One night in the winter of 1996, Rob Eaton, a recording engineer who’d worked with Duran Duran and Pat Metheny, showed up at the home of a high-school chemistry teacher in Petaluma, California. Eaton had heard that the teacher had something that he and others like him were eager to get their hands on. He’d also heard that the teacher wanted to sell what he had for a million dollars, a sum no studio engineer was likely to supply. Still, one could always tender expertise. The teacher drove Eaton to a barn he owned, and they ran in through the rain. Inside, amid piles of junk, were three road cases, of the kind that rock bands use to cart around their amplifiers. Each had “Grateful Dead” stencilled on its side. In the first one, Eaton found, in addition to some rotting cookbooks, several dozen reel-to-reel tapes, caked in mold and silt. Most of them were unmarked, or at least too encrusted to read, but Eaton had an idea what some of them might be, and he felt a surge of excitement. The other boxes contained dozens more tapes, similarly degraded.
Eaton told the teacher that it was impossible to evaluate their worth, since they couldn’t know what was on the tapes, or even whether they were playable. The teacher grudgingly lent him five of the worst-looking reels, and Eaton took them down the road to a friend’s house. The friend was Dick Latvala, who at the time was the official archivist of the Grateful Dead, the keeper of the band’s fabled vault of live recordings, and an unapologetic enthusiast who would listen to old Dead shows for twelve hours at a stretch, notebook in hand. Eaton, too, was a longtime Deadhead—he had seen the band perform around four hundred times and had been making and trading tapes of their concerts for twenty years.
Eaton cleaned the tapes with cotton balls and alcohol, and Latvala loaded one up onto his reel-to-reel. The exposed outer layer—the first thirty seconds or so—was ruined, but as the music kicked in they realized they might have a treasure on their hands, a tapehead’s Nag Hammadi. They heard Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s lead guitarist, performing a set with the organist Merl Saunders, at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, on September 6, 1973—a concert that hadn’t previously surfaced. Eaton and Latvala stayed up all night listening to the reels: other Garcia solo performances, a piece of a rare Dead show from the early seventies. The most remarkable thing was the crisp sound. They were first-generation two-track analogue soundboard recordings, with stereo separation among the instruments, a chunky bass, and plenty of air.