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In search of the perfect live recording with one of D.C.’s most prolific secret tapers

Rob turns hard onto V St. NW, taking the corner as if he were heading into his own driveway. We drive past a half-dozen people gathered on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the 9:30 Club, D.C.’s most intimate venue for high-profile bands.

A man in a reflective orange vest stands in the middle of the darkened, rain-soaked street, directing us toward the club’s parking lot with an illuminated baton not unbefitting an airport-runway worker.

“Yeah, I don’t want to pay to park there,” Rob says defiantly in the direction of the man, who waves his baton at us as we pass, headed for a space a few yards down the street. “Especially when there’s a meter right here.”

Rob doesn’t like doing what places like the 9:30 Club tell him. For example, they regularly post signs proclaiming “No Taping.” And tonight, he’s here to do just that.

Calling Rob a bootlegger is like calling Robert Redford’s character in The Sting a thief. He’s far too good at it to deserve such an ugly title. More important, Rob (who asked that his last name not be used) doesn’t sell any of his recordings, which are stored in a 12-drawered bureau in his bedroom, in stacks atop his component stereo system, and on his messy living-room floor.

Although the modestly sized Arlington house where Rob lives with a roommate and two cats is a housekeeper’s hell, it’s an interior decorator’s heaven: The white walls are mostly bare, save for the occasional stain, and the only motif is old newspapers, which are everywhere.

The 32-year-old, who works as a telephone-research interviewer and part-time SAT tutor, has been making and trading live tapes since 1996. His Web site lists 85 pages of digital-audiotape and CD boots of more than 900 different live sets, from the Apples in Stereo to Warren Zevon.

“I know people in pretty much every major [American] city,” he says with a hearty laugh that pervades his speech. Rob seems both proud of and slightly embarrassed by the immensity of his hobby, which has netted him a large group of electronic acquaintances. He has swapped bootlegs with music fans from Europe, Japan, and all over the United States, and has standing arrangements with traders in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Vancouver.

Rob’s music collection also includes more than 3,000 CDs left over from the days before he spent most of his disposable income on concert tickets. “I was a little more materialist, I guess,” he says. “I liked to have something in my hand for the money. If I went to a show, you have the enjoyment there, but then I didn’t have anything to show for it later.”

After talking to several bootleggers through an online news group, Rob bought some used equipment over the Internet just in time for the Jan. 26, 1996, 9:30 Club appearance of Yo La Tengo, his favorite band.

“It went pretty well,” Rob remembers of his rookie performance, “except that I ran out of tape before the last two songs. That was when I used a cassette. Then I found someone else who taped the show, too, so I ended up getting the last two songs from them, although for some reason I think the quality wasn’t as great as mine.

“It’s harder for me to enjoy a show if I’m not taping,” he continues. “Some tapers I know tape shows because they like having a tape of it but actually don’t like the process of recording it and say they enjoy a show more if they’re not taping it. But it’s really hard for me to enjoy a show when I’m not taping, because if it’s something that’s really good, I’m thinking, Man, I wish I had a tape of it.”

Thirty minutes before we’re due at the 9:30 Club, Rob stands in his living room and carries out his pre-show preparation ritual. Though he has slowed down recently, in 1999, when he left a government job and spent much of the year unemployed, Rob went to a minimum of one concert a week and often as many as three. He amassed what was then the most extensive collection of live Yo La Tengo recordings in the country (it currently stands at 190 bootlegs) and became known as the premier taper of D.C.-area bands through his frequent visits to the Black Cat.

Rob tests the batteries in his pocket-sized DAT recorder and fast-forwards the tape a few seconds past the beginning. He then collects the rest of his gear—mike, miniflashlight, earplugs, battery pack, and backup tapes and batteries—and double-checks to make sure he has everything.

“I have done stupid things,” Rob admits as he gets ready. “Like I drove all the way to Richmond one time and forgot the battery box for my microphones and didn’t realize it until I got there.”

Later, Rob will have to find a way to smuggle his recording gear past the club’s security personnel, but for now he puts it all in a fanny pack, and we head for the door. On the way out, Rob makes sure he hasn’t forgotten the night’s most important piece of equipment: a generous supply of lollipops.

The 9:30 Club traditionally has been one of the toughest venues in the country on bootleggers, Rob says, even if its official policy is hardly Draconian. “If someone gets caught taping a show they’re not supposed to,” says 9:30 Club crew chief Josh Burdette, “we just take their gear, put it in the office, and hold it for them until the end of the show.” Burdette says that the club’s strictness depends on the performer’s wishes. “The policy is set by bands; we go by what they want,” he maintains. “We don’t have a set policy of our own.” But even though tonight’s headliner, psychedelic art-rock outfit Mercury Rev, usually allows taping, Rob will be going stealth.

