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This was, by any standards, a massive festival. For a while it held the world record for the 'largest audience at a pop festival', though who at the Guiness Book Of Records decided that the Allman Brothers, The Band and the Grateful Dead were pop music had clearly had never heard them.
600,000 people turned up at the racetrack in New York to see just three bands play on one day. That was 1 in every 350 Americans at the time!
This 'Summer Jam' though was not a big cultural event the way Woodstock, Montery, Sky River or other earlier fests were. In that, it was the beginnings of the modern day festival. This was not a gathering of the counter-culture tribes in the way that festivals in the late 60s were. This was the new rock generation. Some were freaks and hippies, many were students or just people who liked the music but didn't see it as an act of revolution.
When it came to the music, the Dead played a 5 hour set! The Allmans put in a 4 hour stretch and the Band a mere 3! But it's reported that people were too hot and most were too far away to really get into it visually however the sound was great.
Bill Graham's FM Productions provided lights, staging and a 50,000-watt sound system. The sound system introduced a new concept: Digital delay lines to compensate for the speed of sound in air. New Jersey electronics company Eventide brought three digital delay units each capable of 200 milliseconds of delay. Four speaker towers were placed 200 feet from the stage, their signal delayed 175 ms to compensate for the speed of sound between the main stage speakers and the delay towers.
Six more speaker towers were placed 400 feet from the stage, requiring 350 ms of delay, and a further six towers were placed 600 feet away from the stage, fed with 525 ms of delay, the audio signal coming through all three modules.
All the music was recorded and some was filmed, but it's thought that the Dead nixed its use in an official album release. Bits have found their way out over the years, including a jam the Dead played at their soundcheck the previous day and 'Come And Go Blues' by the Allmans was included on their 'Wipe The Windows..' live record.
When you see the pictures of the sheer size of the crowd and the smallness of the stage and sound system, it goes to show how there was a disconnect between the demand for such a festival and the ability to supply it to a decent standard.
The following year, the first Cal Jam would get 200,000 people into a racetrack for a one day event. Everyone made money, the sound system was up to the job and it was broadcast on TV. Watkins Glen, in that context can be seen as one of the last significant cultural events where being there was almost enough...almost but not quite.
It's a shame there wasn't an official triple live album of the event because I bet the music played was awesome. Maybe one day.