Today is the anniversary of one of the biggest and, strangely, least-discussed music festivals in American history—the 1973 Summer Jam at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway in upstate New York (now known as Watkins Glen International). All it took was the promise of The Band, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band playing special extended sets and a once-in-a-lifetime jam session featuring players from all three bands to draw well over a half a million people. Little did Connecticut area promoter team of Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik realize that they, along with promoter Bill Graham, would end up throwing one of the largest music events in human history, or that their incredible feat would amount to a mere footnote in the annals of music to most historians.
From their very first daydreams about putting on an event of this size, the duo of Finkel and Koplik knew there was only one state they could hope to draw enough people to for the event, New York. Unfortunately, New York had learned a very expensive lesson from the aftermath of the infamous Woodstock Music Festival. In response to the destruction, the flower children had left in their wake, an elaborate set of stringent rules and regulations known as the Mass Gathering Act was passed. Finkel and Koplik were at that point practiced promoters who worked diligently to keep everything by the books for their event to prevent throwing, in their words, “Another Woodstock.”
As far as everyone involved in the production and promotion of the Summer Jam was concerned, Woodstock was the bogeyman, a cautionary tale of what could happen if they let their event spiral out of control. Summer Jam was born out of the promoters catching a sit-in at a Dead show with Allman Bros. band members Berry Oakley and Dickey Betts joining the band on stage for a spirited jam session. Finkel and Koplick were impressed by how easily the bands blended and how good those blended jams sounded, thus sparking the concept.
The pair contacted the Allmans and The Dead and proposed a day-long, epic-length, double bill that would conclude with a special jam session between both bands. Everyone involved saw how lucrative it could be and how the smaller scale of the production could keep costs, outside of the band’s prodigious fees, could be held in check. With the headliners secured it was time to whittle down the remaining potential venues to the best option.
After looking at a dizzying array of venues, they quickly sprung into action when it became known that Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway was available. With so many racing events and their massive crowds held there regularly, the track and the city residents were no strangers to hordes descending upon them. To help spread the word about the epic show, legendary San Francisco-based promoter Bill Graham was added to the brain trust, thanks to his experience and familiarity with the bands, particularly the Grateful Dead.
The single day format they were utilizing also put the minds of Watkins Glen residents at ease. It stood to reason that a single-day show with just a couple of bands could be reasonably expected to stay manageable. Meanwhile, the decision was made to secure a third act to round out the bill. After a few considerations, most notably Leon Russell, The Band was recruited due to their area roots and the similarity of their earthy and earnest brand of rock and roll. The word was given, crews were hired, a new style of sound system was selected, and a hundred thousand tickets were sent to outlets across the country. Print and radio ads were purchased for outlets and publications across the nation, flyers were posted, and the buzz began to grow.
Though track officials and locals had initially scoffed at the idea of three bands drawing anywhere near the maximum estimates of 150,000, when reports of massive advance ticket sales came in, they started to believe they might see a full house after all. As the hills and streets filled three days before the show was to begin, they realized how wrong they were. State police estimates put the crowd at Watkins Glen at around 50,000 by Wednesday, with that number doubling by Thursday and hitting roughly 250,000 by Friday and a day out from the festival. Luckily, the stage crew had finished building the massive platform and setting up the advanced sound system being used, but there were still tests that needed to be done, regardless of the teeming throngs milling about.
Robbie Robertson and The Band hesitated before taking the stage to run through a few numbers, due to the vast sea of faces already looking eagerly at them. Rightfully so, as the daunting amount of folks gathered a full day before the first notes were scheduled to be played was already one of the biggest crowds they’d ever seen. Namely, after getting the all-clear signal, The Band followed a thorough sound check with a quick three-song set to give the fans a special treat for their early arrival. The Allman Brothers followed suit, deliver a nearly hour-long jam-filled set with crowd-pleasing renditions of “One Way Out” and “Ramblin’ Man” among others while getting dialed in.
When it came time for the Grateful Dead to soundcheck they, at the request of their longtime friend and frequent business partner Bill Graham, agreed to go all out. After a few minutes of tuning, the band delivered a three-hour, two-set performance to the delight of the over a hundred thousand onlookers. The band didn’t skimp on their song selection either, as Jerry Garcia and the boys clearly enjoyed dropping “Sugaree,” “Wharf Rat” and more over the course of the “Sound Check” that left fans and promoters alike thankful and ready for more.
Luckily, thanks to archive.org, you can listen to the Dead’s whole soundcheck below, courtesy of Jonathan Aizen.
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
The next day’s dawn saw an influx of humanity that was then the largest concert crowd in history, dwarfing previous events by hundreds of thousands. Close to four times the number of people arrived as opposed to tickets sold for Summer Jam, with final estimates near 600,000 total. Luckily, the promoters had decided to take advantage of the newest generation of computer-controlled speakers with audio delays timed, so that the music could be relayed to speakers placed ever farther from the stage. That way, no matter how far from the stage itself, everyone could at least hear the music they had congregated in record numbers to enjoy.
The Grateful Dead had been elected to go first, and they were ready to show the assembling nearly square mile of fans that they were in the right place at the right time. By ’73, The Dead were fast becoming an institution, a known commodity, and the traveling fan base that followed them everywhere they went came out in force, along with a half a million or so of their friends. The band reeled off classic tune after classic tune. First set highlights included a raucous “Deal” and a fiercely jammed “Playin’ In The Band” to close the first set. The second set saw several tunes creep into the ten- and twenty-minute area as delighted Heads danced near and far with a choice “China/Rider” and a revelatory “Eyes Of The World” providing the inspiration. With an upbeat “Sugar Magnolia” encore included, the Dead played close to three hours with set break and the hour between acts making for five solid hours of nothing but the Dead and the aftermath.
