A Taper’s Section Night to Remember…Grateful Dead Play Chapel Hill 3/24/93
The Chapel Hill stop on the Grateful Dead’s 1993 Spring Tour represented a new venue for the venerable jam-rock progenitors, and as such was highly anticipated by fans. Regardless of locale, however, conventional wisdom held that any given Dead show on any night could turn out to be extraordinary, so even in this period of ostensible decline it is fair to say that any and every concert was “highly anticipated.”
Of course, 1993 had the potential to be an up year, perhaps the best since ’89—after a(nother) Garcia health crisis the previous summer, he’d lost 60 pounds and supposedly pulled himself together. I’d seen with my own eyes at the Oakland shows in December that he looked and sounded amazing, full of vim and vigor. 1992 hadn’t been terrible, but ’93 held the potential for a full-blown resurgence.
Deadheads arriving in the heart of North Carolina found the Dean Smith Center, a college basketball shrine designing solely for that particular sport, sitting at the bottom of a hill amidst dorms, classroom buildings, and verdant Carolina forest, a far cry from the concrete, traffic, and riot gear-equipped gendarmes surrounding Atlanta’s Omni arena, the prior tour stop. Already this new college-town location for the Dead circus felt intimate and inviting.
The staff at arenas like the Dean Dome—what tour veterans might’ve called “fresh meat”—were often taken aback by the descent of hirsute and tie-dyed fans, but no subset of show goers made gate keeping security staff more skittish than the mass of tapers, their road-cases jammed with electronic recording gear. Once security was made to understand that tapers were determined and impatient but also orderly and more or less courteous, the line moved quickly.
Inside the arena, though, we were shocked to discover that what is now commonly abbreviated as OTS—the Official Taper’s Section—was jammed onto the small basketball-court sized floor behind the soundboard platform in a compressed version of its normal size: a half-dozen wide rows, with a steep wall behind. Cramped, yes, but tapers were used to adversity, and we set to work getting ready.
The pre-show music played along with the sound of gaffer’s tape being ripped, with busy-beaver tapers securing cables and mic stands to the arena floor. Like the rest of us, the Dead’s longtime soundman Dan Healy was used to seeing the OTS angling gracefully up into the lower level, not all crammed onto the floor like sardines. He wandered back and loomed over us, chuckling. “My my,” he said, “isn’t this cozy back here tonight?”
Ensconced in my primo mail-order taper seat—row AA, seat 1—I looked up at him only a couple of yards away and called out the first thing that came to mind. Intended as a joke, one that I suspected would play like gangbusters in this context, I said, “Yeah Healy, it’s so cozy you should throw us a line out!” Meaning, of course, a soundboard patch. He laughed and shot me a look like yeah, right.
The response of the taper’s section, however, was more intense and immediate: A paroxysm of enthusiasm swept through in support of my “joke”—voices raised in agreement, in support, in pleading: Yes—see how unusual, how intimate the OTS sits on this storied night, O great soundman! Give to us, then, a board feed! A patch was not unheard of, but offered to the tapers en masse? Rarely, if ever.
Healy shook his head, laughed us off. “No, no, no,” he said. “Not this time, guys.” He walked back up to the board.
I swept my eyes around: I’d gotten the tapers worked up. Somebody clapped me on the back. “Nice try, pal.”
I made small talk with Paul, my Bay Area-based taping buddy for the night with a superior set of mics, and from whom I decided to patch rather than set up my own stand. We exchanged email addresses, which to me was still a newfangled method of communication, and discussed the Atlanta shows, decent but not world-beaters. I futzed with the gear and waved to my wife, who’d managed to grab a seat up to my right in the lower bowl.
Then, as showtime approached, I noticed Healy walking back toward us, accompanied this time by a yellow-jacketed security guy, beefy, pink-cheeked and shorthaired.
A hush came over the OTS—Healy held two XLR patch boxes in his hands, connected to cables thick as Carolina blacksnakes. “Now look,” he said, “if I do this for you guys, what’s in it for me?”
