As the morning of July 28th, 1973 revealed itself the ground beneath the Watkins Glen, New York State concert site was preparing to hold the weight of 600,000 musical travelers ready to rock and roll. The largest gathering for a rock festival was about to take place with a legendary bill of bands that would play extended and legendary sets. After the previous evenings ‘warm up’, the groups as well as the crowd were primed for an all day event. Pleasant but humid New York Summer festival weather settled hazily across the bronzed crown of hippies slightly threatening summer storms. The awe inspiring event about to take place would make history in not only musical but social ways, the smoky remnants of that afternoon still smoldering in the annals of rock history.
The Grateful Dead took the stage promptly at noon to an introduction by Bill Graham who exclaimed, ‘From Marin County to Watkins Glen, the Grateful Dead!’ Blasting into an excitable ‘Bertha’ the Dead ran through a typical, that is to say, well played and amazing set of first set classics. The set is brimming with a typical East coast high energy, building to then detonating on a psychedelic pinnacle with the set closing ‘Playing in the Band’. Slithering through the some of the more familiar themes of the era, by half way into the jam Lesh and Garcia are exchanging husky scrubs and bombs, while the rest of the band is tied into a kinetic and electric fast paced groove. While not reaching the extravagant peaks of the jam from the night before, this is a thick and gooey ‘Playin in the Band’ from an era with many stand outs.
Following a marathon ‘China/Rider of epic proportions comes ‘Eyes of the World’, the peak of the second set and of the Dead’s performance for me; the post verse jam contains a plethora of melodic statements from Garcia, with the song morphing into a swelling and pulsating improvised drift. From fifteen minutes on, Garcia plays like a man possessed and hits on several syncopated grooves that band responds to in kind touching on the delicate spaces explored during the previous day’s sound check, before falling back into the recognizable ‘Stronger That Dirt’ theme. Garcia then deliciously liquefies the band into Weir’s well timed and well placed ‘Sugar Magnolia’. Observed as an entire piece of work the Grateful Dead played an amazing two days of music at Watkins Glen, a testament to their constant journey to strive for the golden note.
The Band’s set started at 6:00 PM after the Dead’s extended four and a half display concluded and became an amazing cross section of their legendary career, peppered with unique instrumental interludes specific to the Watkins Glen performance. Opening and romping joyously through ‘Goin Back To Memphis’, the Band’s music captured the feel of the festival perfectly through its pastoral imagery and down home instrumentation. This is rock and roll, country blues distilled to its very essence; it doesn’t get much better than this! During these early moments of the Band set, the low point of the festival weekend occurred as a skydiver unfortunately missed their intended mark and perished on the grounds. As an addendum, there was a supposed ‘official’ release of the Band’s set from Watkins released in 1995, but after inspection and discussion it was revealed that this collection was/is a fraud and contains only two actual tracks from the event. The only way to hear the performance as it was is to hunt down one of the circulating audience recordings that exist in decent quality.
This concert takes place in the middle of a year of rest and uncertainty for the Band. Looked at historically, the concert is a towering peak in the landscape of the Band’s performing career. The songs are tight, dynamic and rise and fall like a high speed run down a country gravel road. Garth Hudson is especially on his game laying down a plethora of breezy and inspirational keyboard flourishes that would culminate with his divergent solo spot “Too Wet Too Work’. Danko and Helm are locked in tight, and the vocals of Manuel, Danko, and Helm wrap around one another like a snaky gospel revival. After rocketing through a series of exciting high tempo tracks including ‘Loving You Is Sweeter That Ever’, and a drunken romp through ‘The Shape I’m In’, the group is eventually forced to leave the stage for twenty minutes because of threatening inclement weather. During the jam on ‘Endless Highway’ prior to their leaving, the crowd can be heard on the recording discussing and preparing for the incoming thunder storm. The ‘fly on the wall’ aspect of this field recording is especially entertaining.
