Forty years ago this week, on July 28, 1973, about 600,000 people descended upon a race track at Watkins Glen, New York to attend what was, up until that time, the largest rock concert in the history of the world, called the Summer Jam festival. (Woodstock, which occurred four years earlier, had 400,000). The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band and The Band performed–only three bands, and only one day, in marked contrast to Woodstock’s many bands and four days.
I have a little history with rock festivals, having attended Wacken Open Air–the largest heavy metal festival in the world, in Germany–11 times. Wacken is a pretty crazy scene, but at its peak it draws 70,000 to 80,000. Summer Jam had eight and a half times the number of people who attend Wacken in a given year! I simply can’t imagine almost nine Wacken Open Air festivals at once. The scene must have been awe-inspiring.
I think this would have been an awesome time. Good weather, a seemingly peaceful vibe, great music, good-looking women, long-haired guys with their shirts off, probably lots of beer…actually it sounds pretty damn close to Wacken!
In some ways I think Summer Jam was the last gasp of the innocent idealism of the 1960s generation. By 1973 that innocence had already taken a huge beating, after the horrors of assassinations, Charles Manson, Altamont, and the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. (If you’re interested in that sort of thing, you should read the Daniel Pope interviews). After 1973 there were no huge festivals quite like this, on the Woodstock model, at least none that carried the same populist vibe, what we would now call “open source” (though Summer Jam and Woodstock were both very clearly business ventures). One man, Willard Smith, died at Summer Jam in a skydiving accident. And then there’s Mitchel Weiser and Bonita Bickwit, who are the source of my interest in this festival.
As documented in yesterday’s post, Mitchel and Bonnie, two teenagers from Brooklyn, were on their way to this festival–hitchhiking, as kids did freely in the ’70s–when they disappeared mysteriously. Tomorrow’s post will be about them.
But this post is about the show itself. Here is some audio of Grateful Dead performing at Watkins Glen, interspersed with a few photos.
And, here’s The Band, together with some fascinating reminiscences by someone who was there.
(Photo at the top of the page is by Jay Falvey, here is his Flickr).
In the original version of this blog I stated the date of Summer Jam was July 27. Actually it was July 28. I’ve corrected the error.