The Grateful Dead: Live in Vancouver 1966
An enthusiastic conversation with Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux
By Douglas Heselgrave
I have loved The Grateful Dead’s music for decades and over the years had the good fortune to hear them in concert many times, but I never had the chance to experience the band perform in my home town of Vancouver. The closest many of us ever got was to see Ratdog, Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman, and The Mickey Hart band on their trips through town. In the later years of their run, the closest they ever came to the west coast of Canada was Seattle, so to be a Vancouver Deadhead you had to be willing to take trips over the border to Washington, Oregon and beyond.
Over the years, I’ve met lots of people who got to see The Grateful Dead when they played in town. My old room-mate Eric Wyness, who turned me onto the Dead in the early eighties, shared stories about how he jammed with Bob Weir backstage before a concert in 1973. Don Shafer, the legendary Vancouver rock DJ, told me about the time he made the mistake of taking a drink from the band’s water cooler before the 1974 Grateful Dead show. The next thing he knew it was dawn and he was walking along the railway tracks out back of the stadium trying to piece together what had just happened to him. The most interesting tidbit of Grateful Dead history as it pertains to Vancouver was one that I encountered in Phil Lesh’s memoir, ‘Searching For The Sound’ that involved the band travelling up here by train to play at ‘The Trips Festival’ in July of 1966. Except for a short jaunt to Oregon to play an Acid Test, the Dead had never left California before, making the Vancouver appearance their first road trip. According to Lesh, the band played poorly, the sound systems were terrible, and the audiences didn’t get what was going on. Still, the group must not have had such a bad time because they decided to stay in town for an extra week during which they played their first free outdoor show anywhere at the Stanley Park gazebo before getting shut down by the police. They also performed a second and reportedly much wilder show the next Saturday at the Pender Auditorium, where their manager and acid pioneer, Owsley Stanley, gave out free doses of LSD to everyone who opened their mouths to receive the sacrament. Reportedly, the police also tried to shut down that show, but when they peeked in the venue and took a look at the frenzy inside, they took the promoter aside and left once he promised to let the thing ‘die down.’ The all night party that ensued is still the stuff of local legend.
I wasn’t really sure what to make of the huge perceptual chasm that lay between what Phil Lesh remembered and what locals experienced during those first shows in 1966. It’s hard to get a really clear picture of what went on because memories, whether tarnished or airbrushed, are subjective and ultimately aren’t very reliable. I had never heard tapes of those shows and from what I had listened to of the Dead in the very early days, I kind of figured that Lesh was right and I hadn’t missed out on very much. That all changed a few months ago when I received an advance copy of the 50th anniversary reissue of The Grateful Dead’s debut album in the mail. When I opened it, I was surprised and excited to see that the bonus disc featured the complete show from July 29th at the PNE in Vancouver, with highlights from the next night’s performance. With low expectations and Phil Lesh’s condemnation colouring my perceptions, I put it on, and was surprised by what I heard. In short, they sounded great! Sure, there were no epic jams, no exploratory bridges between songs, and only the briefest of noodling musical conversations between band members, but what I heard instead was an enthusiastic, tight young R and B band playing their hearts out to a new audience. I wasn’t really sure what to make of the huge perceptual chasm that lay between what Phil Lesh remembered and what locals experienced during those first shows in 1966. It’s hard to get a really clear picture of what went on because memories, whether tarnished or airbrushed, are subjective and ultimately aren’t very reliable. I had never heard tapes of those shows and from what I had listened to of the Dead in the very early days, I kind of figured that Lesh was right and I hadn’t missed out on very much. That all changed a few months ago when I received an advance copy of the 50th anniversary reissue of The Grateful Dead’s debut album in the mail. When I opened it, I was surprised and excited to see that the bonus disc featured the complete show from July 29th at the PNE in Vancouver, with highlights from the next night’s performance. With low expectations and Phil Lesh’s condemnation colouring my perceptions, I put it on, and was surprised by what I heard. In short, they sounded great! Sure, there were no epic jams, no exploratory bridges between songs, and only the briefest of noodling musical conversations between band members, but what I heard instead was an enthusiastic, tight young R and B band playing their hearts out to a new audience.
The more I listened to the shows, the more I liked them. I wanted to find everything I could about what people remembered about ‘The Trips Festival’ and the Dead’s first trip to Vancouver . So, I started to comb local libraries, ask old friends, and go online to find out all I could about these shows. I found a lot, but I knew that if I really wanted to get the back story about the release, I would have to talk to David Lemieux, The Grateful Dead’s archivist, and fellow BC resident. I reached him at his home in Victoria and we spent a delightful hour talking about everything from the amazing spring weather in BC, to island life, and of course The Grateful Dead’s first (and subsequent) trips to Vancouver.
Here are some highlights from our conversation.
