Flashback: Watkins Glen Summer Jam 1973

It was the Summer of 1973, the ‘Hippie movement’ of the 1960’s still existed, but only in isolated pockets, tucked way in the dusty cobwebbed corners of the counterculture. Groups like the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band, and The Band were still playing to crowds that held tightly to the ideals of the mid 1960’s, which the groups themselves still carried on through their music. The bands, were also undergoing personal changes reflected back at them through their audience. The genesis for 1973’s Summer Jam began as a brain storm by promoters Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik who had discussed and planned on setting a line up for the ages. After seeing members of the Allman Brothers Band sit in with the Grateful Dead at a Summer 1972 concert at Roosevelt Stadium the seed was planted to bring together an astronomical set of musicians for a gathering to rival even Woodstock, boy, would they be surprised. The decision to bring The Band on board came by the promoters asking the Dead and Allman’s which artist they would most like to have join them on the bill, the decision was easy and unanimous. Plans were put in place and and set in motion. Roughly 150,000 tickets were sold at $10.00 a piece for the show, large by any standard of measurement. To everyone’s surprise, by the evening prior to the concert that number of intrepid travelers had already showed up to the festival site. By show time on July 28th the number would exceed an estimated 600,000 fans!

Often overshadowed by other festivals in the annals of rock history, the show became something different than originally planned, but ended up being remembered fondly by all participants. The concert also seemed to signal the end of an era, ushering in a time where festivals became corporate interests instead of private excursions into the unknown. Soon to be  gone were the days of Monterey, Woodstock, and the Isle of Wight, properly concluding with the biggest of them all ‘Summer Jam’, situated smack dab in the middle of New York State. Two of the principal performing artists, The Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers had recently lost founding members, Pigpen for the Dead in March of 1973, and Duane Allman and Barry Oakley for the Allmans in 1971 and 1972 respectively. These deaths caused a restructure and reassessment of both bands musical futures which at this point seemed somewhat uncertain for both groups. The Band on the other hand was also hanging by a thread because of personal issues regarding publishing, as well as substance abuse seeping into the fabric of the group. The ‘Summer Jam’ acts as a celebration of the recent past for the artists involved, as well as a signpost to an unknown future. For the Grateful Dead, the festival featured one of their usual blistering 1973 sets, in addition to an perfectly encapsulated instrumental journey tagged as one of their finest, hailing in true Grateful Dead fashion from the sound check.  The Allmans played an extended and crisply executed set featuring new songs from their retooled line up and fiery soloing from Dickey Betts .Robbie Robertson has often been quoted that the Watkins Glen set was one of the legendary performing moments by the boys, and will go down in history as one of their best.

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In spite of prior planning by the promoters and authorities leading up to the evening of the concert, roads and highways were still backed up for a hundred miles, stores in Watkins Glen and surrounding areas were wiped of groceries and beer, and over 150,000 folks were waiting at the 95 acre concert site a night early. Routes  14 and 17 were gridlocked, and even secret back road entries were congested with abandoned cars, forgotten ground scores and backpacking travelers  making their way to the festival site.

The day of July 27th 1973 found the band’s arriving, scoping out the situation, and standing slack jawed at the amount of people already at the festival site. Legend tells us that when Robbie Robertson guitarist of The Band inquired about a sound check in preparation for the expansive outdoor venue, all three bands decided to do the same thing that evening and make it a mini performance. What happened next is the stuff legends are made of. All three bands played beautiful sets to the lucky early arrivals. The Band ran through a couple of their well know classics as well as jamming on a few unique instrumental grooves that harkened back to their days as The Hawks, when they were still playing Toronto bars and clubs. A crushing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ opens the ‘rehearsal’ and is answered by encouraging crowd feedback. The instrumental groove the group break into following ‘Dixie’ is jump started by Danko’s smooth fretless bass flourishes and the rest of the band falling in line with a jumpy Levon Helm swing. Robertson’s Stratocaster draws blood with its stinging ring cutting through the somewhat marginal sound quality. Another jewel of the practice session is the rare Danko sung version of ‘Raining in My Heart’, a bit jagged, but oh so charming.

The Allman’s followed and also ran through a rough and ready sound check that was made up of a few songs planned for the next evening including ‘Ramblin Man’ and ‘One Way Out’, short but sweet when compared to what would follow. When the Grateful Dead approached the stage for their ‘rehearsal’ segment little did the band or assembled throng know what they were in for.

The Grateful Dead’s ‘sound check’ appeared as two sets lasted an hour and a half, but according to many opinions and in true Grateful Dead fashion possibly outshines the next day’s ‘official’ performance. The bonus being the performance circulates in pristine quality unlike songs from the other participants of the concert. The unique improvised instrumental jam that preceded ‘Wharf Rat’ is an anomalous display, never to recreated, and is one of those magical Grateful Dead moments made for the time in which it was born. The jam appeared years later on the official release box set ‘So Many Roads’ proof of its distinguished standing in the Dead’s long and varied history.

Prior to the sound checks first highlight ‘Bird Song’, Phil Lesh states ‘This whole thing is a fraud, we’re really clever androids’, as they band prepares to levitate off of the ground. ‘Bird Song’ comes skipping in, riding with Kreutzmann on the humid Summer evening breeze. Succulent and patient Garcia and Lesh probe the soft cloudy edges of the jam, floating in space. Expansive yet slightly tentative, the ‘Bird Song’ jams wings are lifted by the gusts of inspiration starting to stir.

After polished and well played versions of various first set classics, including a big fat ‘Tennessee Jed’, the band finds itself in one of those sacred spaces, where the music eventually plays the band, and all bets are off. The unnamed jam grows from silence, quietly, pensively, with light cymbal hits and the guitarists peeking around corners probing into darkness. Lesh increases the intensity with some fuzzy chording; Weir gives the musical drift a tangible shape with perfectly timed strums. Lesh then begins to drone and detonate, the band turns into particles and star dust, breaking apart, and then coagulating as a Garcia led jam rises from nothingness. Billy K catches on, Garcia sets the rhythm and the band achieves lift off. Slick, smooth and jazzy, the band improvises idea after idea. Weir strikes out with nervous lush rhythmic ideas, Phil hides and seeks, and Garcia peels off layer after layer of juicy skin revealing the jam’s plump and succulent center. The band sinks their teeth deep into the music creating one of their finest moments in front of the lucky crowd who descended early upon Watkins Glen that Summer night  of 1973. An endless stream of collaborative ideas pours from the group like the icy waters raging through the shady tree lined Watkins Glen only a few short miles away. Some of the melodies are familiar, some are brand new, some mix and match like oil and water, some blend like paints on an artists pallet. One of the finest musical moments in the Grateful Dead’s long and storied history has just occurred, thankfully captured for posterity. An audacious beginning to a concert event that hasn’t even ‘started’ yet! The jam eventually dissolves into a fitting and lucid ‘Wharf Rat’, the previous journey to arrive there filled with drama and intrigue.

The Dead portion of the soundcheck concludes with a solid but anticlimactic ‘Around and Around’, that leaves the assembled throng looking to find a place to sleep, and prepare for the following days awe inspiring display of music, stamina, and mother nature, that would extend to extravagant lengths. The following day would start at 10:00 AM and conclude very early on the morning of July 30th, history was going to be made and if you read part II I will try to recall that day in words.  Look for the rest of this feature on Summer Jam 1973 soon, and prepare to dive into the ‘official’ day of the concert, and witness the magic still waiting to happen.