It was the largest gathering of people in the United States ever, they said. 600,000 people came. It was only a one-day event, but they came a week early. There were 50 mile traffic jams to get there. Only three bands played. There was a huge storm. And yet it was a commercial success that changed the way rock festivals were put on – and maybe a landmark in the way rock and roll saw itself and its potential.
The 1973 Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in Upstate New York was the brainchild of Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik, promoters who worked mainly out of nearby Connecticut. They had put on a successful concert with the Grateful Dead the year before where, by a happy accident, some of the Allman Brothers Band had been backstage. They came onstage in Hartford for an impromptu jam, to the mutual satisfaction of the two bands – and the Deadheads.
Finkel and Koplik mooted a possible joint outdoor gig the following summer and both bands were keen – especially when the promoters started talking the big numbers. The Dead would earn $117,000 for Watkins Glen, then their biggest career paydate.
They needed a third act and signed up The Band – who were ready to play out again after an 18-month layoff for studio work. And as they were living in the New York State area it all added up.
The Watkins Glen Raceway provided the venue. Because the race track was well-used to handling large numbers of visitors, and it was only a one-day event and the slick promoters convinced the powers-that-be this wasn’t going to be one of those goddamn hippy things with mindfreaked longhairs wandering around for a week and going on about Vietnam, there was relatively little local opposition and bureaucratic hassle.
Two weeks prior to the Saturday 28 July date, 100,000 tickets had been sold at ten bucks a piece and the promoters sought and gained permission to sell another 25,000 on the day. Problem was, people started arriving early. Really early. Some were turning up a full week before; by the Wednesday, police reckoned there were 50,000 already camping. Double by the next day.
Come the Friday afternoon there were maybe 250,000 people there, and the traffic was queuing back 50 miles! The cops started turning back people without tickets, and even some who did have them. Harsh.
When the Dead came to soundcheck on Friday afternoon, there were 100,000 people in front of the stage. What you gonna do? Well, it turned into an impromptu gig and, The Dead being The Dead, they played for two hours, occasionally stopping to sort out sound but basically playing a bonus gig. Not to be outdone, the Allman Brothers and The Band also played for an hour or two each.
Awesome, but the main event, of course, was the next day. The Dead played first, a beautiful, mesmeric five-hour performance of two sets, opening with ‘Bertha’ Their Wall Of Sound was simply immense, Jerry’s guitar smooth as silk. ‘Truckin’’… ‘China Cat Sunflower’… ‘Stella Blue’… ‘Sugar Magnolia’. It was a good day to be a Deadhead.
The Band played next but were interrupted an hour into their set by a storm. As it cleared, a tragic accident marred the day, when a skydiver, carrying flares (like incendiary devices, not trousers) got into trouble while parachuting. The flares combusted in the air, engulfing him in flames, rendering him unable to operate his parachute and causing him to fall to his death.
The Band came back on, but it was hard for them to get going. Nevertheless, it was an accomplished performance, sleek and hard, some of which is captured on the ‘Band Live At Watkins Glen’ – although the provenance of some tracks on that is questionable. It saw them premiere ‘Endless Highway’, play Dylan’s ‘Don’t Ya Tell Henry’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘Back To Memphis’. Garth Hudson’s organ-playing is mighty fine.
The Allman Brothers played last and turned in a superb performance, the highlight of which was ‘In Memory Of Elizabeth Reid’. Afterwards, Robbie Robertson, Jerry Garcia and others joined for a jam featuring ‘Not Fade Away’ and ending in a barnstorming version of ‘Johnny B. Goode’.
It’s said that the event was so big that 1 in 350 Americans was at the gig that weekend! But Watkins Glen does not have the same place in rock folklore as Woodstock. The 1969 gig was, among other things, a political act, in a way that Watkins Glen was not. The withdrawal from Vietnam was well underway, there seemed to be fewer battles to fight, maybe. The politicisation of pop music was not high on the agenda of so many bands. By all accounts, there was less LSD and hard drugs, more pot and booze at Watkins Glen. The overall vibe – peaceful and inclusive though it might have been – was more that of a great party than a social movement or era-defining experience.
Yet it certainly changed rock, if not society. Promoters across the US saw that there was serious money to be made from one-day festivals and soon, the ABC television network were getting in on the act. California Jam the following year attracted 200,000 and was a slick, well-organised, profitable success – and a definite staging post on the journey to rock corporatisation. It ushered in the era of rock stars arriving by private helicopter and big bucks, and in its own way, Watkins Glen was one of the precursors to that. Still, none of that is what anyone there, or anyone listening on record, is thinking about when Jerry Garcia is doing ‘Playing In The Band’.
YES ACOUSTIC DVD
65 minutes of Yes in 2004 playing stuff like Long Distance Runaround, Roundabout and I've Seen All Good People unplugged. And its what I like to think of as the 'proper' Yes; Anderson, Howe, Squire, White and Wakeman. Originally show in cinemas throughout the USA as a live broadcast, you also get behind the scenes footage too.
A must for all Yes fans. I've got 6 to give away.
THE BEST OF THE NICE & THE BEST OF ELP LIVE
Two albums, both featuring Keith Emerson of course. Have you seen our new Emerson design? If you've not got into the Nice before now, this is a good intro. They were a ground-breaking band - you can see where ELP came from but there's also a 60s groovy, jazz rock element to their music as well and even, in their version of Tim Hardin's 'Hang On To A Dream', some 60s pop.
The compilation features their famously rocked up version of America from West Side Story that got them into also sorts of hot water in USA -largely because they would insist on burning an American flag while playing it.
The ELP album I keep going back to is the live at Newcasstle City Hall, 'Pictures At An Exhbition' and this features in part on this Best Of Live album along with chunks from, Welcome Back My Friends and later live records too.
Listening to it now the thing which strikes me hardest is just how radical and often downright noisy their music is; truely ground-breaking stuff and of course, they have chops to burn. Greg Lake's singing is also hugely under-rated. Lucky Man and Stilll...You Turn Me On are both here and he delivers them with an almost operatic power.
I've got 4 pairs of these CD''s to give away
For a chance to win either just email me with 'Nice ELP' or 'Yes DVD 'in the subject line ....or both....to email@example.com along with your address. I'll draw them next week.
Thanks to everyone who entered last weeks freebie draw for the massive Twisted Sister, Alice, Brit pop packages. All winners have been notifed now so there's no point in emailing in for those any more.