David Lemieux can only remember four times in his near 15-year tenure as the Grateful Dead archivist that “lost” tapes have shown up. The first time was in 2005, when singer Donna Godchaux, who left the band in 1979, returned a sizable box of reels that had belonged to her late husband, Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux. Similar batches came from two different crewmembers years later.
Most recently, last summer, Lemieux received a called from Carolyn Garcia, better known as Mountain Girl, Jerry Garcia‘s former wife and the mother of two of his daughters. Mountain Girl mentioned that she’d found a small box of reels among Garcia’s belongings, and she read off the labels. Lemieux, who knows the Dead’s collection better than anyone, instantly recognized that they had struck audio gold.
Of the 2,300 shows the Grateful Dead played over their 30 years, the archive has somewhere in the 1,700 range, and Lemieux can quickly ascertain if something is a legitimate show that they don’t have. He had Mountain Girl 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.
This Black Friday, fans will get their first listen to the Grateful Dead’s April 18, 1970 show at the Family Dog in San Francisco. 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 Mountain Girl’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,” and the plan is to get all of the Dick’s Picks series out on vinyl as well.
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.