Listening to everything, so you don't have to

All the new stuff will be here: RatDog, Furthur, Phil & Friends... I listen to the rehearsal tapes that surface on etree, I watch the videos from Dime and Trader's Den. I also occasionally post little research projects on various periods and people that were pivotal in the life of the Grateful Dead.
Everything you never got around to checking out, I did.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sound and a side-band: Dan Healy

A handful of shows by the Healy Treece Band appeared a few weeks ago on Workingman’s Tracker. I didn’t have anything to listen to just then so I grabbed three consecutive shows from the end of May 1981. There is not much information available on the Healy Treece Band, but they performed with a variable lineup from 1979 to 1981, and did a one-off performance in ‘83 on the occasion of Kreutzmann’s birthday. At various times, the lineup headed by Dan Healy and Richard Treece (both on guitars and vocals) also included Bill Kreutzmann, John Cipollina, Keith and Donna and at least three bass players.

The shows I heard from 1981 featured Cipollina and Kreutzmann. The band was solid bar band; they played blues more than anything else and had some funk influence. Their repertoire was not very large (they played the same material on the three tapes I heard), but it covered a pretty wide range, from 50s pop to Santana. I have to assume that some of the material (maybe a quarter) was original, or at least I’ve never come across it; the rest included Hand Jive, Unchain My Heart, Truck Drivin’ Man, Mystery Train, Long Black Veil and Black Magic Woman.

The band played small venues with average sound systems, which could be detrimental to the overall sound. Nonetheless, the show on May 28th was definitely poorly performed. Perhaps from the sound system, perhaps from under-rehearsing, the band was occasionally out of sync and unclear on forms and intros. John Cipollina was a saving presence in the band. Healy and Treece didn’t take very many solos, but Cipollina’s distinctive tremolo cut through and there were some really fun leads on most songs. Over the three days, the band tightened up considerably so that by May 30th, in Pleasanton CA, they were sounding good and tight. A couple of songs in particular stand out: Rain Song (not the Zeppelin tune) and Magic Door are interesting, animated songs with space to jam, and I enjoyed their take on Unchain My Heart, especially Cipollina’s leads. Overall, they were a highly competent, though not particularly inspired band that could certainly liven up a room but did not have anything original enough to warrant an extended career.

The Healy Treece Band never recorded an album, but there survive at least a dozen tapes. Those that appeared on Workingman’s Tracker all came from Joani Walker and Paul Scotton by way of Charlie Miller.

Even if HTB is no great revelation, it seems to warrant a short bio on Dan Healy. He came into contact with the Dead in the very early days of the San Francisco scene and would remain with the band until 1994. McNally described him as being the next guy, after Robert Hunter, considered to be a member of the band. Healy’s first job in San Francisco was working in a recording studio and he was living in a houseboat on the marina next to John Cipollina, who was playing lead guitar for the Quicksilver Messenger Service. As a techie, Dan was instantly useful to anyone involved in making music, especially since rock and roll equipment was not highly developed and none of the bands had any money. This earned Healy a standing invitation to any and all Quicksilver shows, to act as technical assistant. He inevitably crossed paths with the Grateful Dead, one night at the old Fillmore when Quicksilver and the Dead were sharing a bill. He was volunteered to fix an issue with Phil's amp and after the show Garcia invited him to help out with the Dead's sound.

In the early days, the Grateful Dead scene was anything but organized; while Healy was certainly persona grata there were no guarantees. Various sources describe his affiliations differently, but it seems that he spent a fair amount of time with the GD during Bear’s early tenure and incarceration. He drifted back to Quicksilver for a while around 69-70. The guys running Quicksilver (not Cipollina) were not the easy-going, open-hearted communistic types, however, and Healy found himself back with the Grateful Dead for good in 1971. From then on, in close collaboration with Ron Wickersham (from Alembic) and Bear, he was part of the cutting edge sound/amp industry that really centered around the Dead in the early 70s. He was, of course, intimately involved with the development of the Wall of Sound, and to this day he seems to be best known for that.

Healy survived the ’74 hiatus and went on to head the sound crew for the next twenty years. At the same time, he appears as producer, mixer, engineer etc. on almost every Dead and Dead-related project since the 70s. Intimately involved with the workings of the band, he was, by all accounts, constantly pushing the envelope of sound quality. He also contributed to the band’s grass-roots popularity when, in 1984, he prompted the establishment of the taper section, which was a first in the music business. He did not personally establish the section, but his pro-taper stance had made them a fixture for years; it came down to either banning them altogether or letting them run loose: someone made the suggestion to have a separate section.

In a radical, if ultimately unpopular move, he proposed in May 1992 that they remove all amps and monitors from the stage. The reasoning was that there was only so much that an engineer could do if he was working with sound coming from a mass of speakers all lined up: bleeding between amps and mics and feedback issues from monitors placed a limit on the sound quality. All the amps were thereafter kept in isolated chambers under the stage, running from there to both the soundboard and the monitor mixing console. Unfortunately, replacing the stage equipment with customizable in-ear monitors ultimately led to musicians isolating themselves, and was unpopular with fans in the front who liked the palpable rush of sound from the stage amps.

While Healy was an integral element in the GD sound, he could rub some people the wrong way. Throughout the mid 80s he liked to interject noises over the PA - sometimes during tuning breaks but also occasionally during songs. He also took pleasure in screwing with Weir’s vocals, which, according to some was one of the reasons for his eventual departure. Phil Lesh has one version: In 1993, a serious problem came up when Healy was caught running the PA at less-than-full capacity during Sting’s opening set (Sting was understandably angry and the band was very embarrassed about it). Prompted by this, Phil describes how he and Garcia took a closer listen to the soundboard tapes and noticed that Healy was making some very questionable decisions about Weir’s mix. That prompted the band to fire him in mid-March 1994. However, it’s apparent that he was not really officially terminated (the band was notoriously cowardly in that department): rather, they elected to have manager Cameron Sears inform Healy of the decision. Healy, for his part, maintains that he quit, unable to stand Garcia’s despicable health, appearance and performances. We’ll never know for sure, but considering the drama- and rumor-mill that worked overtime in the GD world, Healy might have gotten wind of the impending decision and there is probably some truth to both perspectives.

Since leaving the Dead, Healy continues to work in music mixing and production. A life-long guitar player, he plays with the Sky Blue Band, based in Marin; he recently recorded and mixed their debut album. He was running sound for Dark Star Orchestra in 2008, he’s been overseeing an antique-radio restoration company, and was working on instructional videos with Tony Bennett’s drummer. He's been married 33 years and has a daughter.

On another note: Charlie Miller posted the Avalon Ballroom show from May 19 1966 a month or so ago. I just heard it and it sounds unbelievable. I have no idea how he got such crystal sound from a 45-year-old tape. It's really primal dead, the kind of stuff that came out on Rare Cuts and Oddities: three minute songs, no jamming, bar-band-Dead. I loved it. Highly recommended.

Up Next: Most likely Furthurfest.

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