DH: Hi Dave, it’s great to talk to you again, and this time around we’re talking about a show that took place right in my neighbourhood and really just a ferry boat ride away from where you are now in Victoria. Before we get into talking about the show Grateful Dead played in Vancouver in 1966, let’s talk a little bit about you and the work you do as the Dead’s archivist. First, you’re living in BC, how much time do you spend in the States working for the Dead and combing their vaults for potential music releases?
DL: Well, I don’t go down now nearly as much as I used to. It used to be that every six weeks I’d go down to LA for a day or day and a half of meetings with Rhino records. Then, I’d go down and spend at least a day at the vault – which is now in LA. I’d go down to try and look ahead six months, and , man, I never work six months ahead. I’d usually be working on five or six shows as potential Dave’s Picks and I’d put them aside. So, when it was time to pull the trigger on the next release, I’d tell someone to go and pick up the tapes that I’d put aside and send them for mastering. Now, the crew down in LA is really together and they know the 15,000 to 17,000 tapes that are down there. There’s one guy down there, Mike, who is especially great and if I ask him to get a tape, it’s done within 20 minutes. The point of all of this is that I don’t have to go down nearly as much as I used to. I don’t think that I’ve been there since December 2015, actually. I go to San Francisco more because of the warehouse there and certain band meetings, but I try not to leave the island unless I have to.
DH: I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want to leave either. It’s interesting, though, here we are talking about BC and we’re going to talk about a show from Vancouver in 1966, but Vancouver was never really prime Grateful Dead territory, was it? Which is surprising because we had such an established counterculture here.
DL: You know, it’s always surprised me, too. Obviously, we have the 1966 shows and they were scheduled to play here as the final stop of the Festival Express in 1970, but that didn’t happen for many many reasons. It all ended in Calgary, but right up until the last minute the show was going to go ahead. But, remember, that whole tour was supposed to start in Montreal, but there was a lot of political stuff going on at the time, so it got underway in Toronto. So, there were lots of issues with dates and instead of Montreal to Vancouver, it was Toronto to Calgary and there ended up only being three stops. Then, there were shows in 1973 and 1974 at the PNE (the hockey arena) and apparently they were quite well attended. Not sell outs, but 3 – 5,000 people, which was quite respectable.
DH: I heard that the 74 show was excellent. I managed to talk to Don Schafer, who was with the radio station promoting the show at the time, and he has fond memories of walking out of the PNE at dawn and walking along the railroad tracks wondering what had just happened to him.
DL: I love hearing those firsthand accounts. You know, I worked with a guy at the BC archives here in Victoria before I worked for the Dead. He was an American citizen who came here in 1970 or 71, I’m guessing to get away from the draft and he went to the PNE shows and had great memories of them. This was a guy who had seen them at the Fillmore East in 1970 and he thought that the 1970’s Vancouver shows were both a great time. They were very different shows. The 1973 had all of that new energy with the different songs. The ‘Bird Song’ from that show is the one that everyone talks about. It’s fantastic. The other thing from that show is a really massive ‘Other One’ jam that lasted for a half hour. It also had a Phil solo that was one of the best. The 74 show, of course, was the wall of sound. It was part of a run of really good shows that included Reno, Missoula, Portland, Vancouver and Seattle. The Seattle show is the one with the famous 46 minute ‘Playing in the Band.’ In 1974, the band did lots of small tours of eight or ten days – no big outings of six weeks or anything like that. They were scheduled to do a show in Vancouver in 1978 at the end of August right before they went to Egypt. It was cancelled, but I don’t know if it was due to ticket sales or logistics.
DH: So, it wasn’t fear of borders. I remember when the Dead became popular again in the late eighties, there was an article in the Vancouver Sun that was all about the phenomenon – that was new at the time – of people travelling to go and see bands. They talked to someone from the Dead’s organization that said that everyone got nervous when they saw north of the border dates on the schedule.
DL: I don’t really think it was that. There were several other Canadian shows. Toronto in 1977. Four shows at Copps Stadium in Hamilton. And, in 1995, they were scheduled to return to Toronto for two shows at the Sky Dome. So, I don’t know, but I’d guess it was more about logistics – there’s the difference in money and the tax situation that involves a 15% withholding tax. That’s no fun, so there’s a lot of reasons why a band might not be too into it. But, it’s weird. I remember I saw Phish in Vancouver in 1999. At that time, Phish could sell 12 -15,000 tickets anywhere in the States and I think that they would have been lucky to have 6500 people there. The stadium was half full.
DH: It’s a different scene here in BC.
DL: It totally is and it’s too bad because I think that playing in all of these different places brought out a very good and different energy in the Dead. You can hear it if you listen to the shows from Toronto in 84 and 87. In terms of Vancouver, I think it had a lot to do with venues. Vancouver is one of the most beautiful places anywhere. There’s so much amazing outdoor scenery and natural beauty, but there’s no good outdoor venue to play at other than the football stadium at UBC and that would have been too big for most of the Dead’s run. There’s the Malkin Bowl at Stanley Park, but that’s a bit too small. Vancouver is one of the only cities in North America without a mid-sized outdoor amphitheatre.