“Even if [security] pulls me and finds out that [Mercury Rev] really did allow recording, they still ruined my tape and ruined my evening,” he explains. “I’m kind of like a perfectionist about my tapes. It would just piss me off more to be missing one song.”

So for now, Rob and I stay in the car as he prepares to sneak his equipment inside. (Rob asks that I not reveal exactly how he gets past security undetected, but a quick survey of Web sites reveals that the two most popular methods for bootleggers are placing their equipment down their pants and giving it to a low-profile friend, preferably a female, who is less likely to arouse suspicion.) It’s now 8 p.m., and the opening band, the Philistines Jr., will soon take the stage.

Though security has tightened since Sept. 11, the 9:30’s doormen let Rob pass without scrutiny. The “No Taping” posters are nowhere to be found. Rob heads immediately to a toilet stall to set up. A uniformed police officer follows him into the bathroom. Though the officer is almost certainly not concerned with bootlegging, Rob plays it safe, aborting his mission for the time being.

We head up to the club’s balcony as the Philistines Jr. start playing to a crowd of fewer than 25 people, a sailor’s red sky in the morning to a bootlegger. Rob decides not to tape the opening act.

Getting caught won’t send him to jail: Though recording a live concert for private use is technically illegal when done without the band’s permission, federal law provides for only the confiscation of the boot. (The taper is also liable for the band’s damages, although there is no record of any case against a noncommercial bootlegger going this far.)

Even so, Rob has been “busted,” he says, about 10 times in his six years of taping. In August 1998, he was caught recording a Bauhaus show simply because he was recognized by a bouncer who had busted him a year and a half before. In February 2000, he was on the Cowboy Junkies’ guest list with their explicit permission to record when security attempted to stop him. Similarly, 9:30 Club employees refused to let him tape a June 1997 Yo La Tengo show, even though Rob had followed the band on a small leg of its tour, recording every show along the way.

“I at least understand them busting people if the band and their management say they don’t want taping,” says Rob. “But when it’s people I know don’t mind taping and they still won’t let you, then that really pisses me off.”

It’s now 9:28, and Mercury Rev is scheduled to take the stage in 17 minutes. Rob goes to the bathroom a second time and emerges five minutes later. In the dim light of the 9:30 Club balcony, he looks unchanged. But he’s now ready to head downstairs and get into position.

Some tapers hide their mike under a hat, threading the cord through their hair and then down their shirt; because the mike is above the crowd, this technique produces a good recording but also increases the chances of detection. Other tapers like to wear their DAT and mike inside a light shirt (mesh athletic jerseys work well); though this positioning is more discreet, it results in a recording with a somewhat muffled high end. Some bootleggers even use tiny “stealth microphones” that fit inside their ear or attach to their glasses. Rob’s MO is the result of advice from other tapers, online resources, and lessons learned from his own experience. (Once again, he has asked that I not reveal his secrets.)

Earplugs in place, we stand a few feet away from the stage-left speaker and wait for the show to begin. At 9:50, the band finally takes the stage. Rob pulls a lollipop from his fanny pack. Like an experienced magician, he bases his deception on misdirection: Security notices people who fidget, he says; thus, he conspicuously retrieves his suckers throughout the show so no one will notice when he reaches for his DAT.

Rev frontman Jonathan Donahue greets the audience and then launches into “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp.” The band has arranged for some modest visual aids, which include two colored lights that point into the audience. One of them shines directly on Rob, panning up and down his body. Now his mike, though small, is clearly visible to anyone who knows where to look. Rob nervously sucks on his lollipop. The bouncers don’t seem to notice, however, and remain in their positions.

The rest of the concert goes smoothly. Though Rob must occasionally check his DAT to make sure that it’s running and that the recording level is correct, he attracts no attention. When two nearby teenagers talk loudly during “Little Rhymes,” he doesn’t complain. When a man stands between him and the speakers during “Holes” and then walks off, leaving Rob as the only concertgoer directly in front of the speaker, he remains impassive. And as the colored spotlight continues to target him like a police searchlight, Rob merely works his lollipop and softly bobs his head.

Back home after the show, Rob plays me some of his newest recording. The sound is wonderful, coming as close to replicating the concert experience as any commercial live disc could. He smiles with pride.

“Sometimes it’s a little fun being nervous,” he says, reflecting on the night’s experience. “I guess it’s a little bit of a thrill. And it’s something that I associate with going to the show now.”

Upstairs, he accesses his Web page and enters the information about his latest recording. He types quickly.

In 20 minutes, Late Night With Conan O’Brien will be replaying a recent performance by the Strokes—and Rob wants to record it. CP