Festival Fridays: Summer Jam at Watkins Glen

Summer Jam at Watkins Glen 1973

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On the week of July 28th, 1973, The Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway at Watkins Glen, New York, saw what was at the time the largest gathered audience in recorded history (yes, even bigger than Woodstock). The estimated 600,000 people that made it through the endless traffic jams and summer heat converged on this remote spot to see the only three bands that were booked for the event. A small lineup sure, but these three groups were The Band, Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, so you’d be hard pressed to find a better trio of bands together in 1973.

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Much like Woodstock, the audience (tapers included!) migrated to the site extra early, so there were thousands present for the soundchecks that were scheduled for the day preceding the festival. This lead to the soundchecks becoming full on shows themselves, giving the audience a preview of what to expect on the next day. The Band played through several songs and jammed out for the audience before the Dead came on and did a soundcheck that lasted more than two hours(!) This two-set spontaneous performance gave birth to a wholly unique jam that has since become known simply as “Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam.” The Allmans followed suit with their own soundcheck as more and more people poured into the site from all directions.

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The day of the festival saw the Grateful Dead open the event with a double set that was peppered with many of their most popular songs from their ‘70-‘73 cannon, including an especially heartfelt “Brown Eyed Women” and the surprisingly prophetic “Looks Like Rain.”

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The Band took the stage next, blasting through a very spirited and energetic two hour set that was briefly interrupted by a passing storm (the lesson here is that you don’t play a song called “Looks Like Rain” when you perform outdoors). In the middle of the torrential rains, Garth Hudson strolled out and sat behind his organ and noodled about on it for an extended “Genetic Method” improvisation which eventually grew into “Chest Fever,” once it was safe enough for the rest of the group to return to the stage. It kind of reminds one of a rain delay at a baseball stadium.

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The Allman Brothers played last again, this time for a full three hours. Their set included most of their extended standards as well as some (then) new songs. The best part of their set though, as well as the entire festival, was at the conclusion. There was about an hour’s worth of jamming done featuring members of all three groups, as an encore. This once in a lifetime performance included some actual songs like “Not Fade Away” and “Let Me Wrap You In My Warm and Tender Love” (which features some great vocals by Jerry Garcia and Rick Danko) as well as some intense instrumental jamming which is just referred to as “Mountain Jam.”

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This was such an interesting idea to me: to get only three of some of the biggest names in rock that also share a similar Americana-folk rock vibe and have them all jam together at the climax of the concert. Apart from smaller scaled shows at places like The Fillmore, this seems to be fairly unprecedented, so it’s really intriguing that this not only worked, but that it drew bigger crowds than festivals like Woodstock, which had 32 acts (including The Band and Grateful Dead).

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If I could put together a similar styled event myself today, I would love to take Alabama Shakes, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals and The Black Keys and just see what would happen.

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What I love best about this festival, is when you listen to the surviving audio, you can really hear just how much fun the bands were having (especially The Band). This is just three groups playing around and having a good time together, almost like this was an event for the bands (similar to the 1970 Festival Express tour, which also featured The Band and Grateful Dead).

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Who Played:

  • The Band
  • Grateful Dead
  • The Allman Brothers

(and a combination of all three)

Video:

While there isn’t an official documentary film made about the festival yet, there are several interesting short videos scattered across the internet including this mini-doc centered around super 8 home movie camera footage shot by a fan that actually attended the concert, a short piece of sound footage found via AP and even a piece by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about the Grateful Dead’s innovative sound set up at the fest.

Audio:

It appears that the festival was in fact recorded and was also broadcasted on the radio, so audio has been bootlegged extensively over the years and so far, a small amount has seen the light of day on official releases.

For official releases, there’s a track from The Allman Brother’s set, “Come and Go Blues,” that was included on their Wipe The Windows, Check The Oil, Dollar Gas compilation but that’s it so far. You can hear the track here:

As for the Grateful Dead, the only piece from their performances that has surfaced officially was the unique jam from the soundcheck that I spoke of earlier, which earned a place on the So Many Roads box. I suppose if you’re not going to release the entire sets, but you can put out one track, this is the most important interesting piece to put out (apart from the concluding triple band jam, of course). You can hear the Soundcheck as it appears on the box set here

Now for The Band, things get a little tricky. For some reason, a Live at Watkins Glen CD was issued in the ’90s (this is actually how I first heard of the festival and The Band) but it was largely a fake. It wasn’t necessarily a bootleg, but it was released without input from the group and seems fairly illegitimate. The music on it is mostly made up of studio outtakes with audience sounds overdubbed. The only portions released from the actual festival was a portion of Garth Hudson’s organ improvisation during the rain, here titled “Too Wet To Work” (with possibly overdubbed thunder sound effects?) as well as a jam simply titled, “Jam.”

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My question is, if the people who put this out had the access to the original tapes to include two songs from the set, then why not just make the entire album sourced from the performance? It’s confounding and befuddling (especially after believing for so long that it was a real live album).

Here’s how these two songs sound on the album

As for bootlegs, there are numerous releases out there, but on YouTube, you can hear a soundboard recording of the complete set by the Dead, which includes their own encore plus the “Not Fade Away” and “Mountain Jam.” The video disabled embedding, so here’s the link.

The Dead’s Soundcheck is also available as a bootleg and several different sourced records are available for streaming on Archive.org. To listen to a few, check these out:

Portions of the Allman Brothers’  soundcheck has popped up as well

I also found this streamable bit of audio from The Allman’s set available on Archive

However, most excitingly, a very good audience tape of the double sets by The Band is up on YouTube and it features what is probably the most complete recording of the final jam that I have ever seen. Most sources don’t even list anything beyond “Mountain Jam” and “Not Fade Away,” but this recording also features songs like “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Have You Ever Been Mistreated.” This whole performance HAS to see an official release someday.

Here are but a few of the covers from the various physical bootlegs that have appeared over the years.

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Were you at this festival? If so, please leave your story in the comments!

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Check back next week as we celebrate the 4th with a festival that also occurred on the 4th of July weekend. 

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