Sunday, December 13, 2009

October 1, 1972 Springfield Civic Center, Springfield, MA Roberta Flack

It may be unexpected to see a Roberta Flack concert listed in "Lost Live Dead," but you have to bear with me on this one.

Stuart "Dinky" Dawson, born in Worksop, Nottanghamshire in 1947, was an English dj who almost accidentally became Fleetwood Mac's road manager and soundman in 1968. Although the Mac had made their first American tour without him in 1968, Dinky returned with them at the end of the year as they tried to conquer America. Alone among English bands in 1968, Fleetwood Mac toured with their own PA system, as Dawson felt with some justification he knew more about live sound than any local, and in any case he had a vested interest in his band's success, and knew proper sound would be an essential part of it.

It can hardly be a surprise that when Fleetwood Mac returned to San Francisco in early 1969 to play the Fillmore West (January 16-19, between Creedence Clearwater and Albert Collins), both Dawson and Fleetwood Mac got on famously with the Dead. From 1968 to 1970, protocol required that visiting bands jam with the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane (and later Santana) on their first time through town. This was the social equivalent of jazz musicians playing with Charlie Parker or (later) John Coltrane at Birdland or the Village Vanguard when they came through New York. Real players would show up and jam, and failure to show the flag often had peculiar ramifications. Fleetwood Mac and the Dead hit it off big time, however, and Dinky Dawson found a kindred spirit in Owsley Stanley.

The Grateful Dead were one of (if not the) first American rock bands to tour with their own sound system, provided to them with the technical and financial participation of Owsley. Naturally, the group would gravitate to a band who carried their own system, particularly one with no less than three lead guitarists and a smoking rhythm section. Fleetwood Mac toured America heavily throughout 1969 and 1970, and they had many adventures with the Dead, including the New Orleans bust and the famous jam at Fillmore East with the Allman Brothers (on February 11, 1970).

Dawson left Fleetwood Mac and became road manager and soundman for The Byrds, and after extensive touring with them, he set up a sound company (Dawson Sound) in Massachusetts in 1972. While Dawson periodically went on tour with such groups as The Kinks, Steely Dan and Mahavishnu Orchestra, his company also provided house sound systems for venues in the region throughout the early 1970s.

Dawson wrote an informative and engaging memoir in 1998, entitled Life On The Road (with Carter Alan, Billboard Books), a great read for anyone interested in the mechanics of rock and roll touring back in the day. Dawson's description of providing sound for a Roberta Flack concert in 1972 includes some fascinating details that are worth repeating in their entirety (p. 222)
On the first of October we worked a show for Roberta Flack at the Springfield Civic Center, an ice hockey rink in the Western Massachusetts city. With all of her recent chart success, Flack could fill the big hall's six thousand seats and brought along a full band to broaden out her music. For the number of speaker cabinets I had, this was a big gig for Dawson Sound Company. I'd be testing the limits of my system to fill up the cavernous space. Still, I was confident that I could do a better job than anyone else, and if the sound seemed weak, then we'd just construct and add speaker cabinets for the next time.

Some merry pranksters from my past, sound aficionados in their own right, showed up to see Flack and hear how well my gear worked. Yes, it was my good friends from the Grateful Dead--Stanley Owsley [sic] and Jerry Garcia. Since tonight would not be a good occasion to soar chemically into orbit, I instinctively stayed away from ingesting anything that the pair even remotely approached. I didn't know if the guys were in the mood to dose me, but I knew I needed to be straight for this gig since it would be a tough one and I wanted to show these two professionals just how good my system could be. As my friends joined me in the mixing booth and the show went on, I was dying of thirst, but I abstained from drinking anything, even unopened sodas, for fear that Owsley's absent smile would indicate he had gotten his man.

Jerry Garcia and Stanley Owsley were transformed by the concert, my sound system reproducing Flack's music with such clarity and crispness, even in the potentially overwhelming space, that they could barely find enough superlatives to compliment me. At one point, as the cello player performed a solo, Garcia's mouth hung agape, until he was distracted when some of the ice that was under the floor of four-by-eight plywood sheets behind us made a sharp cracking sound. Owsley, who had been lulled to sleep, woke up with a start. "What was that?" he cried. "Have you figured out how to project sound behind us too?!"

"One of these days we'll get to quad," I laughed, "but right now I've got to be content with what I've got."

