Grateful Dead

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 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.

GD live mixer and taper’s friend Dan Healy
(right) in front of the first taper’s section at BCT, 1984.
Photo: David Gans © 2012

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?


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Joined: May 29 2017
hard to handle from Phil zone

best ever...on my #1 favs incl (but not limited to):
- comes a time 5/9/77
- morning dew 10/18/74
- mississippi 1/2 step 9/3/77
- scarlet begonias 6/26/76
- here comes sunshine 12/19/73
- Franklin's tower 5/9,6/9,10/11/1977!
- estimated prophet 5/14/78 tired now go add to list...

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
cue the Small World theme

not long ago I was reminiscing in another thread about my life-changing first Jerry show (1-23-81, Keystone Palo Alto), and Gr8fulTed, who lives in Kansas, though we did meet briefly in real life at the Jerry Giants game a couple years back, says he thinks he might have that one and will send it along. So the CD arrives the other day. The recording's from Dick Latvala's master audience recording on a tape belonging to Jeff Knudsen, both of whom I knew back in the day, but neither of whom I knew on that day, because hey, it was my first show.

Ah, history. Ah, the memories.

Thanks, Gr8fulTed!

Dragoneye's picture
Joined: Sep 27 2011
Many Thanks To The Tapers

I was at the local Goodwill the other day and came across a collection of Dead tapes. I really was taken by the lovingly annotated and decorated cases. There are over fifty of them in a wooden box from ca.1965 to 1995. Paying the clerk less than ten bucks for the lot and feeling like a thief, I brought them home and started my exploration.
The quality for the most part is very good, and more importantly, the energy of the music therein is really incredible. There is nothing like hearing these live performances, the ambient atmospheres and crowd energy being mirrored by the band. I was very lucky to have found them.
Now I am going to digitize them so I can organize and share them better.
I discovered the Dead when I was young, and they were too; before Dead Heads and Tapers, but my appreciation of them and their music just keeps growing and gets richer and richer as we go.
Thanks to Blair for this acknowledgement of such a wonderful aspect of the phenomena and community.
Peace out

johnlo's picture
Joined: Jun 9 2007
Many Thanks to the Tapers

I attended my first concert on 4-12-83. If it were not for tapers, I would not have the joy of reliving this concert on tape for the last 27 years (A college friend, who lived with a taper made me the cassettes in 1985) among many others, especially the Summer and Fall 1985 Tours. I remember having some pretty terrible sounding tapes back in the day (mostly stuff from the 70's). I still treasure and prefer my cassettes over CDs as they are all high-quality AUD recordings. I may only have 15 to 20 cassettes that fit in this category and quite amazingly they still play well in my tape deck after hundreds of plays.
Soundboards are 'dead and uninspiring' IMHO. Without the AUD and the ambience, the listening experience is diminished. The difference-maker for me was purchasing a BBE Audio Restoration System for my Cassette Deck. This piece of technology reproduces the "Full-Dynamic Range" of live cassette recordings and was specifically designed with 'Deadheads' in mind. If you have a component system with a deck, this is an essential piece of equipment. You will feel like you are at the concert! BTW, does anyone know if a comparable piece of audio restoration equipment exists for listening to Live Audience GD CDR's? For example, Audience CDR's burned from the Archive? Thanks again to all the tapers for all the great years of listening.

DinoBam's picture
Joined: Jun 26 2008
Taping & Trading

I was not a Taper, however I got involved with tapes and trading them through Relix Magazine. I can remember sending out blank Sony SA 90's and Maxell XL 2's through snailmail, and patiently awaiting for them to return. So many people, in so many far away places I had never met face to face...... not one screwed me.
Some where even so kind as to include handmade inserts that were
artistic masterpieces..... Some of myy earlier shows were the 4 Tower Theatre 1976 shows, Palladium NYC 1977 run, and my alltime fav....
Englishtown NJ 1977. What memories!
Thank you ALL .... ESPECIALLY the Tapers!

Joined: Nov 15 2010

I started taping in April '93 - It took me about 3 shows to get my method down. I wanted to go for a total 'your are there sound'.

I therefore would tape on the first side of the first cassette without any pauses. I would then switch quickly to the A side of the second cassette.

During the break I would advance all tapes to the beginning of side B and repeat this process.

In most cases there was spare tape on the B side of tape 2 of the first which I would manually rewind to the end of the first set on side B1.

This worked great for the majority of show. But there where a few times when I wish I had a third tape.

I would then record a 1st gen with everything in place. This method definitely gave me the sound of being there.

guit30's picture
Joined: May 1 2009

This was a great thing, I wonder if the Dead would ever consider putting out a release that was done by a taper. My favorite show that I went to, was in June of 76 @ the 4 night run in Philly at the Tower Theator, it finally showed up a few monthes ago, and a bud of mine recorded it on CDRs, the sound quality was really above decent. My wife and I had 3rd row seats, because We had mailings sent to us at the beginning of March and we requested the best seats possible for a Tower show, and we ended up in the 3rd row, center.

It was an awesome night and now I have it on tape and CDR. Twas a great show. Miller was the Taper, He made a lot of the good 70s tapes.

Joined: Mar 8 2011
Mammary productions

I was at some Dead show in 71 in the northeast, can't remember which, and after the show someone was selling vinyl albums outside the venue called 'Mammary Productions'.

One of them had a Felix the Cat drawing, and some boobery was in evidence in other drawings. At that time, cassettes were still pretty new and not a lot of folks had them, and it wasn't easy to get copies of Dead concerts at all. To see an actual vinyl pressing of a Grateful Dead show was completely uniqe (who had vinly pressing machines to play with?)

So, I bought the vinyl and was richly rewaded. On one side was an acoustic Dead set that sounds a lot like the famous Harper College show that later became part of Dick's Picks 8, and the other side was a NRPS set with Jerry on pedal steel, and Bobby singing Poor Boy with Marmaduke, and Dave Nelson on Mandolin for the closing gospel number Wide Jordan.

It was very exciting to actually have part of a live Grateful Dead show back then. Me and my buddies tripped out to that many times ... :)

I thought maybe some old timers might have had the vinyl too.

My vinyl copy is long gone now, but at least the music is still around, via tape, CD, mp3, lossless, etc etc etc. choices choices choices. back then, there weren't may choices.


Joined: Mar 8 2011
Does anyone remember .....

Mammary productions?

if not, I'll post something about it on this thread .... :)


Joined: Mar 8 2011
Portchester pic


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.