux, the Dead have no live music from 1965 in their vault, hence the bonus 45 with the 1965 studio “Caution.” (The group’s first appearance as the Grateful Dead was on December 10th at the Fillmore Auditorium, at the Mime Troupe benefit widely considered the birth date of San Francisco’s ballroom scene.) And Lemieux chose not to end with Soldier Field 1995 in full. “It was a show without a lot of good music,” he contends. The single was “a nice way” to include “Box of Rain” from that day “because Jerry plays that solo really well.”
Some shows “were speaking to us from the beginning,” Lemieux admits. On his first day with a blank spreadsheet, “doing a little spot listening,” he came up with “seven to 10 shows that stuck,” like Madison Square Garden in 1987. “Certain years were hard, because they had so many, consistently great shows. In some years” – specifically in the mid-Eighties and at the end in the Nineties – “it was a matter of finding that elusive ‘great show.’ But the ones we got – we’re thrilled with them. You can say, ‘They are great shows,’ without having to add, ‘for 1994.'”
The $699.95 retail price for Thirty Trips may sound like the last straw for Deadheads already spending big bread for the Chicago shows in July. “That is a concern,” Lemieux admits. He also notes that performance and publishing royalties account for a major share of the expense in producing a set like Thirty Trips. Add the costs for lavish packaging, distribution and six months of mastering concert tapes of disparate vintage and technology and, Lemieux says, “there isn’t much room for profit.’ The retail price, in fact, comes to less than $10 a disc. “That has always been a number we talk about. We want to make it manageable.”
The Next Ones
Lemieux sums up the involvement of the Dead’s surviving members – Lesh, Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann – in archival projects like Thirty Trips this way: “We keep them appraised. But that’s it. No one was specifically asking if we could put this or that show in there. For them, these shows all bleed together. I’ve asked Bobby about this. He said the touring schedule was so relentless that you’d come off stage and think, ‘Oh, that was a great show.’ But you didn’t think about the historical context or the legacy.”
Still, Lemieux has heard that Kreutzmann, for one, is a “huge fan. I’ve heard great stories from friends of his, that he has played them stuff we released and given a running commentary of what would have been going on – onstage, with the group mind. It’s fascinating to hear Bill being so engaged in that.”
Asked how he plans to follow the massive archaelogy of Thirty Trips Around the Sun, Lemieux replies, “We go different. We function on something exceptional – a run of shows or a tour, consecutive nights somewhere. We’ve already started loosely talking about it. Maybe there something down the road, in five years, to celebrate the Dead’s 55th anniversary,” he adds, laughing nervously at the prospective workload. “But right now, I’m certain – that’s where we’ll go.”