Summer Jam at Watkins Glen – July 28, 1973 – A Retrospective

On July 28, 1973, a concert featuring The Band, The Grateful Dead, and The Allman Brothers Band was held at Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway outside of Watkins Glen, NY. This one-day concert  – which attracted 600,000 people, “long held the Guinness Book of World Records entry for ‘largest audience at a pop festival.'”*

This concert is nowhere near as famous as either Woodstock or Monterey Pop. But I think it’s worth a (re)-visit. And for me personally, it’s also a bit of…. foreshadowing? (More on that down the road.) I also have a bootleg vinyl of this event. Well, I have the album cover. I may have actually smoked the record, can’t remember. 

“At times the scene in the moist darkness resembled a Bosch painting — half-naked bodies coated with brown slime, moving rhythmically to the music amid huddled figures curled sleeping in the mud at their feet in barbiturate or alcohol-induced
stupors.” – New York Times. 

Firstly, why was this particular concert so big? Well, unlike today, rock was king back in 1973. All three of the featured bands were at the peak of their powers and popularity. The Allmans had survived the loss of their leader Duane and bassist Berry Oakley and were soon (August of 1973) to have their first (and only) Top Ten single in “Ramblin’ Man.”

The Dead had always had their army of Deadheads and had previously released the live triple album Europe ’72. The Band hadn’t released an album for a couple of years but were still a vital and mighty live ensemble. (The Dead and The Band were veterans of Woodstock but the Allmans – having released just one overlooked album in 1969 – were largely an unknown quantity in August of that year.)

Wikipedia: “The concert was produced by Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik, two promoters who had organized a successful Grateful Dead concert at Dillon Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, in 1972. At that show, the Grateful Dead were joined on stage by Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, and Jai Johanny Johanson, members of The Allman Brothers Band.” (The Dead and the ABB have always been simpatico. Well, at least certain members. Gregg never thought much of the Dead and said so in his autobiography – ME).

Just like Woodstock, there were enormous traffic jams (who could possibly have known?). Cars were abandoned and the crowd of hippie wannabes had to abandon their cars and walk up to eight miles. 150,000 tickets were sold, and everybody else got in free.

How much did this extravaganza cost? Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Look at the poster. It cost…

TEN DOLLARS! WHICH INCLUDED PARKING!! AND CAMPING!!!

That is the equivalent of $65 US (61 Euro) in 2022. Do you know what $65 would get you today? Parking. A fucking COKE would cost you 10 bucks. Camping would be separate because, well you know, it would be. There is no way an equivalent concert today would cost less than $250. And then they’d have VIP seats and all kinds of other useless bullshit. And instead of rock bands, it would be, I don’t know, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, and some fucking disc jockey.

“Many historians claimed that the Watkins Glen event was the largest gathering of people in the history of the United States. In essence, that meant that on July 28, one out of every 350 people living in America at the time was listening to the sounds of rock at the New York state racetrack. Considering that most of those who attended the event hailed from the Northeast and that the average age of those present was approximately seventeen to twenty-four, close to one out of every three young people from Boston to New York was at the festival.”

Even though the Allmans had not yet released their seminal Brothers and Sisters album or “Ramblin’ Man,” they were at the top of the pecking order and so headlined the show. The bands did soundchecks the day before the show and the Dead’s “turned into a legendary two-set marathon” some of which wound up on their CD box set So Many Roads (1965-1995). (You can find the Dead’s entire set on YouTube if you’re so inclined.)

According to a writer named Robert Santelli who jounaled about this show, in many ways it did not have the resonance either for good (Woodstock) or bad (Altamont). “At Watkins Glen, a feeling of monotony and tedium constantly challenged the viewers’ interest in the music and the proceedings onstage. Long, winding solos were frequent. The heat, the lack of comfort, and the crowded conditions dulled otherwise stirring moments.

Many of the 600,000 could barely see the stage, let alone the musicians. And most important, festivalgoers had only one day to soak up the rock-festival aura. Many in attendance were often too busy doing and seeing other things to bother to listen seriously to the music for extended periods of time.”

