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Golden Ears: Chris Robinson Brotherhood Meet Their Match

by Richard B. Simon on January 17, 2014

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Betty Cantor-Jackson’s live soundboard recordings are the stuff of legend. She had worked at the Avalon and Carousel Ballrooms before Bob Matthews brought her into the Dead’s fold in 1968. She recorded, mixed or produced much of the Dead’s canon: Live/Dead, Aoxomoxoa, Workingman’s Dead, the Fillmore East shows that were culled for Skullfuck [the group’s eponymous double live album], the Europe tour. She was close with Jerry Garcia. She helmed his solo debut and most of his records. Look at the credits on the live sets that have been released as Dick’s Picks or Dave’s Picks or Pure Jerry or the new Garcia series GarciaLive. She recorded most of those, too.

Cantor-Jackson and Matthews built a morphable studio into the Dead’s jamming space in San Rafael, in Marin County, and much of the band’s recording happened there like the Rhythm Devils’ work for the film Apocalypse Now. They recorded the Altamont festival—that’s their work on Gimme Shelter and also Sunshine Daydream, the 1972 benefit to save the Kesey family creamery.

Suffice it to say that if you’ve heard a recording of the Grateful Dead that caused your brain to rewire itself sufficiently, then chances are that the music was first filtered through the ears of Betty Cantor-Jackson.

* * * *
On a Monday night, Cantor-Jackson is eating tuna sashimi and drinking hot sake in a favorite alley-side restaurant off Fourth Street in San Rafael. She has long, wavy brown hair and the air of a veteran rock and roller. She laughs a lot. She wears a Steal Your Face on a chain around her neck and a black T-shirt with a yellow 45 rpm record label printed on it: the single for “Uncle John’s Band,” on which she is credited.

“They just really have a nice, sweet shuffle goin’ on,” she says of the Brotherhood. She has a California accent, her inflection is a little like Garcia’s. “It’s pretty music,” she says.

“It has open spaces in it, and places where each little thing gets its own little part—and I love that. It’s a 3-D thing. It’s like looking in those little Viewmasters...I want to get in around and between the musical instruments. I want to be able to feel all that stuff.”

She says she keeps listening to the music, over and over. Even after mixing and heavily scrutinizing 99 songs to pick cuts for the album—you can download her mixes of the shows and she highly recommends 24/96 FLAC—she still finds it beautiful. Stunning, even. She loves Robinson’s voice. The one thing the Dead never had, she says, was a real singer. She loved Garcia’s singing, but that was a different kind of singing. She finds listening to Robinson’s singing instructive. She wants to bring him down to Glide Church, where she is technical director, to give the choir some lessons. And this band, the music—it’s fun.

At the Great American in 2012, Cantor-Jackson’s process for recording in stereo was the same as ever: She splits each instrument’s line to the house mixer, and runs her leads all into a little room off stage left, where she mixes to digital two-track on the fly. It’s lightning in a bottle. If she misses something, then it’s gone forever.

She is sculpting the three-dimensional soundscape inside her head. And that soundscape, in turn, is reproduced inside your head when you listen to the record, especially if you’re listening on a dynamic stereo system—or through headphones. She doesn’t use pan effects. She mixes each instrument hard left or hard right, and varies “the amount” of each sound, each element. And that’s what creates the space. She wants to put the listener either right in front of the stage or right inside the band. Everybody, she says, wants to be in the band.

In this case, when you listen, you’re facing the stage. Adam MacDougall’s honkin’ Rhodes and his ooky Moog are mostly in your left ear with Neal Casal’s strikingly melodic lead guitar; Robinson’s guitar and vocals are in your right ear (and reverbed in your left ear), a little right of center. Muddy Dutton’s bass feels deepest in your left ear. George Sluppick’s drum kit is split across the center. You can feel the band. Though this band was built with an ear to the architecture of the Grateful Dead, and they occasionally sound like the Grateful Dead, they sure feel like the Grateful Dead in the spaces between. Especially on this live recording. And this recording is live.

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