"I'll tell you what you've got--you just cracked ice with a cello solo!" Garcia said excitedly.
I love this image. The Grateful Dead were playing Springfield Civic Center the next night (October 2, 1972), and here Garcia and Owsley were, a day early, sitting in the mixing booth watching the show. We tend to think of Roberta Flack as a pop singer, as her huge hit "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" was very big at the time, but she was a classically trained pianist and an accomplished jazz singer. Her hit single allowed her to tour with a killer band (Eric Gale, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey, Rick Marotta and Ralph McDonald with Terry Plumeri on ice-cracking cello), so the musically omnivorous Garcia must have enjoyed the music as well as the sound.

Roberta Flack and the Grateful Dead had pretty different audiences back then, but there must have been a few hippies there, on a date or something, and I always imagine them staring at the sound board, thinking, boy, that guy at the desk looks like Jerry Garcia. Dawson continues the tale (p.223)
"What's your secret? Owsley coaxed.

"It's no secret," I replied. "If you use the right speakers in the right boxes, you will have the same results."

Right then and there, Owsley decided that he would build a system for the Grateful Dead that was based around my principle. He and the Dead's ace soundman, Dan Healy, regularly checked in over the next few months to ask questions as their own construction began on a system that they eventually called "The Wall Of Sound." Owsley and Healy completed their work the following year and used the complex speaker arrangement in 1973 and 1974. But the pair discounted a critical piece of my advice, which was to avoid using standard P.A. speakers and instead utilize either home equipment or self-designed gear like mine. The result was that "The Wall Of Sound," an impressive thing to look at since it virtually framed the Dead's entire stage, always sounded heavy, and devoid of the smooth warmth that purred through my speakers. The Grateful Dead would pay for that oversight as constant adjustments and overhauls of the speaker system nearly bankrupted the band. However, even for its flaws, the "Wall Of Sound" still outperformed any other system on the road at that time (except for mine, of course!). So the band deserves major credit as a leader in the field of concert sound reproduction and high marks for attempting to give their fans a much better concert experience.
Dead fans tend to think of new sound systems as simply appearing, deus ex machina, but in fact the Wall Of Sound took extensive research and planning. The first iteration of it was seen just 4 months after this concert, on February 9, 1973 at Maples Pavilion, Stanford University. The full Wall Of Sound appeared the next year. Its very interesting to hear Dawson's professional assessment, but all I can say is that he must have had a hell of a system, because The Wall Of Sound sounded pretty awesome to me. Its not surprising that Oswley and Dawson, two of the most forward looking soundmen of the 60s, preferred to consult with each other in the 1970s.

Dawson has retired, and his health has not been great. Nonetheless his rock and roll legacy is second to none. Like any great soundman, he taped pretty much everything, and his tapes have found a home at Wolfgang's Vault. You can listen to the Roberta Flack concert, if you want, and you can make your house all cold, and don't drink anything so that you get real thirsty, and then you're in the soundbooth at Springfield Civic Center with Dinky Dawson, Jerry and Owsley, listening to Roberta while you wait for the next night's Dead show.

1 comment:

  1. Dawson says that Garcia & Owsley "showed up to see Flack and hear how well my gear worked."

    I don't know how interested they were in Roberta Flack (he says Owsley fell asleep!), but their visit was likely very professional in nature.
    By late '72, the Dead had a PA committee that would check out concert venues before they played them, to see what sound/space issues there might be and how the Dead's system should be set up accordingly. If the Dead could set up early for a show, so much the better. (The Stanford Daily reported that "part of the contract for [the 2/9/73 Maples Pavilion show] was that the sound system would be set up and tested the night before.”)

    So Owsley & Garcia might not have been alone. The Dead had played in Washington DC the day before, and a day off, so the sound crew had some time to check out the Springfield Civic Center. McNally writes that Dan Healy & Ron Wickersham "rendered architectural drawings and plots of room acoustics, then offered them to the halls [they played in], which in the case of the Springfield Civic Center, resulted in vastly improved acoustics." (McNally p. 446)

    And if another professional soundman was doing a show while the Dead's team were studying a hall? All the better! They may have been friends with Dawson, but the meeting was probably more to compare notes & check out his system.

    I don't think Owsley or anyone else in the Dead sound crew have ever credited Dawson with any ideas for the Wall of Sound, which is not too surprising since it seems they rarely credit each other for much either. (Some engineers are also eager to promote themselves for others' discoveries.) A territorial business!