Another vociferous wave crashed over our taper-heads, this time comprised of presumptive, anticipatory gratitude: “You can have my sister!” one wag yelled. “We’ll love you forever,” offered another. I couldn’t believe this was happening—my joking request had turned into apparent reality.
Healy whispered to the security guard, perhaps something along the lines of “You’d better hold on for dear life—these cats are going to go ape shit trying to plug into these outs.” Whatever he said, that’s exactly what happened.
Offered to the guys in the kick-ass seats—namely, this writer sitting in Row AA, Seat 1, along with my cohorts closest to the soundboard—we found multiple connections per box, so three lucky tapers would have direct access to the left and right and channels of that night’s soundboard feed. After a modicum of pushing and shoving—tapers, in my experience, tend to be Type A aggressives, and this occasion saw this tendency in full flower—my new friend and partner got his deck patched in and we re-checked the signal on our daisy chain. I was somewhat overcome with excitement—whatever else had convinced Healy to throw us this rare, open soundboard patch, it’d been my moment of go-for-it that’d gotten the ball rolling.
I looked back to a taper I’d been hanging out with in the line, Steve, whose seats were in the back of the section—not far in this case, but far enough: He made hopeful eye contact, but the train had left the station, no way could I worm his deck into the chain of now a couple dozen decks. He waved me off with a look that bespoke an attitude of “oh, who cares.” His was a reasonable stance—whatever was to be said for pulling a clean tape right out of Healy’s board feed, later on in the hotel room one could make a bit-for-bit DAT clone of said master. No worries.
Not only did not everyone get in on the feed, but some didn’t seem to want to—after all, the point for many amateur recordists was not simply possession of the music “once they [the band] were done with it” as Garcia famously said, but rather pulling the truest representation of the sound in that particular room on that particular occasion, something a soundboard recording, as clear and balanced as it might be, could not achieve. In a world of often imperfect and boomy audience recordings that circulated, however, soundboard tapes were highly sought after artifacts. At the risk of sounding like a taper dilettante, I liked the AUDs that I recorded, but also loved getting soundboards.
Back on the platform, I saw legendary chemist and band benefactor Augustus Owsley Stanley III, aka “Bear,” handing his trusty Sony D-6 to Healy, who went to patch the deck into a different feed. I didn’t think anything unusual—Bear was Bear, after all, and while he was often seen in the OTS talking gear and grabbing a line out of a rig that caught his fancy, he also, as far as I knew, probably patched out of the board all the time.
The lights went down and flashlights came on, as did a couple of hundred blinking red “Record” lights on our decks. Once rolling, I shook hands with Paul and scooted over to an open area to the right of the seats, a perfect spot for the wild abandon that is blissful Deadhead noodle-dancing. Maybe it was the soundboard patch, or perhaps because I’d been left somewhat cold by the prior shows in Atlanta, but by Garcia’s first solo in “Jack Straw” I became convinced we were in for the show of the tour, which, in retrospect, it wasn’t.
A perfectly serviceable first set featured one rare tune—“It Must’ve Been the Roses”—and ended with an interesting “Let It Grow,” but overall the pace felt sluggish. The 2nd set started strong, however, with the East Coast breakout of the re-arranged “Here Comes Sunshine,” which hadn’t been a part of the repertoire for almost 20 years, followed by an usual sequence of “Playing in the Band” into “Box of Rain” into the delicate Garcia gem “Crazy Fingers,” and then back into a brief “Playin’” jam prior to the drums segment.
