Blair’s Golden Road Blog - All Hail the Tapers!
by Blair Jackson
Spurred by a comment I read somewhere online, I decided to download the Dead’s January 10, 1979, concert at Nassau Coliseum. I have an old tape of it somewhere, but I never got it digitally, so it could have been 15 or 20 years since I’d heard it. I remembered that the second set contained both “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen” (the last time those appeared in the same show), but not much else. What a show! The “Dark Star” is my favorite of all the post-hiatus versions, and everything else the band played that night is full of energy and excitement.
Why has this fantastic show not been released? Because it’s not in the Grateful Dead tape vault. The versions we all love so much and which have blown thousands of minds through the years are audience recordings. To be honest, I don’t whether I downloaded the Bob Wagner or the Keith Gatto version from Archive.org the other day; I wasn’t paying attention. But it sounded wonderful and really had that you-are-there quality that the best audience tapes have.
And it got me thinking: Thank God Bob and Keith were on hand to capture that incredible Grateful Dead performance (and no doubt there were other surreptitious tapers on hand whose handiwork is not up on Archive), because otherwise it would be lost to the ages, recalled fondly and with increasing dimness only by those who were lucky enough to be there that night. Look at all the shows listed in Deadbase that we literally know nothing about, because there is no extant recording. We don’t know a single song that was played. It’s possible, likely even, that dozens of the greatest shows the band played in the late ’60s will never be heard.
We’ve all been spoiled by the incredible bounty of soundboard tapes that have filtered out of the vault through various means over the years—one or two at a time, in giant batches like the Betty Boards, and in a flood after the death of Dick Latvala in 1999. Go onto Archive and you can hear nearly every show in the GD Vault in good quality. But there are holes in the vault collection that have been filled by audience tapes that have circulated and even been upgraded technically through the years—I’m thinking of the fall ’70 Capitol Theatre (Port Chester) shows, for example, and various others that for whatever reason are not in the vault (Greek ’81!).
I remember a time when most of my tape collection consisted of audience-made recordings, and I treasured them as much as the best-sounding SBDs I owned. When I consider some of the best shows I attended—Winterland 3/18/77, Frost 10/10/82, Santa Fe 9/10/83, to name just three—it was the audience tapes that let me relive them most fully. When the soundboards for those shows came to me years later, I dug the improved fidelity and presence (Phil, in particular, always sounded better on SBDs), but I missed the crowd and the feeling of the space the show was played in, which the audience tapes and a little imagination provided.
During the years I put out The Golden Road magazine (’84-’93), I tried my damndest to hear every show the Dead played, and I relied completely on the work of tapers—most of whom I didn’t know—and a network of kind traders who kept me supplied. Sometimes the tapes sounded pretty bad—hey, beggars can’t be choosers! But more often than not they allowed me to instantly put myself in Saratoga or Chicago or Atlanta to hear what went down. Just this second, I flashed on the audience tape of 10/31/85 from Columbia, South Carolina—not great quality, but I still listened to it over and over that fall: “Werewolves,” “Shakedown,” “Playing” … good stuff. I’ve never heard the SBD version, and I see there’s a SBD-matrixed-with-AUD version on Archive. I’ll have to check that out. So many shows, so little time.
I own recordings that were marred by folks in the audience talking too loud, whistling obnoxiously or singing along off-key, or the taper being in a bad spot in the venue. But I developed a very high tolerance for those sorts of distractions and learned how to listen through them to the partially obscured music. There are things that people shout on certain tapes that have become part of the show in my mind. “Hey, Jerry, don’t play ‘U.S. Blues’!” rings out before the encore on one. On another, there’s an intrusive discussion near the taper’s mikes about going to a bar mitzvah—in the middle of the heaviest part of “China Doll”! There are times when I’ve wanted to jump into the tape to strangle someone. But mostly I shrug and think, “Oh, yeah, that guy.”
Beginning with the Berkeley Community Theatre shows in the fall of 1984, the tapers finally became legit, with their own section, usually behind the soundboard, at every concert, and both the number and quality of the audience tapes improved dramatically. The elaborate hijinks that had been part of the art of smuggling in recorders and microphones virtually disappeared overnight (though blatant recording with tape decks and elevated mikes had been tolerated, if not officially endorsed, for years before it was formalized). The new challenge: recording unobtrusively in the sweet spot between the stage and the front-of-house mixer.
Veterans of the pre-tapers’ section era of audience recording all have a million war stories about the extreme measures they often had to take to secretly bring their equipment into venues, risking confiscation, ejection or both. Wires were snipped mid-show occasionally, cassettes crushed under roadies’ boots, pleas and begging ignored. It was tough and stressful, but the payoff was worth it, and they did it for all of us!
What is rarely mentioned, too, is the fact that Dead tapers single-handedly invented the audience recording phenomenon and embraced the challenge of also recording hundreds of other acts, from the Allmans to Dylan to Clapton to Springsteen, and inspiring fans of other bands to do the same. There is scarcely a major concert that happens anywhere that is not taped illegally by someone. Of course, smartphones have put no-fuss audio/video recording capability into the hands of just about everyone (and I do appreciate being able to see a song or two—or maybe an entire show—on YouTube; odious and obnoxious as the sight of hands thrust into the air holding cell phones can be for those actually attending the concert). But it’s still hard to beat a beautifully made clandestine recording by a soulful audio pirate with good equipment.
