The Scruffy Charm of the Audience Tape
Tyler WilcoxMarch 6 2018
Invisible Hits is a column in which Tyler Wilcox scours the internet for the best (and strangest) bootlegs, rarities, outtakes, and live clips.
These days, virtually anyone armed with a smartphone can come home with a halfway decent souvenir recording of the night’s gig. But the audience taper tradition stretches much further back than the advent of the iPhone—well past the rock’n’roll era, in fact. Until the technology became commonplace and affordable in the 1970s, tapers were a tiny subset of gearheads and obsessives who took the trouble to lug expensive, cumbersome equipment out to concert halls and clubs. The lo-fi documents they left behind may try the patience of those who are accustomed to crystal clear listening experiences, but beyond the hiss and the crackle, there are untold treasures in store.
Albert Alvarez at the Metropolitan Opera House, NYC // 1902
The godfather of all tapers is Lionel Mapleson, who recorded several fragments of operatic performances from the audience of the Metropolitan Opera House in the early 1900s. His tech was state of the art for the time: an Edison home phonograph, which could produce wax cylinders as well as play them. Mapleson’s Met recordings are fascinating not only for their spectral, otherworldly qualities, but also because they capture some of the era’s most famous performers in the type of setting in which they thrived: a world-class opera house, as opposed to the stilted atmosphere offered in early recording situations. The above clip gives us a glimpse of French tenor Albert Alvarez, one of the era’s most beloved, if rarely recorded, singers. While the standard defects of cylinder sound technology are prevalent (snaps, crackles, and pops galore), these aural artifacts remain a heady form of time travel. The distance between past and present suddenly, briefly, feels much shorter.
Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Crystal Ballroom, Fargo // November 7, 1940
The near-miraculous nature of early amateur recordings is never more evident than on this remarkably clear Duke Ellington Orchestra set in Fargo from the fall of 1940. Made by two South Dakota State College students with a Presto portable recording turntable, the recording is a stunning listen, featuring one of Ellington’s greatest bands in full flight. The personnel includes such iconic musicians as bassist Jimmy Blanton, saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, and drummer Sonny Greer, all swinging mercilessly on then-new tunes including “Ko-Ko,” “Harlem Airshaft,” and “Never No Lament.” It might have been just another night on the road for the hard-touring Ellington ensemble, but thanks to this recording (which has been released in various formats over the past 40 years), it’s one that has been relived over and over again.
Charlie Parker at Three Deuces, NYC // March 31, 1948
It’s safe to say that Dean Benedetti was obsessed with Charlie Parker. This wasn’t an entirely uncommon affliction among a certain subset of jazz aficionados and musicians in the 1940s, but Benedetti took this love to a whole new level when he began bringing a weighty, straight-to-disc recorder to Parker’s gigs. He doggedly trailed the saxophonist from L.A. to New York, capturing almost nine hours of Parker’s quicksilver brilliance in a variety of settings, including this thrilling nightclub set at Three Deuces in Manhattan. Benedetti was an amateur saxophonist himself and was mainly interested in the solos, often shutting off his recorder when Parker wasn’t playing. As a result, the Benedetti recordings (released in 1990 by Mosaic Records) can be rough, fragmentary listening even beyond their lo-fi origins. As one-of-a-kind transmissions of Parker’s nightly improvisational genius, though, they’re priceless—like bebop’s own Rosetta Stone.
Hank Williams at Sunset Park, West Grove, Pennsylvania // July 13, 1952
Hank Williams toured constantly during his professional life, playing all manner of venues, to all kinds of crowds. Just a few months before his untimely death at the age of 29, the country troubadour rolled into a small town in eastern Pennsylvania for an outdoor show, where local musician Melvin Price turned up with his primitive tape machine. Price recorded a little under a half-hour of Williams and his band cruising through a selection of the songwriter’s best-known hits, including “Hey Good Looking,” “Jambalaya,” and “Lovesick Blues.” While Hank’s drinking and drugging habits were the stuff of legend, he sounds fit as a fiddle here, joking amiably with the crowd in between songs and delivering vocal performances that easily cut through the fog of the decades.
Thelonious Monk + John Coltrane at the Five Spot, NYC // 1957
Even though John Coltrane’s stint in Thelonious Monk’s band was brief, the saxophonist later credited the collaboration with taking his art to a higher plane. Feeling himself on the verge of a musical breakthrough, Coltrane wanted to study the music he and Monk were making in the summer of ’57, so he had an audience member (likely either his wife Naima or Monk’s wife Nellie) record a handful of performances during a residency at NYC’s tiny Five Spot club. While far from high fidelity, these single-mic tapes are rich in ambiance, preserving not only the casually revolutionary interplay of these two jazz titans, but also the Five Spot’s smoky, after-hours vibe. Listening all these years later feels like eavesdropping on history being made, one note at a time.
Bob Dylan at the Masonic Memorial Temple Hall, San Francisco // December 11, 1965
While most audience tapers are obscure figures, that’s not the case here. The man responsible for this recently surfaced tape of Bob Dylan with the Hawks in San Francisco was none other than beat-poetry icon Allen Ginsberg. He picked a great time to hit “record”: The opening acoustic set includes the live premiere of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde magnum opus “Visions of Johanna” (introduced as “Alcatraz to the 9th Power Revisited”), while the electric set is filled with Bob’s famously fiery vocals and stellar playing from the Hawks (who would soon morph into The Band). Dylan shows during this era were often confrontational affairs where betrayed folkies would boo his new folk-rock material, but this San Francisco set is a total love fest, with the crowd hanging on every syllable. You almost can imagine Ginsberg’s rare but radiant smile, as he watched Dylan kickstart the 1960s into high gear.
The Velvet Underground at the Boston Tea Party, Boston // March 15, 1969
The Velvet Underground never quite broke through to the mainstream during their lifespan, but they attracted plenty of die-hards who, as the Brian Eno quote goes, started their own bands; many of the rest instead recorded the Velvets. This particular tape is one of the wildest VU artifacts, and a total delight for listeners who love a good guitar freakout. Looking to preserve Lou Reed’s feedback-laced improvisations, the taper (known only as “The Professor”) placed his mic as close to the guitarist’s amplifier as possible. As a result, Reed’s insanely blown-out solos and the relentless pulse of drummer Maureen Tucker dominate the recording, later dubbed by bootleggers The Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes. Even though some of the many muddied Velvets audience recordings have been officially released over the years, Lou’s almost inaudible vocals here suggest that this one is likely to remain in collectors’ hands. But it’s a must-hear for fanatics.
The Grateful Dead at the Capitol Theater, Port Chester, New York // June 24, 1970
The Grateful Dead are, of course, the band most closely associated with taper culture (a close second is Phish). While Heads are blessed with innumerable soundboard recordings from over the Dead’s 30-year run, there are countless prized audience tapes to dig into. This murky, mystical 1970 tape is particularly beloved—see the rhapsodic reviews from gobsmacked listeners over the years. The centerpiece is the lengthy “Dark Star” suite, with the Dead finding weird and wonderful zones to trip through. Someone near the mic is appropriately impressed: “Oh, my GOD,” he exclaims, in the grip of some kind of quiet ecstasy. Thanks to the taper, you too may have the same reaction.