Jeff Mewbourn's Taping Compulsion Is Baltimore's Gift
It's after 1 in the morning at the Depot on a Saturday night. The smoked-out, beer-slicked room is all but empty save for Heroin U.K.--an unsung, reverb-kicked local punk band--a couple of indie-rock interlopers, and Jeff Mewbourn, perched atop a tribal hand drum in the rear of the room guarding a tall microphone stand and a small old-school suitcase of recording equipment. Every now and again he shoots a photo of the band or someone will come over and shake his hand, staying quiet in deference to the microphones above. Odds are you missed the show. There was a great deal going on that night, as, really, there is every night in Baltimore.
Mewbourn is doing his best to make sure you don't have to miss it. Mewbourn is a "taper"--he records shows to nearly obsessive levels, archives them online, and makes them accessible to all fans of local music.
Taping connotes hippies. Hippies at Phish shows. Hippies at Dead shows. Hippies at whatever those band's aughties surrogates are, collecting tapes of shows in suitcases and shoeboxes like paranoids stashing money in mattresses or dogs burying bones. Tapes are hippie currency: something to trade, something to boast.
You don't expect a taper at a techno show. No matter that it's no less improvised, the experience is no less unique, no less in the moment, man. Same for punk shows. How punk is it to guard a 10-foot-tall recording rig while, 10 feet away, a teenaged crowd attacks each other like sex- and food-starved wolves? How punk is hard listening/audiophilia anyway? Punk is reacting--right there, in the moment, man. Try to find an online forum devoted to trading Totalitär recordings.
Hippiedom is very much so the provenance of taping. Which is why Mewbourn is so unexpected and so, well, necessary. Two or three nights a week--at least one--Mewbourn is in the back of a room--punk show, techno dance party, whatever--somewhere in Baltimore, manning his recording setup and, occasionally, shushing show-talkers (we'd gladly add a buck to every ticket for a venue that employs a shusher). At one show, "I even bought two guys a beer if they agreed to move away from me," Mewbourn recalls via e-mail. Seeing him at a show, you're not quite sure what to make of him: Sturdily built, stern, and, well, older than your average show-goer. Part of you wonders if he's a security guard or repping for the fire marshal.
"Taping," of course, isn't literal anymore. From a pair of pole-mounted microphones, everything slides down into a Discman-looking digital recorder stashed in a small suitcase protected by Mewbourn's ankles. From the rough recording he does some minor tweaks--minor: he's more concerned about accuracy (even if that includes your chatty ass) than coming away with the next Live at Leeds--and cuts the set up into individual songs. Sometimes by the next morning the show is already posted on Beatbots A/V, the local online culture clearinghouse that hosts Mewbourn's swelling library of concerts (as does the enormous international Live Music Archive). And then he starts again.
Or, rather, he first drives to work just outside Washington--where he is a corporate librarian--from his Columbia home, and then drives into Baltimore, getting to this or that venue (he's recorded at nearly every one you've heard of, and a few you haven't) early enough to set up his equipment; figure two hours before the first band starts. This has gone on since 2004 and isn't slowing down.
The bug started with Phish and Grateful Dead shows. Surprise. For close to a decade--he's 44 now--he was part of that community/cult, obsessively trading concert recordings. Then, in 2004, "[I] decided to try my hand at taping," he explains. "And I haven't looked back since. I figured I could tape bands that I wanted to see and have their recordings to listen to, rather than have to trade for recordings of bands that other people wanted to tape."
That first show was a much-recorded Baltimore band called Kinder of Evolution at the Funk Box--"best sound in any venue in Maryland or D.C.," he claims--at what's now known, once again, as the 8X10. Since ownership changed at that club and, with it, a change in policy that killed taping, Mewbourn's been on an 8X10 boycott. But he's found other favorites since, and "favorites," mind you, for him means something totally different: sound over vibe, a "safe" place to record over cheap drinks. His favorite clubs now are the ones that give due respect to local bands: Talking Head, the Ottobar, and warehouse nonvenues such as Floristree.
At the bottom of Mewbourn's e-mails are the words support local music emblazoned in all-caps. It's become a key part of his obsession. He boasts a one-of-a-kind Heroin U.K. tattoo--a hypodermic with a "Heroin U.K." banner ribbon--as proof. Next up is a suitably literal ink-on-skin interpretation of the Dirty Marmaduke Flute Squad's song "I Got Black Shit on My Boobies." Don't ask.
He records local bands almost exclusively. "It's not uncommon for me to show up to tape a local opening act and leave before the touring headliner plays," he explains. "I got into this hobby for selfish reasons, wanting to be able to listen to the music long after the show. It's evolved to the point that my primary reason for taping now is that it helps bands."
That means both the obvious promotional boost but as a feedback aide as well. "I have lots of bands say that they appreciate being able to listen to how they sound and make changes based on it." And for us, the listeners? Mewbourn recalls why he got started taping in the first place "Who hasn't gone to a show and thought afterward, Man, I wish I could hear that show again?"
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