Reel to Real
Phil Murray is stoked. This Saturday, Live From Ebbets Field Vol. 1, the project he's been working on for eighteen months with G. Brown, a former Denver Post scribe and current KCUV staffer, will finally hit the stands. The eagerly anticipated disc -- which will be available at Borders and at Tower Records in addition to ListenUp's Denver and Boulder locations and will benefit the Starlight Children's Foundation -- includes a dozen tracks culled from ListenUp's massive live-recording archives, cuts from Taj Mahal, John Prine, Asleep at the Wheel and Little Feat, among others.
ListenUp, a high-end audio store based in south Denver that was founded by Walt Stinson and Steve Weiner more than thirty years ago, has amassed an archive of Smithsonian proportions that includes concerts recorded at two now-defunct Denver rooms with great historical significance: the Rainbow Music Hall and Chuck Morris's storied Ebbets Field, which opened downtown in 1973. Early on, Morris would book acts to play a string of dates at the venue, usually three to four days, with two shows a night; he'd record the first show, then broadcast to promote the subsequent nights.
But there was a problem. "The shows just didn't sound very good," says Murray. "And Walt and Steve felt like they could do a better job. And they also wanted to make tapes to play back on the gear -- the speakers and audio equipment -- that Listen Up was selling, to really see how good a live performance could be reproduced. They wanted original source material they could use to demonstrate their equipment that would be better than records and what was available in the mid-'70s. And unlike today, where a band would come in and there'd be a sound check, everything was pretty much mixed on the fly as the show was going on."
So ListenUp was soon recording the Ebbets shows. And now, for the first time, some of those performances are available commercially on this disc.
"These are not audiophile recordings," Murray clarifies. "But what they are is an amazing snapshot of a particular place and time. And you listen to this disc -- I didn't work for ListenUp back then, but I went to a lot of these shows -- and you listen to these tapes, and it puts you right back into Ebbets Field. Considering the time and everything, it's pretty amazing how good it does sound. It's amazing that they've survived as well as they have."
No one is more intimately familiar with ListenUp's archives than Murray, who took on the task of restoring and converting all of the tapes from reel-to-reel to digital audio shortly after joining the company in the mid-'80s. "It was astounding," he recalls. "When I came to work here, I went downstairs in the basement of the Denver store, and there were all these reel-to-reel tapes. I started pulling them out going, 'Oh, my God, I was at this show. I was at this show.' It was truly a dream come true for me to work here and have an opportunity to deal with these tapes. To listen to these things, it's just pretty unbelievable."
I remember thinking the exact same thing five years ago, when I worked at 99.5/The Hawk (now 99.5/The Mountain) and had the chance to listen to many of these performances on a daily basis. Doug Clifton, the Hawk's program director at the time, had worked out an arrangement with the store to produce a daily segment called the ListenUp Concert Series, during which the station would broadcast a few songs from select concerts. It was a captivating listen. You felt like you were one of the 238 people stuffed into those bleachers at Ebbets (which I'd heard about from my older brothers, but never actually saw). After the Hawk took flight, I often wondered if another station would recognize the genius of broadcasting these shows. Fortunately, KCUV did -- in fact, it even took things a step further and began broadcasting the shows in their entirety.
"When KCUV started a few years back," Murray explains, "one of the guys who worked there, Dave Zoebel, was a friend of mine. I went to him and said, 'Hey, how would you guys like to play these tapes?' It fit perfectly in with their format. So they started doing the Ebbets Field Concert Series every Sunday night at 7."
Around the same time, Murray mentioned the idea of a compilation disc to Brown, who was quick to lend his help. "G. knew what artists to get the approvals from," says Murray. "Because you have to get not only the artist's approval, but you have to get the songwriter's approval. It's a charity album, you know, so we're getting them to waive their royalties. G. worked really hard to go to all the artists and get their approvals."
Brown also penned the disc's liner notes, in which he recalls Ebbets Field's short-lived yet amazing history. From opening in the basement of Brooks Towers in February 1973 with a performance by the Mark Almond Band, to being named Billboard's Club of the Year in 1975 and 1976, to its eventual closing the next year, the venue comes alive through Brown's prose. Helping out are photographs contributed by Bob Ferbrache -- yes, the studio ace who's overseen recordings by the likes of Wovenhand, DeVotchKa, Munly and Slim Cessna's Auto Club.
"To also have pictures from Ebbets, to have as complete a package as we have, is pretty amazing," Murray says. "I think there are very few cities that had clubs like this, with shows recorded and photographed the way we did."
Murray is pleased with how the disc turned out, to say the least, and he hopes it's only the first of many releases to come. The lineup for volume two is close to chosen, and Brown is already gaining approval from the appropriate artists. As long as there's demand, Murray says, "We could do this as long as we're alive. We've certainly got the quality of material. We probably have about 300 shows.
"We've talked about doing a series from the Rainbow Music Hall," he adds. "We've talked about doing an Ebbets Field blues series. The blues artists who played Ebbets were amazing. We've got Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Freddie King, Lightnin' Hopkins, Brownie McGhee and Roy Buchanan. The possibilities are pretty endless. We really hope that this CD sells well and we can do more."
Check's in the mail, Phil.
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