Stream their whole show below, courtesy of Jonathan Aizen.
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
Alternatively, you can watch this video from the event below, courtesy of Bob Student.
[Video: Bob Student]
Though the bar had been set high, The Band had a special weapon that was already deployed—thousands of devoted Northeast fans who had spent countless nights with their hometown heroes. “The Shape I’m In,” “The Weight,” “Stage Fright” and “Don’t Do It” were early highlights, and it looked like nothing was going to stop the ever building momentum. That is until the darkening skies gave birth to a torrential downpour that forced the majority of The Band, and many of the more outlying crowd, to seek shelter. Luckily for the audience members who had been packed in close with no hopes of escaping to their tents, keyboardist Garth Hudson was feeling fairly dry and secure and most importantly plugged in, and the pianist kept the tunes going. He gamely played through the relatively short but intense cloud burst and without missing a cue went right into the next tune on the set list when the band rejoined him on the now soggy but safe stage.
Check out Hudson’s stellar sky clearing organ jam and The Band’s Watkins Glen stage return below:
The Allman Brothers Band had earned their headlining status through a string of amazing albums and unforgettable live shows, and from all reports they put on an incredible show continuing that streak. First set highlight included “Southbound,” “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” and a “Blue Sky” that was, as always, a joyous charge that stirred up the weary audience before ending their first set with the classic “One Way Out.” With a second set anchoring “Les Brers in A Minor” that gave the fans chills as they danced in the mud the quality of the day’s music remained beyond reproach. Building around that amazing jam the Allman Brothers filled out the remaining time with ripping takes on “Statesboro Blues,” “Ramblin’ Man,” “Jessica,” “Midnight Rider” and a suitably massive and tortured “Whipping Post.”
After a short intermission, members of all the bands came out for the signature portion of the Summer Jam—the “Jam” itself. Opinions vary widely on the quality of the jams that closed out the night. Loose and unrehearsed, the musicians seem overly aware of each other, tentative, with players withdrawing musically from each other rather than uniting. While Robbie Robertson references the day as one of The Band’s finest moments in his eyes, Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks offered a differing opinion in an interview for Forbes when the subject came up: “I think a lot of those people came to hear the greatest jam of the three best jam bands in the country. So after we finished playing, we all came out for the jam and all I can say–I’ve heard the tapes–is it was an absolute disaster. I kept listening and listening, then thought about that night. It was a jam that couldn’t possibly have worked because of the mixture of drugs. The Band was all drunk as skunks, The Dead was all tripping, and we were full of coke.”
We are again including the link to the Grateful Dead archive page for the show as it contains the entire “Summer Jam” super jam. The closing portion of the show starts with track 23, “Sing Me Back Home.”
[Audio: Soundboard with audience patches]
You might be asking yourself, “If this event was so epic, why aren’t there faux distressed Summer Jam shirts on sale at Target and Wal-Mart? Where are the legion of storytellers eager to share their epic experience because they ‘Were there man’?” Part of it was timing. The activist 60’s had ended, the Vietnam War was over at last. Kids who had watched the pain and frustration their older siblings had faced in their protests and wanted none of it. The tide had turned from activism to hedonism, and the kids wanted to party instead of protest.
Other factors, like the scorching late July sun and the long distances dragging camping gear and vast amounts of alcohol, were turn-offs for some. Others cite that the sheer physical distance between most attendees and the bands prevented basic connection with the music, while others note a lack of variety and the length of the sets the bands played. Even with The Band losing part of their time to the weather, they still took up nearly three hours total, and the Dead played for close to three hours before the Allman Brothers jammed for yet another three ahead of the heavily anticipated encore super jam.
The final blow to Summer Jam’s chances of possibly gaining any cultural significance through the prism of nostalgia fell apart when an agreement to film the full day’s event could not be reached with the notoriously “Our way or the highway” policy the Dead had in regards to filming rights. Without full creative control over their material, they refused to allow filming, and missing one-third of the acts made the enterprise more or less a fool’s errand if seeking commercial success. A lack of official concert footage or film, along with no official soundtracks, meant the memory of the day, minus the Dead set, faded from memory. No repeated viewings to keep warm memories alive for those who were there or to tantalize those who weren’t. Just slowly fading memories of an exhausted and, by all accounts, heavily intoxicated crowd.
The work of Finkel, Koplik, and Graham put in to pull off the Herculean labor that was Summer Jam may not have earned them any much vaunted historical reference, but Summer Jam did make one very important impact on the music scene that rarely gets noticed. It helped inspire other similar events, with Graham himself going on to promote his Day On The Green series in Oakland, numerous large-scale benefits, the U.S. Festival, and others following the blueprint used to varying degrees of success. Summer Jam had shown that scale could be accounted for and profits, though smaller than first hoped, could actually be made if proper planning was practiced. In delivering a working model for these types of events to continue, they helped keep the fire burning before being stoked into the inferno that is the modern festival scene. For that alone, the Watkins Glen Summer Jam deserves a revered place in the pantheon of the great music festivals and a place in the heart of festival lovers.
[Originally published 7/28/16]