Any tales of taping you’d like to share with the group? Or care to weigh in about your own feelings about audience tapes and what they’ve meant to you or the scene?
Just yesterday I was building a Grateful Dead pyramid to experience the develoement of the Dead in a three-stage flash. 5/11/72, 5/22/77, and 3/26/90 starting with the so-called ill-chosen Built to Last opener from 3/26/90 set 2. I was listening in mono due to the stereo at my place, and the first two were sbd's and the last was a brilliant aud by one of archive's consistent '90s tapers, Litzenberger. Only on the aud did Phil's bass and Weir's concepts shine through on the recording. It brought the band into 3-D.
One thing I always loved about aud tapes is that you can hear the sound of people responding to the music. Perhaps it is because the GD had a crack sound system crew innovating the technology alongside the band as they innovated their art, the audience tapes tend to offer an honest portrayal of people's response to their music, rather than superficial hype generated by media mega-giants. The audience tapes offer an honesty seldom revealed in rock and roll.
I just wish that more Grateful Dead-based musicians would step up their game and become masters of rhythm and get over the hype that the Grateful Dead failed to rehearse. You clearly see a great and rehearsed band at work whenever they were recording for a live release. There are other kinds of brilliance to be found elsewhere, but a different sort. Kinda like the difference between Fall '89 and Spring '90, if you catch my drift.
Nonetheless, Great point, Blair! Keep up the great writing. I actually read your words with a certain reverence, since my lifestyle changes prevent me from studying the developments of archive.org as I may have done before.
The concept that you speak of sparks a nostalgia in my heart!
One of the most interesting blogs on this site yet.
I recorded the Dead at the Fillmore East on 9/18/70 using a crappy cassette deck I bought while visiting Europe that summer. It had a cheap mic, too. I don't remember what I had to go through to sneak the deck in, but I know that my friend and I were seated pretty far back in the Orchestra on the left. I don't have the tape any longer, but I remember it turned out to be mostly a recording of my friend and I singing with the muffled sound of music in the background. Pretty embarrassing, actually.
Then in 1972, I borrowed a deck from someone and went to record the famous "Hell's Angels Presents..." party on 3/25/72 at the Academy of Music in NY. I remember that there was a mission or street-front church next door. I ducked into there, sat down in one of the pews and proceeded to stuff the deck into my pants as best I could (while trying not to attract too much attention). Fortunately it was still cold outside, so I was able to wear my huge navy surplus jacket to cover the bulges. So I get to my 25th row seat and the guy behind me asks I wanted to trade seats with his friend...who was in the 4th row right side!. Hell, yeah! I recorded Bo Diddley's set (with the Dead backing him), and the first Dead set. I was pretty much a novice taper, so I hadn't brought a flashlight or Bic lighter so I could see what I was doing. Right before Lovelight started, I flipped the tape and unknowingly pressed both fast forward and record. The recording sounded like Pigpen on helium!
I have a vague memory of recording 9/19/72 at Roosevelt Stadium in NJ, but I was also flying pretty high so I can't be sure of that.
After that, I let the true "tapers" handle the recording and stuck to collecting.
your welcome Blair ....my brother was at the 2-19 show too.
good times .... back in the days when Garcia was thin and his hair was dark ... :)
and the girls all swooned for Marmaduke .... and Torbert.
Hey did you folks know that Spencer Dryden was Charlie Chaplains nephew?
... for that link, Dov! I loved NRPS in that era. I was at two of those Capitol shows--to the best of my recollection 2/19 and 2/21, Fri. and Sun., as my parents weren't crazy about me going to mid-week shows, even though it was my senior year in HS. Oh, well. They did make exceptions, too...
I smuggled a portable Sony cassette player with a built in condensor mike into the 2/18/71 show at Portchester. At the time, this cheap little tape recorder was almost state of the art. I didn't really care so much about that at the time, I was just a 19 year old happy little hippy going to my 3rd Dead concert, and along with my tape recorder, I brought a chemical agent that was known by three letters for my first excursion to that realm that everyone was talking about those days.
I think I paid 9 bucks for the tickets, bought at a headshop named OM in Rockland County. The tape recorder was small enough to fit inside my jacket on a winters evening, and nobody searched me ... and cool, I was in!
Portchester seated maybe 2,000 folks, not sure, I was in the 10th row and the sound was just great.
I listened to that audience tape for a decade or two and eventually a better quality recording came out of the Dead's fabulous two sets, but I've never found a soundboard or any other recording better than mine for the NRPS set, so for those interested, here it is in all it's B quality glory:
It was a truly terrrific show, in my opinion, the best of the 6 night run. This show is so nostaligic, with Marmaduke, Dave Torbet, Spencer Dryden and Jerry G of blessed memory, and good ole Dave Nelson.
A great great example of the early NRPS with Jerry .... check it out.
It was Debussy, someone who Ellington admired a lot as a tone colorist. There is also a Pauline Oliveros ensemble "The Space Between" based on a similar notion. Cheers!
The version of Playing In The Band from last year's 30 Days is from the Oklahoma City Music Hall on 11/15/72. For a complete recap: http://www.dead.net/30daysofdead
Sorry to barge in on your blog but I just listened to a half hour Playin" and I MUST know where it was played...Does anyone have the list of tracks and where they are from from November 2011 Thanx in advance in box me .
Jim da Jazz Cat from Philly
Wasn't it Duke Ellington who said, "Music is what happens between the notes," or am I mis-remembering?