Flashback: Grateful Dead and Friends Draw 600,000 to Watkins Glen Summer Jam
It’s a safe bet that when Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang approached Watkins Glen International to host the still-up-in-the-air Woodstock 50 festival this summer, he had visions of Summer Jam in his head. On July 28th, 1973, a mere four years after Woodstock, a concert at the same upstate New York racetrack featuring only the Allman Brothers, the Band, and the Grateful Dead drew an estimated 600,000 people — enough to earn it the Guinness World Record for the most attendees at a pop music festival. By comparison, Woodstock attracted a minuscule 250,000 people, according to the New York Daily News, though legend has it that the fest drew up to 400,000.
Tickets to the concert cost $10 and included parking and — even though it was a one-day event — camping, according to posters on Syracuse.com. By the afternoon before the day of the concert, the promoters had sold 125,000 tickets, making it a “sell out.” Since Summer Jam was already a success, the organizers left the gates open, allowing the other 400,000-plus people to saunter in freely. The crowds were enough to paralyze the small town of 2,700 people at the time, yet somehow there were no reports of violence. Some of the attendees left their cars as far away as 20 miles from the venue.
Openers the Grateful Dead played two sets. They opened with Skull & Roses’ “Bertha,” and played a variety of fan favorites including American Beauty’s “Box of Rain” and “Truckin'” and covers of songs by Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, and Merle Haggard, among others. A recording of the set lasts nearly four hours.
The Band played hits like “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Weight,” along with their own cavalcade of covers, including Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It” and the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.” Syracuse.com reports that a thunderstorm hit during the middle of the set and newspapers at the time said the mud made it look like a scene from the Civil War. They, too, played nearly four hours.
Headliners the Allman Brothers also played two sets. Their performance included “Jessica,” “Whipping Post,” and “Midnight Rider,” among others, along with covers of songs by Muddy Waters, Blind Willie McTell, and Elmore James. For the encore, they welcomed the members of the Grateful Dead and the Band to play a stunning three-song set: a cover of the Crickets’ “Not Fade Away,” their own Eat a Peach number “Mountain Jam,” and a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Those three songs lasted 90 minutes, according to The Guardian. The gig ended at three in the morning, and much of the audience had exited by the time it was done. “Mountain Jam” alone lasted more than 13 minutes.
Throughout the evening, crime was minimal. There was plenty of nudity and drugs, and one farmer claimed that someone stole a pig. When all was said and done, newspapers reported four road deaths, 50 arrests, and one birth, according to The Guardian.
For many years, the festival’s biggest claim to fame was its World Record status, but that was later erased. Now the festival with the most attendees, according to Guinness, was the Donauinselfest in 2015, when some 3.3 million people showed up in Vienna, Austria, to see Natalie Imbruglia and about 2,000 other artists across three days.
But the record will remain for Watkins Glen International. Last month, the venue severed its ties with Woodstock 50 organizers, forcing them to look elsewhere for festival grounds. The Woodstock 50 team have yet to announce a plan or put tickets on sale for the three-day fest, set to kick off August 16th, now at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.
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