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 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.

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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Joined: Nov 12 2007
Buffalo 9/26/81

I was at this show with some friends of mine, sitting back in the corner. There was a taper next to us, so we were able to obtain a copy of this show, which was really really good.

During the second set as the Dead go into Morning Dew my friend Jorge can clearly be heard yelling "Holy Sh$$". Unfortunately Jorge was killed a couple years later, and even though I've had opportunities to replace that aud with a soundboard, I refuse to just so I can still hear my friend.

scott1129's picture
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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Tapers and dancers on the radio

Tapes were always an unneccessary evil, ie being eaten by every player ever devised, but with the Dead tapes were a medium alone, the values of Maxell vs Denon vs Sony vs a dozen other brands and 60 90, 110 minutes of pure joy.
May 9 & 10, 1987 Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey CA, Hornsby and the Range open then Ry Cooder.
No Taper section.
But we broadcast the sunday show on KZSC the college station from UC SantaCruz, Night of the Live Dead with the Grim Taper as your host, rolling the lastest sounds from Bob Weird and Phil Less, with Jay Garcia toking along.
The next year they returned and I was dancing my ass off for Scarlet/Fire then the best Playing I ever heard, I ended up down below the soundboard at the end when the drums began and lo there was a taper, gave me his card from UC San Diego, but never hooked up. 88 Laguna Seca Playing on the Box Set So Many Roads.
Tapes are now gone with digital recording taking their place, and soundboards available after the show, thank Furthur.
Make Tapes Not War.

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Joined: Jun 4 2007
Let me have a 'do over' on that derailed train of thought

I regretted not taping more shows back then,
and never regretted taping the ones I did.

Taping a show does require attentiveness
on another whole different level, however.
Recording back in the day added an entirely
alternate sense of adventure to those shows.
Fun stuff, ;o}

But Syracuse78, you got what I meant,
even though how I said it did get in the way.
But the 70's were a little rough on my synapes!
Not too much dain bramage however....

"The bad news is, there is no key to the universe,
the good news is, it was never locked".

Online
Joined: Jul 15 2010
There isn't a day that goes

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't wish I didn't tape more shows.

I can't not disagree with what I don't think you aren't saying. :-)

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Joined: Jun 4 2007
Twirlers and tapers... all fueled with 'searching for the

sound" ;o}

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't wish I didn't tape more shows.
Nor does a day go by where I'm not thankful that I did tape.
As Blair said many shows weren't taped by the band.
That Omaha '78 show isn't in the vault, no soundboard.
But we got it anyway.

The tapers had the same misson as Marvis Staples "I'll take you there!".

To just catch a little piece of the magic of even one of those nights we spent with the Dead is beyond wonderful.

Those tapes/CDs are an aural time machine, just pop in that show and take flight.

"The bad news is, there is no key to the universe,
the good news is, it was never locked".

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Joined: Feb 25 2012
@Unkle Sam

Interesting juxtaposition there... I think this is partly what Marye was referring to in her recently added thread "Tradeoffs Of Cultural Transmission". The spontaneity of the experience was certainly what added greatly. You spontaneously got a taper's ticket and just as spontaneously found out what taping was all about. It must have been like falling into another animal's den.

Space (physical space, not the segment after drums) was a thing not to be trifled with in later years at shows. Twirlers were in the hallway and tapers were FOB and God help anybody unfortunate enough to get in the way. And that certainly took away from the spontaneity of the scene. I suppose it was inevitable. Just the way human beings are.

unkle sam's picture
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Joined: Oct 3 2008
sound shadow

from the cheap seats they looked very intent on what they were doing, constantly moving about, working with wires and mics, milling about the soundboard, very busy, then the show started and all was quiet. My experiences with the tapers was not as cool as the rest, I had no idea when in 88 I somehow got a ticket for the tapers section, being that I had purchased tickets for all for the show the night before, I was the only one at the second nite, right in the middle of the tapers section, (to this day, don't know how I got into that section), but there I was, completely ignorant of what was going on or what these guys were trying to capture on their tape machines. I was digging the show and groving, dancing and whooping and shouting, little did I know in the dark that all around me were giving me the "what's this guy doing here" stare. As the first set ended and the lights came up, I was informed by many in the vacinity that I was an "asshole" for shouting and not respecting their endevor. That was when I was told that even walking infront of their mics would produce a sound shadow that could be heard by all. Having never experienced this, I was a little doubtful of their worries, but, lo and behold, it was true, they knew what they were talking about. Having been educated that night, I never went anywhere near their section again, which were pretty good seats in my memory. So, with all due respect, I apoligize for my ignorance. Maybe this is why I have never heard any aud tapes from the 10-16-88 show (Bobby's birthday) Again, sorry, it was a good show.

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Joined: Jan 18 2010
5-15-81

Rutgers Athletic Center. The RAC had skylights in the ceiling.
The weather outside was violent. And as if on cue, lightning would flash
at the mention of rainy weather. Looks Like Rain was off the wall with the timing as was Fire on the Mountain and even in Estimated Prophet when Bobby sang "I'll call out Thunder BA-BOOM dead on cue.

You can hear the audience reacting with the spectacle from above very clearly on the audience tapes that are in circulation. Sounboards on the other hand are eerily void of the seat of youy pants excitement taking place right in front of it.

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Joined: Mar 18 2010
Musical interpretation

There's a Grateful Dead Hour where David Gans interviewed a woman who performed sign language at GD concerts. It's the way he said to her- "You don't stop during the jams"- I still laugh thinking about it.

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
Really

You should write a book, what with this and the dragon story...

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