I first read about this concert-festival in a Grateful Dead biography… There is not much video footage from the concert. I never could understand why this concert didn’t hold up in history like some others like The Atlanta Pop festival and others. I’m not saying it should have been remembered like Woodstock because it’s cultural impact was like no others…but this drew more than any other festival including Woodstock.
An estimated 600,000 people came to this concert on July 28, 1973, in Watkins Glen N.Y. 45 years ago. Maybe the reason it is not as remembered is that only three bands performed…but the three bands were giant bands in their prime. The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and The Band.
From the bands themselves, almost all agree the sound check on Friday was better than the concerts.
Perspective about the concert by a member from each band.
Robbie Robertson from his book Testimony
Then we got a request from Bill Graham, who was putting together a show “just up the highway from us” at the Watkins Glen Raceway. We’d be performing with the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. Playing some gigs could help us get “back on the stick,” as they say.
We went up to Watkins Glen the day before the show for the sound check. Bill Graham said that the Dead would go on first and play for three or four hours—that was part of their thing, giving the audience their money’s worth. “Until the drugs wear off,” said Bill, laughing. We’d go on in the late afternoon, and the Allmans would take over at sundown. As we were leaving the sound check, it looked like cars were heading toward the racetrack from every direction. Bill said he expected maybe a hundred thousand or more.
When we came back the next day, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Hundreds of thousands of people had showed up, and more just kept coming and coming. The crowds mowed down the high chain-link fences around the racetrack and filled the area as far as the eye could see. Bill was running around trying to make people pay admission, but the mobs were out of control.
When it came time for the Band to take the stage, it started pouring. As we waited, hoping it was going to let up, Bill came over. “They’ve determined there are 650,000 people here. It’s the biggest concert in history.” The news was somewhere between an incredible accomplishment and a huge disaster.
The rain started letting up, and Garth played some churchy, rainy-day keyboard sounds out over the crowd. When it was safe to go on, we decided to start our set with Chuck Berry’s “Back to Memphis.” And wouldn’t you know, as Levon sang that baby, the sun came out.
Gregg Allman from My Cross to Bear
Right before Brothers and Sisters came out, we played the festival at Watkins Glen with the Band and the Grateful Dead, in front of six hundred thousand people—the biggest show in history to that point. People always talk about Woodstock. Watkins Glen was like three Woodstocks. I think actually it might’ve been a little too big. They should have had people all the way around the raceway, and maybe had the stage in the center revolving real slowly, do a revolution in a minute. That’s not that complicated.
A show like Watkins Glen was uncomfortable, because you know that you’re getting the show across to this many people, but you still got two times that many behind them. You could finish a song, take your guitar off, put it in the case, and latch it up before the last guy heard the last note. Sound ain’t all that fast, not compared to light.
When you’re playing in that situation, you’re kind of thinking about the end. Not that you’re wishing it to be over, but you can’t even hear yourself—that was back before we had the in-ear monitors. Everything was so loud. You just walk out there and start to wince before you even start playing. It’s hard to get any kind of coziness, any kind of feel with the audience.
I guess there’s something about that many people seeing you all at once that’s real nice, but it’s just too much. You’re just like a little squeak in the middle of a bomb going off. But it was interesting, and it was a pretty fun day. People were OD’ing all over the place. And of course, Uncle Bill was there, which cured everything. It was exciting to be there and see it—and to be able to make ’em stand up, now that was something else.
Bill Kreutzmann from Deal
We made some questionable business decisions and we couldn’t sell records, but we sure could sell tickets. We sold around 150,000 tickets for a single show at a racetrack in Watkins Glen, New York, on July, 28, 1973. Yes, and more than 600,000 people ended up coming out for it. The lineup was just us, the Allman Brothers, and the Band. That show, called the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for what, at the time, was the largest audience ever assembled at a rock concert. In fact, that record may still hold today, at least in the U.S., and some have even proposed that it was the largest gathering in American history. Originally, the bill was supposed to just be the Dead and the Allmans, but our respective camps fought with the promoter over which band would get headliner status. The solution was that both bands would co-headline and they’d add a third, “support” act.
The friendly (“-ish”) competition between us and the Allman Brothers carried through to the event itself. And yet, the memory that I’m most fond of and hold most dear from that whole weekend was jamming backstage with Jaimoe, one of the Allman’s drummers. We were just sitting in the dressing room, banging out rhythms, and that was a lot of fun for me. Jaimoe backed Otis Redding and Sam & Dave before becoming a founding member of the Allman Brothers, where he remains to this day. He’s a soulful drummer and just an incredible guy who is impossible not to like.
As for the show itself, it is a well-known fact that the Grateful Dead always blew the big ones. Watkins Glen was no exception. However, we still got a great night of music out of it—the night before. The show took place on a Saturday, but by Friday afternoon there were already about 90,000 people in front of the stage. I’ve heard others place that number closer to 200,000. Either way, the audience was already many times the size of any of our regular shows, and the show was still a full day away. The only duty we had on Friday was to do a soundcheck, and even that was somewhat optional. The Band soundchecked a couple of songs. The Allman Brothers soundchecked for a bit. Then, perhaps spurred on by our friendly rivalry, we decided to one-up both bands by turning our soundcheck into a full-on, two-set show. Naturally, without any of the pressure of the “official show” the next day, we really let loose and played a good one. There was an eighteen-minute free-form jam that eventually made it onto So Many Roads, one of our archival box sets. It’s good music, all right, and it still holds its own.
On the day of the actual show, we had to fly into the venue via helicopter because the roads were all backed up, like what happened at Woodstock. People left their cars on the side of the road and walked for miles to the gig. I remember looking down from the helicopter and seeing the most incredible impressionist painting, a Monet of heads, shoulders, tie-dyes, baseball caps, and backpacks, packed front to back. You couldn’t see the ground for the crowd. To this day, I’ve never seen anything else like that.
Nowadays at large music events and festivals, they have golf carts for artists and crews to get around, but back then they used little motor scooters. Early, during the day of our supposed “soundcheck,” I commandeered one of these scooters and, because the venue was an actual racetrack, I decided to do a lap. This was before the gates were opened. The scooter went maybe fifteen or eighteen miles an hour, something stupid like that, and it took forever just to do one lap. But I did it. And that’s when I first started to get a feel for the scale of the event and just how large it was.
During the Summer Jam itself, I watched the other bands play and I honestly thought the Allman Brothers played better on the big day than we did. As for the Band, well, they always sounded great.
If you have read this long…below is some crowd video and a little of the music.