We’re dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to take look back at one of The Grateful Dead’s largest performances as they played ‘Wharf Rat’ for 600,000 people on this day in 1973.
We’ve all heard of the Woodstock festival in 1969. How it changed the course of musical history with its keen intent on free-spirited creativity and the gigantic mass of people it welcomed. But what people tend to forget, was that there was a supremely bigger event just four years late—the Watkins Glen Outdoor Summer Jam.
Just a couple of years after the cultural touchstone of Woodstock, at the same upstate New York venue, The Grateful Dead joined the Allman Brothers and The Band on a line-up which would bring in well over half a million people and be one of the most impressive performances of all time.
Watkins Glen dwarfs Woodstock’s numbers largely down to the ridiculously cheap price of tickets. It was only $10 a ticket and that included parking and camping, it was a positive free-for-all and one that attracted a swathe of the rock and roll generation. It was, for a time, a part of the Guinness Book of World Records as the “largest audience at a pop festival” entry.
After the event organisers had achieved their goal and sold 125,000 tickets, confirming it as a sell-out, they set about opening up the rest of the site to the public. It meant that financers were happy to leave the gates open and allow the extra half a million people walk through the gates unimpeded. It must have been quite the sight for the small town of 2,700 people as they were constricted by the gigantic crowds.
In Robert Santinelli’s book Aquarius Rising he adds some context to the numbers: “Many historians claimed that the Watkins Glen event was the largest gathering of people in the history of the United States. In essence, that meant that on July 28, one out of every 350 people living in America at the time was listening to the sounds of rock at the New York state racetrack.
“Considering that most of those who attended the event hailed from the Northeast and that the average age of those present was approximately seventeen to twenty-four, close to one out of every three young people from Boston to New York was at the festival.” Let that sink in a second. Madness.
It meant The Grateful Dead had a great crowd waiting for them when they took the stage and begun their epic exploration of music, as they did every time they stepped on stage. Performing two sets (as usual) and as well as bringing out some classics like opening with ‘Bertha’ and giving run-outs to ‘Jack Straw’ and ‘Box of Rain’, the mammoth set also provided covers of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.
It’s vintage Dead and sees the band nearing the peak of their powers but perhaps the greatest moment of the performance, of most Dead performances actually, was the stunning version of ‘Wharf Rat’ they provided. Naturally, the song takes on a life of its own under the tutelage of Weir and Garcia but it still reeks of the class and quality they lay on everything they do.
So while it’s not quite watching one of your favourite bands amid a mass of sweating bodies, it is a vital taste of live music, one we need now more than ever.
So sit back and get transported, just for a few moments, to The Grateful Dead performing ‘Wharf Rat’ for 600,000 people.