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 turned up at the racetrack in New York to see just three bands play on one day. That’s 1 in every 350 Americans at the time! This ‘Summer Jam’ though was not a big cultural event. In that, it was a forerunner of the modern day festival in that respect. This was not a gathering of the counter-culture tribes in the way that festivals in the late 60s were.
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. 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 good 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.