Between 1966 and 1995, The Grateful Dead played thousands of shows. They didn’t just tour to support albums, they toured to make money, playing stadiums, arenas, and festivals year after year to large crowds.
Plenty has been written about those crowds, the infamous Deadheads. They were a community of people who followed them on tour, living out of vans and selling wares on what dubbed Shakedown Street, a row of vendors at Grateful Dead shows. Whatever you may think about them, it’s hard not to admire their devotion to the band they loved. And now, nearly 20 years after the band’s final gig, their devotion has yielded a trove of recordings.
More than any other popular band of their era, the Grateful Dead embraced fan taping. At first, they didn’t approve, but after a while relented and even sectioned off a part of the audience for people who brought handheld recorders to tape a copy of the show. Soon a community of people who collected and traded copies of shows sprung up, each building their own personal archive of tapes, CDs, lossless files, etc. (I’ll just say tapes to keep it simple, though). Eventually one of these dedicated fans, Dick Latvala, was employed by the band.
A few years back, the internet archive began putting Grateful Dead tapes on it’s servers. Right now, there’s over 9,500 individual recordings online. Although it should be noted that there’s often multiple copies of the same show, that’s still a lot of taped concerts.
Over at Aquarium Drunkard, Darryl Norsen’s been presenting the best moments from overlooked tapes under the Dead Notes banner. As you’d expect, he’s also a big collector: “I’ve been actively collecting Grateful Dead live recordings since 1996, with a focus on the first era of the Dead (specifically 1965-1972) concentrating intently on the ripe psychedelic years of 1967-68.”
When picking favourites, the same handful of dates shows up again and again. There’s Cornell University, 1977 and Harpur College, 1970. There’s the February 14, 1968 show in San Francisco and RFK Stadium in 1973. Everyone has a pick and it’s almost always on some personal bent.
“These days, when I’m poking around on archive.org, I’m looking for the Charlie Miller masters,” says Norsen. “That guy is the guru of rescuing old tapes and making them sound beautiful!”
Okay, but what about the worst? With so many tapes to listen to, which one comes in at the bottom? And, more to the point, what makes it the worst one?
There are generally two sources for tapes. The first are called soundboard tapes, which come from the board. They’re generally cleaner sounding, but sometimes sound off: the board is mixing for the venue’s sound, not for a recording. Some – the so-called Betty Boards, for example – are the cream of the Grateful Dead Tapes crop.
The other is called an audience tape, which is when people in the audience sneak in a recording device. “Up until 1974 taping was ‘illegal,’” says Norsen, “but it was still happening amongst a dedicated group of folks that spent entire shows avoiding the road crew.”
After a while the Dead allowed people to bring their own recorders – providing the tapes were circulated for other tapes, not for cash – but kept them in their own section behind the mixing board. Norsen: “as their popularity grew the more tapers showed up causing issues for the sound crew to see the stage, so a dedicated tapers section was established.” Because of this, their later tours are very well documented, often with several different sources, all of them from the audience.
Audience tapes have several things in their favour: when they sound good, they sound great. You’re getting an aural snapshot of how the band actually sounded, not how they were mixed. It sounds closer to the experience of being at a show, with bursts of applause (and occasionally, background chatter). And there are generally more of them, too.
But the things that make a good audience tape great also make a bad one almost unlistenable: the sound can be wildly distorted, there can be ill-timed gaps in the recording and sometimes it’s impossible to hear the band over the background noise. Even the best remastering can’t help a bad source recording.
“There are countless tapes that are just bad recordings,” says Norsen, “but there might be a magic moment tucked in there behind the hiss, the distortion or whatever mechanical errors.”
So, what then is the worst recording? I have my own candidate: May 3, 1970, a show at Wesleyan University. And while it’s got some of the stuff that makes an audience tape interesting, it’s got all the bad stuff in spades.
The day before, at Harpur College, the Dead played what’s sometimes considered their best show: an acoustic set followed by an electric one, cumulating in a couple extended jams and a frantic version of “Viola Lee Blues”. In 1997, it saw official release as Dick’s Picks Volume Eight.
While 1970 is considered one of the Dead’s best touring years, it’s hard to hear that magic the next night, mostly because the tape is so rough sounding. Allegedly, some sociology student brought a recorder to the gig for a class project. After all, it was a free outdoor show on a May evening. Why not show up, right?
Like the Harpur show, this one was split between an acoustic set and an electric one. Parts of both sets survive, but with poor sound: they’re not just muffled, but overwhelmed by the audience. It sounds like the recorder was passed around by a group of friends, who may or may not have been enjoying chemical refreshments. And the taper kept his original purpose in mind, keeping track of songs and the time (“this is song number seven,” “the time is 9:35,” that sort of thing).
I don’t think the Grateful Dead were at their best, either. “New Speedway Boogie” kind of drags, especially compared to other period performances (see this performance from the movie Festival Express) and while Good Lovin’ gets the crowd worked up, but it’s nothing compared to the monster third set from the night before.
Still, there’s moments of interest: even with the muffled sound, “Lovelight” has a nice Garcia solo and, as usual for this period, it’s a showcase for Pigpen’s shouted blues (unfamiliar listeners should check out this killer version in Norsen’s Dead Notes series). If a better-sounding tape of this show ever surfaces, I’d like to take another listen to this performance.
But what’s most striking about this show is what comes at the end: an impassioned political speech by an angry protester. “They expected violence and we showed them peace,” he yells to applause, speaking in this vein for about four minutes.
Remember, May 1970 was a tumultuous time. Across the US, college campuses were protesting a newly expanded Vietnam War. And Wesleyan was no exception: according to the various accounts compiled by Light Into Ashes, writing for Dead Essays (who wrote a fantastic breakdown of this show and it’s various contexts), the Black Panthers had a rally there that very afternoon. I’m pretty sure the speaker was part of that group, but I don’t know for certain.
All things considered, this May 1970 tape is a curious document, capturing campus politics and the Grateful Dead, albeit in rough fashion. It’s certainly not the best-sounding tape, either in fidelity or content, but between the band’s playing and the inflamed politics, it captured a fascinating moment in time: the day before this gig, the Dead played maybe their best show and the day after, four students at Kent State were shot dead by the National Guard.
With all this in mind, I’ll let Andrew Weissman, a fan who’s been collecting tapes in various forms since the mid-1980s, have the last word: “The worst Dead tape is still a transformative experience, even if it is only in one’s imagination.”
More writing from M. Milner here.