Levon Helm’s remembrance of this moment in his autobiography is that the group left the stage as the weather descended, gulped some Glenfiddich whiskey and watched Hudson return to his keyboard for his orchestral spotlight, ‘Genetic Method’ in this case driving away the rain in the process of the extended solo. Titled ‘Too Wet To Work’ in the case of this performance, Garth traveled through numerous musical landscapes, teasing dynamically, improvising, until the weather dissipated and the Band returned to the stage, slamming into a celebratory ‘Chest Fever’, that in Helm’s words would be forever ‘burned into his memory’. The crowd claps in time with the musical waves, a highpoint of the afternoon. The remainder of the Band set burns through an aggressive and elastic instrumental and then momentous and extended versions of smoldering rock classics like ‘Holy Cow’ and ‘Saved’, as well as crowd pleasing renditions of ‘Cripple Creek’ and ‘Life Is A Carnival’. Absolutely legendary, the monumental nature of the day as well as joy emanating from the stage translates well to the field recording I am enjoying.
By the time Allman Brothers Band hit the stage at 10:00 PM, the almost one hundred acre concert site had become a swamp, and the happily soaked crowd swelled with anticipation for the upcoming musical onslaught. Opening with the recent for the time ‘Wasted Words’, the band is cooking from the get go with Betts and Allman dueling through vocals and slide guitar over the syncopated groove. The band receives a second introduction after the opener because Bill Graham wanted to make sure every band had each individual member introduced to the crowd. The Allman’s then swagger through beautifully crafted versions of ‘Come and Go Blues’ (featured on official release ‘Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas’) ‘Blue Sky’, ‘Jessica’, ‘You Don’t Love Me’, among others. Recent additions Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams fill in admirably on keys and bass respectively. Leavell and Betts especially have developed an intense chemistry, bouncing hearty melodic ideas off each other throughout the show, with their interplay on ‘Blue Sky’ being a highpoint worth of inspection.
The centerpiece of the Allman’s extended set is the mammoth performance of ‘Les Brers In A Minor’ which bookends a pulsating and dynamic drum duet by Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, the second of the performance following an aggressive ‘You Don’t Love Me’ duet. Each member gets a chance to express themselves as ‘Les Brers’ like its distant cousins ‘Jessica’, and ‘Liz Reed’ navigates a series of death defying twists and turns while solving a series of delicate melodic mysteries. Rock and Roll veteran Chuck Leavell’s extended dance with the black and whites is a pleasure to behold and spreads out a plush carpet in which the band uses to step into drums. This song represents a powerful and confident jam by the retooled group, asserting their ability to move forward while still respecting their past brothers Duane and Barry. Betts guitar lines range from syrupy amber licks to sharp stinging fly bys, the central pole in which the group revolves.
The Allman Brothers set concludes with ‘Whipping Post’, hoped for, expected, and played like a runaway freight train headed down a dark track. Peak after peak is reached the crowd is astonished, amazed and taken to a unique place by the music played. The weekend ends bombastically, well past midnight following the Allman’s set when members from all three groups return to the stage for Summer Jam. Sincerely sloppy, and at moments stunningly brilliant the music continues into the dawn. Rick Danko appears first to drunkenly croon into the mic momentarily and quite endearingly, soon to be joined by Garcia, then Manuel and eventually Betts, Lesh, Allman and others for some more lengthy jamming to conclude the massive weekend of music to the crowds delight.
The music drifting from the stage meanders for a bit before falling into the highlights, ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Mountain Jam’, and’ Johnny B Goode’, a momentous and special way to conclude the Summer Jam. The ‘Not Fade Away’ is pleasant enough, but the twenty plus minute ‘Mountain Jam’ the follows elicits speeding clouds, percolating rivers, and joyous wilderness romping. Garcia is especially active, intertwining and responding to everyone on stage. Betts and Garcia together create richly constructed summits during their journey, pausing at scenic overlooks that dance with collaborative playing by all of the principals on stage. The musical movement comes as a defining musical statement for the weekend, an instrumental climax, a joining of ideas and people and a perfect example of the magic available through collaborative musical interplay and willing participants.
Watkins Glen, Summer Jam 1973 is not only notable for its collection of an amazing group of musicians, but for its eclectic collection of fans. The collaboration between the two of these principals combined for a historic and alchemic weekend combining music and experience. The encapsulated moment in time for this weekend will never be recreated, but fortunately forever enshrined on recordings and in the memories of the participants.