According to Wikipedia, The Band followed the Dead with one two-hour set. However, their set was cut in half by a drenching thunderstorm. In a scene again reminiscent of Woodstock, people were covered with mud. During the storm, keyboardist Garth Hudson performed his signature organ improvisation “The Genetic Method”; when the rain finally let up, the full Band joined Hudson on stage, and segued into their signature song “Chest Fever.”

The story about any recording of The Band at Watkins Glen is weirdly murky. There is actually an album by The Band called Live At Watkins Glen. Released in 1995, most of the album was NOT recorded at the festival. Some of the tunes were studio cuts with live crowd sounds added in.

About the only thing we have from this event is called “Too Wet to Work/Jam.”

Here’s a piece of information I did not know – “Bill Graham’s FM Productions had been contracted to employ the Digital Audio Delay Line system, a computerized sound system designed so that people sitting up front and near the towers of speakers would not be blasted into the universe. It also enabled people sitting way in the back to hear the music just as clearly as those closer to the stage.

With such a system, sets of speakers are set up a hundred yards apart. The first set of speakers receives the sound from the stage and relays it back to the second set. This set rebounds the sound to the third set. All this occurs with split-second precision. It is not discernible to the human ear that there is a microlapse in the sound. For both the sound check and the actual concert, the system worked like a charm.”

Finally, the Allman Brothers Band performed for three hours for the by now somewhat burned-out, tired crowd. Their performance included songs from Brothers and Sisters, along with their standards “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “Statesboro Blues,” “Les Brers in A Minor,” and “Whipping Post.”

In 1976, the Allmans released a double live album called Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas. The only tune on there from the Watkins Glen fest is “Come and Go Blues.”

Following the Allmans’ second set, there was an hour encore jam featuring musicians from all three bands. The jam featured spirited renditions of “Not Fade Away,” “Mountain Jam,” and “Johnny B. Goode.”

ME can fully understand if by now you have had your fill of endless jamming. But historical accuracy compels me to produce “Mountain Jam,” a takeoff of a Donovan song that both the ABB and Dead performed regularly, the ABB famously on their Eat a Peach album.

I’ll leave the last word on this historic but largely almost forgotten event to Mr. Santelli as I think he sums up the socio-political zeitgeist quite well:

“Woodstock had had two sets of LPs and a movie to carry on its significance. No such enduring properties came out of Watkins Glen. Although the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band had their own sound people to record their sets, the Dead would not give their consent to a Watkins Glen album.

Their participation was crucial since they represented over one-third of the music and time performed onstage. CBS shot some footage of the event, but the Dead refused to allow it or any other film to be released commercially. Their unyielding position on the matter stemmed all the way back to Monterey when the band had refused to participate in D.A. Pennebaker’s film of the event, Monterey Pop. The Dead had always demanded full editorial control of their music and live performances. Whenever they were denied such power, they simply declined to be part of the project.

Watkins Glen did not register with the political portion of the youth culture as had some festivals in the past. To have 600,000 young people at one time in one place would have been the ultimate dream for any sixties radical. But that was just it — the sixties were over. The Vietnam War was over; the peace agreement had been signed in January of that year. Not that there was a lack of issues.

Watkins Glen could easily have been an immensely powerful response to Nixon and the Watergate scandal. But the youth of the nation had grown tired of being politically active. Many had tasted the partial delight of seeing some peace in Southeast Asia and felt it was enough. The word most commonly associated with the Watkins Glen festival, according to those reporters who covered the event, was “party.” For some young people, Watkins Glen was an opportunity to experience a rock festival in an abbreviated fashion, and they relished every minute of it. (They wanted their own Woodstock like their older siblings had had – ME). 

All this added up to the fact that the protests, the placards, the defiance, and the true revolutionary zeal of the young had actually subsided. Enter the “me” decade. The 1970s had finally arrived.

