It was about music too
THE “SUMMER Jam” at Watkins Glen may have been an important cultural event, the kind of full-blown adventure people like to be a part of, if only to be able to say they were there at whatever cost of discomfort. But the concert’s avowed purpose, to present the Allman Brothers, the Band, and the Grateful Dead in a setting designed to enhance their music, turned out to be a promise unfulfilled.
The idea of 600,000 people collecting in one place to see three groups at a single stretch is pretty absurd to begin with, yet Dead freaks from all over the Northeast and Canada collected like pilgrims at a sacred shrine, intent to get off on the general vibes even if they could neither see nor hear the music. By noon on Saturday, nobody was in a good position to listen to the Dead as they began the show with their four-hour set. Six different banks of p.a. speakers were distributed around the field, but none of them worked properly, leaving the audience with the effect of a car radio with a loose connection. The field area in front of the stage at Watkins Glen was much smaller than at Woodstock, creating the situation where those in the back were too far away to hear or see, while in the front everyone was caught up in a tangled mass of bodies, trapped against the cyclone fences in front of the stage.
The audience made the best of it, waiting hopefully to have the magic worked on them, but expectations often exceed possibilities and the Dead, perhaps a little awed by the massive crowd they had to project themselves onto, played a soporific, lackluster set through the hottest part of the afternoon. Toward the end they started to come on strong, playing a particularly inspired version of ‘Sugar Magnolia’, but it was too little, too late. The Dead have a history of playing poorly in large open-air concerts, but their failure to tie into the magic that brought half a million to see them has to stand as a major disappointment.
By contrast, the Band was a joy to hear, perhaps because less magic was expected from them up front, but in large part due to their tightly written, infectiously funky songs and Jaime Robertson’s soulful, stuttering guitar solos. People started to bounce when the Band played, but torrential rains halted their set twice and drove a large part of the crowd away.
When the Allman Brothers finally played at about 10.30 the crowd had thinned out considerably, but a biting wind had moved in behind the thunderstorm and shivered the wet, exhausted bodies that littered the field. The Allmans were superb, but only the most insensibly stoned participants were able to give attention at that point, The “summer jam” ended wet, sticky, and ultimately disappointing.
© John Swenson, The Village Voice, 9 August 1973