A Taper’s Section Night to Remember…Grateful Dead in Chapel Hill 3/24/93
The Grateful Dead’s Spring Tour 1993 proved to be a time of renewal—the previous December, Jerry Garcia had returned from a canceled fall tour and a(nother) health crisis looking spry, trim (by his standards) and energetic. A happy time to be a Deadhead! March winds were gonna blow all our troubles away.
On the 22nd anniversary of the first of a pair of memorable shows from the Dead’s tour that season, here’s a memoir piece published a few years ago. Thanks to Lori Sky Twohy and jambandsonline.com for originally hosting this content!
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.”
James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.