For the past couple days, I’ve been enjoying my copy of the newest Grateful Dead Road Trips series, this one taken from shows played in the Summer of 1971. Deadheads haven’t had much of an opportunity to enjoy soundboard recordings of that stretch until fairly recently, because they had been “lost.”
But not really. They’re collectively known as The Houseboat Tapes. Here’s why:
Sometime in the fall of 1971, GD was getting ready to welcome Keith Godchaux as the band’s new keyboards player, a change necessitated by the declining health of Pigpen — who had handled most of the modest keyboard duties to that point — and by an evolution in the band’s music, which required musician who was a little more adept at handling the wide — and expanding — range of styles the band was tackling at the time.
To help get Godchaux ready for his new gig, Jerry Garcia handed over a box of tapes recorded at the shows GD played that summer. Whether Keith ever listened to them is not known; what is clear is that he was good enough to step in and hold that seat more than capably until his drug problems began dissolving his talents towards the end of the decade. He was fired, along with backup vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, in 1979; he was killed in a car wreck a year later.
By that time, someone in the band’s organization had realized the value of the concert recordings they had made over the years, and there were efforts to categorize and store what they had in a climate-controlled vault in Marin County, California. As archivist Dick Latvala was going through the stacks, he saw that the tapes from the Summer of 1971 were simply not there. Long-term memory was never a strength for this crowd; no one had any recollection that Garcia had loaned those tapes to Godchaux years before.
Skip ahead, until three or four years ago, when the Godchaux family was cleaning out their old houseboat and Zion, Keith and Donna’s son, came across a box of old reel-to-reel tapes, all marked with dates from the Summer of 1971. Donna understood what she had, got in touch with her surviving bandmates and got the tapes back to their home in the vault. Though many had been damaged after spending 25 years in the humidity of a houseboat, there was more than enough left to release to people like me who had wondered about these shows for years.
The first release came in 2005, as Dick’s Picks No. 35. Next came the most recent version of the Road Trips series. Both are stuffed with excellent music, from a band that was really learning to open up and become what it would be famous — or infamous, depending on whether or not you were Lester Bangs — for years down the road.
By the time I started seeing the band, the term “Miracle” meant to score a ticket to a sold-out show — usually quite a feat, as they were all sold out. But it’s not an overstatement to say that “miracle” works in this case as well. I hope we get to reap the benefits for years to come.
Back in August, I wrote about the difficulties I was having with the decision of Rhino — the company that maintains the vault and manages the band’s merchandising these days — to convert a free weekly download feature on the band’s site to a streaming-only service. I also complained about the lack of releases from Rhino, a company that usually handles that kind of thing pretty well.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Links to the post made their way to a couple of GD boards, and it became the most-read post in Uncle Crappy history.
I still don’t like the decision to change the Tapers’ Section to a streaming service, mostly because the feigned surprise that people were — gasp — downloading the MP3s and keeping them still seems less-than-genuine to me.
But I have to give Rhino and the band credit. Since last fall, we’ve not only seen the addition of the Road Trips series, but there have been several other archival releases, including an amazing box set of the band’s entire run at Winterland in 1973. Stuff seems to be coming at a good pace, too — quickly enough, anyway, to keep me happy.