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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cosmicbadger's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007

5 Normanized tracks (Bertha, Mr Charlie, Cumberland, Brokedown, HTH) from the Vault Version of the show appear on the Road Trips 1.3 Bonus Disc. Very good they are too, but many might say that the existing aud still sounds better.

Deadicated's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
I'd like

to hear what Mr. Norman could do with a show such as 8/06/71. An official taper's release would be cool. "Hard To Handle" is on The Phil Zone so the show would probably remain on the LMA.

I dabbled in taping a show once; it was in '78, at Arrowhead Stadium. It was 96 in the shade and I use d a 120 cassette! I still become extra-crispy at the thought of that experience!

Joined: Oct 1 2007
tapers...and bootleggers!

No road stories today, but the world of tapers and their relationship to bootleggers is not always a happy one. I had about 800 live tapes stolen from an apartment. It was obviously a targeted theft, they did not take cameras, stereo, cash (!), just tapes. (this is almost 30 years ago now). Some time later a bootleg record of a famous dead show came out, and, it was our recording, we could tell because of the tape flip location. I also recall word going out from GD Headquarters, sometime around 1980, for tapers to supply them with tapes for shows they did not have in the vault, in exchange for a pristine SB of our choice (at the time still a somewhat hard commodity to get). The taping section was a mixed blessing. Great for all the obvious reasons, but suddenly EVERYONE was taping, and not everyone was respecting the space and needs of their fellow tapers. But... they were great and fun times, I spent a summer travelling across Europe with my NAK 550, 3 421s, a wack of batteries, a sleeping bag, and not much else, recording all sorts of great stuff, from Bach organ concerts in Churches in Amsterdam (of course we spent a lot of time in Amsterdam : ) ) to Don Cherry in a field outside of Brussels, to everything in between. Damm the bootleggers to hell!

fluffanutter's picture
Joined: Feb 25 2012
Famous show on vinyl

The Hollywood Palladium show of 8/6/71 is pretty famous for the Too Hard To Handle. The rest of the show wasn't too shabby either. I never would have gotten to hear it as early as I did (1979) without the help of some bootleggers. Bootleggers were a different breed than tapers. They were out to profit from the recordings they made. This opposed to tapers who would trade. A key difference between the two was the professionalism of the recording. Nobody is going through the expense of pressing 10,000 units unless they have a salable product.

Some times I wonder if this bootleg was an attempt by the band to circumvent their contract. How else could the bootleggers have gotten distribution through a major regional chain department store (which was where I bought it)? Regardless of who was behind it, it was my favorite recording for about 8 years and I treated it with TLC.

The tapers were always a different breed. Some might say obnoxious. As with all generalizations, you couldn't make a blanket statement about them. They came in all sizes, shapes and flavors,. They were highly dedicated. They were all on a mission. I'm so glad they made it and now have their own showcase on the archive. I'm sure more than few of them had heart attacks when their vast collections became deflated in value. I remember one particular taper from my home town who had his collection insured and in fire protected file cabinets. In the end everybody had access to everything, the way it should be.

I would like to express my gratitude and thanks to all those tapers over the years who were so fanatical in their devotion and those who remain so to this very day, like Charlie Miller, continuing to refine the best of both worlds (auds and sbds) and clean up dubious sources, In 2095 there will be people dancing to the GOGD with nobody alive who ever attended a show and the source will be audience recorded a good percentage of the time.

Joined: Jun 7 2007
Nice Boots

Always loved getting the occasional audience tape (is "bootleg" politically incorrect now?) that came my way. Yeah Hershey!!! Yeah Merriweather!!! Really enjoyed pointing out the tapers section to 1st timers. Love getting the "tonight's show" Furthur CDs now. Fear of running out of cash led me to skip the 1st night Wanee recording, but did grab the 2nd night. Earlier tonight went searching for Wanee performances and found this post, that I thought was cool even before reading Blair's blog

Subject: THANK YOU
This is Vaylor Trucks and I play guitar and Moog synth for The Yeti Trio. We had brought a Zoom to record our set and didn't have time to set it up before the set started, and we'd thought that there would be no recording at all - so to find this here is a real treat. Thank you so much - the recording sounds amazing!

The song names are:
1. Heart of the Sunrise (tease) > New Socks
2. Bonk 'em on the Noggin with a Wrench, Jim
3. Son of a Duck Fumbler (in 5)
4. Red (tease) > FIDO > Red (tease again)

Now there's a taper who should be proud

Joined: Nov 12 2007
OK, who recorded 02/06/79 Tulsa County Fairgrounds??

I've been waiting for years and years, but still haven't found a nice audience recording of 2/6/79 Tulsa. A nice written setlist resides in Deadbase, but the tape has still not surfaced. Now's the time to hand it over to us so we can finally listen to it!

Also, I'm holding out for recordings of August 28-29, 1970 shows from Thee Club in Los Angeles California. These nights, the GD were billed as "The Acoustical Grateful Dead" (and the NRPS were there as well). Deadbase does not have song listings, but I am sure they played electric sets as well as acoustic. Some recordings of these shows will be a major discovery!

bruno14's picture
Joined: Sep 18 2007
Tapers, gods love 'em

A friend of a friend, ca 81-83, had a fake leg cast to store his equipment and crutches to elevate his mics!

Banter: 1982 Santa Fe Downs: "No, not Althea," right into the mic, followed by "Shut the F*#@ up!" I used to hate that but years after I lost touch with both guys, it is my favorite part.

I had to go find this: Red Rocks 7-28-82:

Joined: May 26 2007

Great post, Blair. I recorded a few shows (Garcia-Saunders 6/8/75 for one), but didn't have very good equipment - and more importantly, I quickly came to realize that I wasn't capable of enjoying the show in real time while doing it. I have a great respect for those guys who were able to pull tape and enjoy the show at the same time!

At Cal Expo in June 1990, I interviewed three of the legends: Barry Glassberg, Rob Bertrando, and Jerry Moore. We did it during the break, using Barry's microphones, and he almost missed the start of the second set 'cause he had to get his rig set up again in a big hurry!

Gr8fulTed's picture
Joined: Jul 9 2007
R I P Jerry Moore

I'd like to honor Jerry Moore for his wonderful recordings during the 70's: 10/1/76 in Indianapolis stands out, since I was in the crowd making cat calls. My own attempts at recording were certainly not up to his incredible successes: In New Orleans, the usher confiscated my Sony during the Saenger 1980 show. In KC the following summer, another security person was all over me and others disabling our ability to record.
I did find record decent tapes once the taper's section was permitted behind the soundboard. It was a real pleasure getting to know Dan Healy and meeting many of the tapers during the 80's and 90's. I'll get up on LMA and check out that '79 recording now!


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