SUMMER JAM, WATKINS GLEN, NY
Excerpt from "AQUARIUS RISING" by Robert Santelli
The Grateful Dead returned shortly before noon on Saturday to officially open Summer Jam in front of 600,000 people stretched out over every available inch of raceway property. There was the usual threat of rain, but no dark clouds were in sight. Instead the sun shone brightly as the heat grew to noticeable but still tolerable proportions. Stretched out across the ninety-acre grassy knoll that faced the stage was a youthful, exuberant sea of humanity. It was an awesome, emotional sight. And it was scary. What if ... But negative thoughts were set aside.
The Grateful Dead played and played and played. For five hours Jerry Garcia smoothly rolled out solos like only Jerry Garcia could do. Bob Weir backed him up on rhythm guitar, filling in and closing up weak areas and balancing out a generally tender sound. Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzman on drums provided Garcia with takeoff and landing strips. Donna Godchaux sang, and her husband, Keith, added bits and pieces on the keyboards. "Uncle John's Band," "Casey Jones," "Friend of the Devil," "Ripple," "Sugar Magnolia," "Truckin'," "Not Fade Away," "Me and Bobby McGee." They kept comin'.
It took little over an hour for the stage crew to disassemble the Dead's equipment and ready the area for the Band's set. Out in the crowd things were good considering the multitude of people. There was a marked decrease in the use of hard drugs and hallucinogens at Watkins Glen, although there were plenty of dealers on hand and pot was everywhere. The ground was littered with empty bottles of Jack Daniel's and Southern Comfort, signs of the large increase in the consumption of hard liquor.
There was an abundance of food and water available, and most of the portable toilets seemed to be functioning, but the lines to use the facilities and the trek getting there were the real problems. A round trip to and from a Port-O-San, including a very brief stay inside it, could take more than three hours. For the sluggish or the stoned, it was like five.
The sun had been overtaken by a series of ominous, dark stormclouds by the time the Band began to crank it up. Not quite an hour into their set, the rain, thunder, and lightning all struck with alarming might. The Band was forced from the stage to wait it out. Thirty minutes later the storm passed, leaving behind 600,000 wet bodies and—what else—mud. Prior to the storm, however, four skydivers had jumped from a circling Cessna, intending to land somewhere on the festival grounds. All of them carried colorful flares to mark both the success of the event and their downward path. The crowd cheered them on as they gradually assumed a shape in the sky. But something had gone wrong up there for one of the chutists. Seconds into his freefall, one of the skydivers' flares prematurely exploded and ignited his garments. Helplessly falling downward, the diver managed to open his chute as the flames engulfed his suit and his body. It was a terrible way to die.
The Band's set lost much of its impact after the storm's interruption. Many people returned to the campsites to cook up some supper and put on dry clothes. Others began the journey back home. But the Band played on—free-flowing, countrified rock with traditional foundations. The instrumentation was defined and exact; the delivery, sharp and authoritative. The Band represented the antithesis of slickness in the summer of '73. None of their music was souped up or hammered out via record-company formulas. Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel offered to rock what the poppish, syrupy bands could not: unadulterated, un-patterned, unmistakable music.
One festivalgoer at Watkins Glen climbed a utility pole to get a better view. Photo by Tom Whalley.
Finally it was the Allman Brothers' turn. The Brothers had the reputation of rarely putting on a less-than-dazzling performance. The high-quality compositions and the arousing artistic competency of the band resisted mediocre displays. Dickie Betts had fully assumed the role left vacant by Duane Airman's death. It was a big order to fill, but Betts was just coming into his own. He was confident and, most important, aggressive. He and Gregg Allman were the stars and the leaders that dictated the group's direction. In terms of comparison, neither the Dead nor the Band measured up to the overall ebullience of the Allmans. With the song "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," it all came together nicely.
It was two o'clock in the morning. The crowd had shrunk considerably, but, as promised, the event would conclude with an all-out jam. Not all the members of the Dead and the Band came out, and realistically, there were too many tired musicians for anything truly memorable to result. More solos. Some basic blues. The last song was a spirited if not overly effective version of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."
"At times the scene in the moist darkness resembled a Bosch painting—half naked bodies coated with brown slime, moving rhythmically to the music amid huddled figures curled sleeping in the mud at their feet in barbiturate or alcohol induced stupors."
The overall success and incredible turnout at Watkins Glen prompted other rock promoters to think seriously about staging single-day rock festivals. Rock-concert production was steadily growing more sophisticated and professional, and many of the new concepts employed in them were carried over into festival production. This was ultimately accomplished at the expense of the rich, unconstrained, natural improvisations that had made past festivals exciting for the festivalgoers and the media and precariously unstable for promoters, the local townsfolk, and the police.