The Grateful Dead are a band who can always draw a big crowd of revellers. Their fans are happy to travel across the globe following the group but, even by their high standards, they must have been impressed by the 600,000 people who showed up to the Watkins Glen Summer Jam in 1973.
Only four years after the iconic mega-event Woodstock Festival in 1969, 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.
The comparison to Woodstock is unavoidable, least of all because of the venue and perhaps most of all because of the number of attendees. But while the legendary festival was a gigantic event, it only drew around 250,000 people which, in comparison to the summer jam, is frankly minuscule.
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, the entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “largest audience at a pop festival”.
On the afternoon of the day before the event the organisers had achieved their goal and sold 125,000 tickets, confirming it as a sell-out. 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.
Often described as the biggest youth movement of the time, in Robert Santinelli’s book Aquarius Rising he more accurately portrays the festival’s vastness: “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.”
Somehow, despite the huge numbers of people, crime remained minimal. Although there was an abundance of nudity and drugs and claims of a stolen pig from a nearby farm, the festival went by relatively unscathed. Simply put, and reported by The Guardian, the event saw four road deaths, fifty arrests and one birth. Though two teenagers also disappeared on their way to the site.
As the openers for the event, The Grateful Dead performed two sets and as well as bringing out some classics like opening with ‘Bertha’ and giving run-outs to ‘Jack Straw’, ‘Box of Rain’ and ‘Wharf Rat’. The mammoth double set also provided covers of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. It’s vintage Dead and sees the band nearing the peak of their powers.
Below you can find some of the footage that sees the Dead continue to affirm their position as one of the biggest live acts to have ever graced the stage. As well as that, the footage further below is a bootleg recording of the entire event.
Source: Rolling Stone