DH: So, let’s talk about these two concerts from Vancouver in 1966. The only information I had read about those shows were in Phil Lesh’s book, ‘Searching for the Sound’ and he didn’t have anything good to say about the trip or their performances in Vancouver. But, you know when I listen to the recordings, they sound pretty good.
DL: I agree. You know, I think that sometimes the band’s memory of what happened on stage coincides with how it came down to the audience and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s that famous story told in The Grateful Dead movie how one time Jerry Garcia came off stage and thought the show was terrible and got into a fight with Phil, but when they listened back to the tapes they were crackling with energy and used them on their live album. So, the perspective on stage can be very different. But, when I listen to the 1966 Vancouver shows, I hear a band that is still finding their footing and moving from the R and B band that the Grateful Dead started out as in 1965 into something else. They’d just hooked up with the acid tests, met Owsley and from those experiments started to realize that a rock song that had a three minute structure still had lots of room to stretch out in. I won’t say they knew how to improvise yet to take a three minute song into a total ‘take it outside’ meltdown, but they did learn how to stretch things out so that ‘Midnight Hour’ and ‘Viola Lee Blues’ could end up as ten minute rave ups – that later grew into 20 minute jams. It was right around this time that that sort of stuff started happening and the Vancouver shows are a terrific document of the defining sound of 1966. This was the sound that would carry through at least into early 1967 where they changed their sound again. And, then, of course, Mickey joined which lead to the transformation of the whole band.
DH: When I listen, I think they sound like a tight little unit. I was surprised by how together their sound was at such an early date. It hadn’t evolved yet into The Grateful Dead we all know and love, but there aren’t a lot of mistakes or flubs in their performance. They come off as very straight ahead and sincere.
DL: Yes, listening back, it was a band that sounds like they rehearsed. That’s something that when a band gets into their 20th year they might not do as much because they’ve already figured out their ‘group mind,’ but as you said when you listen to the Dead in 1966, they’re a very tight band. They started to hit that point at times that they realized in 1969 when say Pigpen would sing ‘Hard To Handle’ and there was a frenzied point of release you could sense and pick up on. There were moments of that kind of genuine Grateful Dead X factor, that synergy of five guys playing together that you can hear in the Vancouver shows. It happened a few times there in Vancouver. There are moments that they sound like The Grateful Dead and not this bar band. They really had their own sound that they were working towards. Here’s an example. If you took Phil Lesh’s bass out of the mix of one of the songs from the Vancouver show, even that early in the game and you would no longer have The Grateful Dead. It’s the same with Bill’s drumming, Bob Weir’s guitar playing and of course, Jerry’s lead. Likewise, with Pigpen’s organ playing.
DH: The organ really stood out for me actually. It sounds really fantastic.
DL: It is! And, if you took that element out of the mix, it’d no longer be Grateful Dead music. So, they had already started to build their sound. You can hear it. You know, we used to play around like that in the studio sometimes if we were doing a multi-track recording where you could mute a certain instrument. We would do something like mute Bob Weir’s defining part in ‘China Cat Sunflower’ – the counterpoint to what Jerry was playing – and it was no longer the same song. It was not just like something was missing; it was transformed. There’s one song, for example, from the summer of 1972 where a couple of the Allman Brothers jam with the Dead and during ‘Not Fade Away’ Phil stepped off stage and let the Allman’s bass player play. And, ‘Not Fade Away’ is about as straight forward a rock and roll song that The Grateful Dead ever played, but with a ‘straight forward’ bass line like the Allman’s bassist played, it was no longer The Grateful Dead. So, what you hear with this 1966 show is all the parts that came together to make that defining Grateful Dead sound. To me, that’s fascinating because here’s a band that had only truly been together for about a year. They hadn’t recorded their second album yet. They didn’t have a record deal. They had not played outside California except for one Oregon acid test a few months earlier. The Dead just kept at it. Most bands wouldn’t stay together if they weren’t drawing people. But, they kept at it. They had a benefactor in Owsley who made sure that the bills got paid. It was an amazing time for the Dead.
DH: It must have been a lot of fun for them. Really, they were just kids.
DL: Weir was only eighteen years old at the time, and when I think of what I was doing when I was eighteen…. Actually, I was doing exactly what they were doing, but I wasn’t onstage. I was watching them. That was a real high point in my life. That was all thirty years ago – I’m forty-six now, but I still distinctly remember that feeling of crossing the border and being with my friends in a car headed to see The Dead. It was all an adventure. It was a ton of fun.
DH: It sure was. Great talking to you, David!
The Grateful Dead – Live in Vancouver July 29, 1966 is available either as a bonus disc included in the 50th anniversary deluxe edition of ‘The Grateful Dead’ (debut album) or on vinyl as a limited edition Record Store Day release.