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?


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Mr. Pid's picture
Joined: Dec 22 2007
The sound of silence

Wasn't it Duke Ellington who said, "Music is what happens between the notes," or am I mis-remembering?

Grateful_nirvanA's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
Bear's Tapes

Hi All,

There is an article in this week's Rolling Stone regarding the remastering and releasing of "Bear's," Owsley Stanley's tapes. The article indicated that they had set up a non-profit trust to work on raising the $200-300K needed to pay for the digital mastering of his tapes (for future consumer consumption). This seemed a bit odd, as the commercial value of the tapes, once digitized, seems like a very viable and lucrative commodity (at least to me).

I may be missing something, as the article did not mention the exact plans for the digitized tape archives if/when the project is completed. The article did mention that there were tapes from Miles Davis and Johnny Cash in addition to a number of GD tapes.

If these tapes were to be made affordable (or free! hint hint) to the public, then the non-profit option makes more sense. I just can't imagine people giving away such treasures, but you never know.

*I went looking for the article online, but since it's in the current issue, it's not on line yet, sorry.

Joined: Jun 6 2007

If some of the gaps between songs are not on official releases, it's because they have been edited down or out altogether to make the flow of the disc better or, in some cases, to save time to allow another song to be on a disc (or for the whole set to fit on a single disc). They all exist on the master tapes (i.e., no one was sitting there with a finger on a pause button trying to guess when the real song was going to start.) I agree there are sometimes cool little moments in those idle tune-ups and gaps, but frankly I prefer to NOT have two-and-a-half minutes of tuning and dead air in between songs on the official releases. Some of that stuff does get on anyway, though....

scott1129's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
More Twirlin' of the reels

Jerry Garcia Band at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in 2/24/87 the last Santa Cruz Jerry apperance, at the opening of the second set my friend Mark and I could not resist the temptation and let go with a huge !D!A!R!K!S!T!A!R! to which the taper sly-ly says "Yeah, play a Bobby song!". Great show, Great Tape. should be a Pure Jerry release, they did Harder They Come to open the second set.

Part Deux

I started going to shows in '83 so I saw the change, Greek 83 the floor is all tapers, great stuff should be a Dave's Picks, I have the photo with the Cortney Pollack tie dye backdrop. There's one in Book of the Deadheads. But in 86 we had no problem standing in front of Phil on the Sunday show when they made the roadies set the mics back up and did Box of Rain for the 21st song of the day on the 21st of June. Good Ole Grateful Dead

Hey how come Futhur's not playin' the Greek
everybody else seems to be.

WCrum01's picture
Joined: Oct 14 2011
Space the show was played in

Re: Your comment about the crowd and feeling of the space the show was played in. My favorites, 10/15/1977 as an example, are of the whole evening, with the tuning & banter between tunes intact in the recording.
The note not played -- or the silence between notes -- often is as important as the note that is played; likewise, the 'empty' space between tunes tells its own story.
To hear the band ease into Jackstraw for three minutes before the first 'official' note is struck is revelatory.
I was thinking this over while listening to the Dillon Stadium release. I miss the unfolding of the show over time when the space between tunes is edited out.

Perhaps whoever was running the tape machine at the soundboard cut that stuff out in the name of saving tape at the time. If so, too bad.
Listening to some of the GEMS recordings that Bear made, it seems clear he saw the value in capturing the whole experience on tape...that the note not struck often is as important as the note that is played.

Joined: Nov 16 2010
Nassau 1/10/79

I was at this show and taped it on a boombox from about halfway back in the orchestra. Need less to say the sound wasn't the greatest but what a great and overlooked show. Definitely will check it out on Thanks for the headsup Blair!

noonie's picture
Joined: Jul 31 2007
missing from the vault

i am over at alot (just became a taper last year) and few of us started noticing that there were tape collections up for grabs on ebay, craigslist etc. so someone over there organized for everyone to chip in to start scooping these up and start converting them to digital so hopefully in the years to come we can fill in all those shows that are missing. I am surprised none of the vault keepers didn't start doing this.

Joined: Nov 8 2007
"Is This Driving You Crazy?"

The very last show at the Greek -- August 1989, during space my cigarette smoke was meandering into the eyes of the gal next to me (who was . . . let's just say "having mental difficulties during space") -- unbenknownst to me, her boyfriend was recording the show (not in the taper section) w/ his fancy microphones right next to me at mouth level (you see where this is going) -- I turn to the gal and ask: "Is this driving you crazy?" (meaning my cigarette smoke; not the "space" screatching all around us) DIRECTLY into the microphone! Perfect timing -- I've never heard a copy of the tape, but somewhere it's out there -- some guy on a tape during space, asking whether "this" is driving you crazy! Sorry to admit, I'm the guy. Ooooops but somehow perfect!

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

if that isn't classic Grateful Dead thinking, turning unsellable seats into a huge win-win, I dunno what is...

smarcus's picture
Joined: May 20 2010
The Approval of The Taping Section

At a band meeting at Front Street in 1984 Dan Healy complained about the fact that he could not see the stage because of the sea of microphone stands in front of the stage, and a discussion commenced about whether or not taping could be stopped, and if not how could it be controlled. Bill "Kidd" Candelario(I know the spelling is wrong) suggested a taping section and then people started asking where would they put it. At this point I suggested that there were always 100-250 obstructed view seats directly behind the sound board that were never sold at reserved seat shows. I believe Kidd brought up charging extra for taping the shows and I said that I didn't think it was fair because the seats were obstructed and besides they would now be selling 100-250 tickets per show that they hadn't been selling before.

The official taping section was approved by all the band members immediately and the next mail order shows after that meeting were at BCT in late 1984...Originally the soundboard was going to be located below the balcony (but not UNDER the balcony, so there would have been a few rows directly behind it that would have been obstructed.) This location was "advanced" by Dan Healy before the shows went on sale and he chose that location. The day of the first show, he changed his mind and moved the sound board up to the first four rows center of the balcony, which caused the major headache of having to relocate those people down to the rear of the orchestra where the sound board was originally going to be...lot's of pissed off people!

I came up with the cute idea of stamping a likeness of Richard Nixon on the back of the Taper Tickets (because he was the "king of the tapers"). It was a store bought rubber stamp that I bought on Haight Street a few years before...I still have it!


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