The jam post-drums and space, however, offered a highlight almost on the order of the soundboard patch: The discordant free-form improv of “Space” led into a rare, ephemeral moment as Bob Weirled the band into the Miles Davis-inspired “Spanish Theme,” which hadn’t appeared with any regularity since the golden days of the late 60s. Garcia MIDI’d his tone into a sound not unlike the jazz master’s own trumpet; I looked up to my beaming wife, who, like me, recognized the significance of this jam. Many other folks, however, seemed somewhat oblivious to the appearance of this recherché nugget. A ripping “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” set the arena on fire, and the second appearance of “Lucy in the Sky” in the encore slot, a recent addition to the repertoire, ended the evening on another exciting and fun note.
After the show, the tapers broke down their gear and filed out to make clones and do the postmortem on this interesting show. I looked at my DAT of the 2nd set, took out a pen and wrote SBD MASTER on the J-card. Wow.
We reassembled in the taper line the next day. I was still buzzing, and also anticipatory about the possibility of a two-fer board patch. The first tapers I talked to, however, had nothing but grumbling to offer about the board feed. “Did you hear that shit?”
I’d spent half the night with headphones on, grooving on the idea of having such a recording already. Sure, I’d noticed some crackling, and perhaps the mix wasn’t the best I’d ever heard . . . but still. “Yeah,” I said. “Pretty amazing, huh?”
Dismissive: “Eh. Healy should be ashamed of that lousy mix he gave us.”
I was shocked and dismayed. The ingratitude, I thought. And here all this time I thought that too much of everything was just enough.
Once inside for night two, it turned out that some tapers had gotten Healy a thank-you card as well as taken up a collection, an offering in thanks for the generosity, money intended for the Dead’s philanthropic arm, the Rex Foundation: not a payoff, just a nice gesture. Healy accepted the card, but later brought it back and said he couldn’t accept any Rex donations, using words to the effect that the gesture, however well intended, appeared like something more unsavory and unethical.
Rumors swept through that, not only would there be no patch that night, but also about Healy being in big trouble for giving us the last one. How people knew this I can’t say, but word was that bassistPhil Lesh was the most upset. Despite the proliferation of stellar audience tapes, one supposed that soundboards of whatever quality were more likely to be bootlegged by the unscrupulous and profit-minded in the underground music business. Otherwise, what difference could it truly make? Soundboards leaked with great frequency, oftentimes from Dick Latvala himself, the Dead’s tape archivist.
In any case, the tapers got their gear set up as normal. I watched as Bear went up on the soundboard platform with his D6. “No, no, no,” I overheard Healy say. “Not tonight, Bear.”
Confused by this refusal of a patch to someone as “inside” as Owsley, I steeled myself and waited for the 60s LSD guru to walk past me. “Bear,” I asked, “how come Healy wouldn’t give you a line out?” Meaning, I understand the rest of us not getting it, but, like, you’re Bear!
The man who many would single out as responsible for the Dead’s early success—financially, technologically, and lysergically—lasered a pair of intense, clear eyes upon me. “Why the fuck you want to ask me a question like that?” And then he kept walking.
My cheeks burned. I truly meant the question as innocent, though I suppose with whatever had gone on backstage over Healy’s gift to us, perhaps Owsley took it as sarcasm. A fellow taper who’d witnessed this little scene said, “Wow. You really pissed Bear off.” I’d finally screwed up the courage to talk to one of the most significant 1960s icons I’d ever met, only to thoroughly annoy him.
In any case, the negativity I experienced the 2nd night of the run didn’t diminish the excitement I’d felt at helping create a special, unusual experience for the thousands of fans who got the soundboard tapes from Chapel Hill ’93—including, as it turned out, the 2nd night as well, achieved by an enterprising taper who looked under the soundboard platform to see . . . those same two XLR patch boxes sitting there untended. The Chapel Hill Secret Soundboard Patch, though, is sequel to this story, one for someone else to relate. As for me, nothing in my Deadhead taping experience was as cool as 3-24-93, the night I experienced the happy consequences meant by an old saying of Biblical portent: Ask, and ye shall receive.
James D. McCallister, a novelist and free-lance writer living in Columbia, SC, attended just over 100 Grateful Dead shows from 1985-1995, recording about half of them.