But Watkins Glen did point out that rock music was alive and well, and that there still remained within the youth culture a seemingly unquenchable desire to attend rock festivals. Young people still marveled at the power of such gatherings. Young people wanted to be there, had to be there.”

*A Steve Wozniak US festival broke the record some years later. But not by a whole heck of a lot.

13 thoughts on “Summer Jam at Watkins Glen – July 28, 1973 – A Retrospective

  1. Ten bucks to see what were three top bands at the time is just incredible. As you rightly pointed out, $65 nowadays only gets you parking or a bunch of beverages. To this short list we can add a T-shirt or food that’s typically mediocre.

    While a mud fest generally doesn’t sound like something that would be my thing, hey, for top-notch music at this price, I might be willing to endure it. I’d even be okay with listening to one jam after the other. Usually, I can only tolerate a handful at a time! 🙂

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    1. Yeah, hell ,the T-shirt will cost you 40 bucks. I think this is why I’m so disaffected with concerts these days. These are the kind of prices I used to pay regularly. If ticket prices had gone up with inflation, I might have paid somewhere around 60-70 bucks to see McCartney. Or even it went up twice as much I might have paid $100 or $125. But I paid $400 for a good seat. I can’t continue doing that. I’m knowingly allowing myself to be gouged in a way that I would not for any other product.

      As to festivals in general, I’ve never really been a fan. Too many people. I’ve never really been to one unless you count the Newport jazz festival. And that’s nothing like any of these.

      As to the groups, well you know I’d be all over the Allmans and The Band. But for years I was very much anti-Dead. I just thought they sucked. But they grew on me over time to the point where I actually listen to them on satellite when I’m in the car. Hippie background music.

      Anyway, as mentioned, I thought about this because of something I’ll be involved in in the near future. I may have one more post that’s tangential to it.

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        1. Yes, I’m just a big tease. There are a couple of concerts left on my docket for the year. One is left over from 2020. But the thing I’m referring to is not a concert. It’s….

          … well, stay tuned.

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  2. You’d be more on top of this than me but I thought they still had big events. My cousin went to something a few years ago down in California. Roger Waters, maybe the Stone, big acts like that. She took the whole family and it cost big bucks. I’d run the other way. I lost my taste for big events a long time ago. They have lots of festivals on the island I live on. Folk, blues , country, jazz and always lots of good acts but the whole vibe doesnt pull me in. I’m a lazy bastard. But I always wanted to roll around in the mud with a hippy girl.

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    1. Oh sure. Glastonbury in England has been going on since the 70s. Coachella, Boston Calling, Bonnaroo – these are big deals. But they don’t come close to 600,000 people. That’s a good 200k more than Woodstock.

      And if there was ever a time I might go to one of these, that time has come and gone. The 35,000 at the McCartney concert was plenty, thanks. I got one or two more shows to go to this year, some left over from 2020. But other than that, I can’t be bothered. I got two or three clubs within an hour’s drive where I can have a good dinner with a bunch of equally old farts and enjoy a night of blues or jazz for 50 bucks. My son can camp on the ground in the rain for three days and bounce right back. I’d be in the ICU for a week.

      As to the hippie girls, I’m afraid they are all grandmothers now.

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  3. Junior in high school. Friend & I hitch-hiked there from New Jersey. We only got to the next town before a local cop stopped us. Checked on us, looked us over, & let us go. He said ‘You’ll never make it’. Well, we did make it. I don’t know how many rides we got, but made it there for the concert & had a blast. We also had tickets to see Steven Stills the following week in Saratoga Springs. But sometime during the concert ALL our stuff was stolen. Which meant no clothes, no money, no Saratoga Springs. We had a little weed we rolled into joints so we could sell for food money. When the concert was over, we all milled out of the concert area. Then I saw the school quarterback from the prior year driving his convertible, inching his way through the crowd & traffic. We ran up to the car, jumped in, and basically invited ourselves for the ride home. To this day, I occasionally thank him in my head & wonder- “where is Joe Wessel?” Watkins Glen was one of my fondest experiences

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