Ask a music fan to name the most significant music festivals of modern times, and you’ll likely see their eyes glaze over with thoughts of Woodstock or the first Isle of Wight Festival. For members of The Band, those two were certainly monumental – but what about a festival that has been largely ignored by music historians? What about Watkins Glen?
The Summer Jam festival at Watkins Glen was organised by Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik, two young promoters who had recently cut their teeth setting up and promoting a concert for The Grateful Dead, during which members of The Allman brothers joined the likes of Jerry Garcia for an impromptu, extended jam. The success of the concert convinced Finkel and Koplik to organise the festival, an event that would later become known as Summer Jam. However, because the organisers wanted to keep Summer Jam to a single day, they agreed on adding one more act to the bill. After a bit of rumination, it was decided that because of their strong north-eastern fanbase, The Band would be the perfect fit.
From the off, Woodstock cast a looming shadow over Summer Jam. The counter-cultural carnage of those legendary three days left many things in its wake: A renewed sense of identity for those who attended, legendary status for those who performed, and a set of stringent bylaws which became known as The Mass Gatherings Act. These laws were designed to regulate the size of festival crowds and forced the organisers to limit ticket sales to 150,000. Regardless, the combined pull of the three acts led to an estimated 600,000 arriving at Watkins Glen. That’s roughly one in every 350 people in America at the time.
For The Band, Summer Jam was a very important moment. Rick Danko, a founding member of The Band, highlighted its significance when he said that, for the group, it went: “Woodstock, Isle of Wight, and Watkins Glen. Those were the big three.” Their performance there certainly followed a period of prolific artistic output, having already released ‘Music from The Big Pink’ in 1968, which featured songs such ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘The Weight’, and ‘Tears of Rage.’
After the critical and commercial success of their self-titled follow-up The Band in 1970, the group quickly attracted a lot of media attention. Judging from the name of their third studio album, Stage Fright, it’s clear that The Band were feeling the pressure. 1973, the year of their Sumer Jam performance, coincided with a low ebb in the group’s output. With the release of ‘Moondog Matinee’, an album featuring songs written by non-The Band members, and no tour to support it, Watkins Glen was surely treated as an opportunity to remind fans of the group’s musical clout.
To the surprise of the organisers, a large portion of the 600,000 people who attended Summer Jam arrived a day early. The Band, a little shocked by the sheer amount of faces in front of them, stumbled on stage.
Already, the crowd was one of the biggest they’d ever seen, so they went ahead and played an initial set to whet the appetite of the enormous, hungry audience. They immediately captured the audience’s attention with one of their most iconic songs, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Even in the crackly recordings, the joy of the festival-goers is audible as they sing the lyrics to that unforgettable chorus: “And the people were singing. They went, ‘Na, na, la, na, na, la”, whilst the group’s close harmonies gush from the sound system.
For the first half of The Band’s actual performance, it seemed as though nothing could stop them. ‘The Weight’ was followed by ‘Stage Fright’, and then by ‘I Shall Be Released’, showcasing the group’s seemingly endless supply of classic songs. In-between, meandering guitar solos and instrumentals joined one song to the next with effortless virtuosity.
However, when the weather turned and the clouds unleashed a deluge, The Band were forced off stage, saying that they were going to have to “knock off for 20 minutes”, much to the dismay of some of the soggier members of the audience, whose voices could be heard screaming: “Do something, do something!” as if their lives depended on it. In response, Garth Hudson went into an extended organ solo somewhere between Ligeti and Booker T Jones in style. In combination with the storm, it must have sounded more like the entrance music to the four horsemen of the apocalypse than the improvisations of a rock n’ roll keyboardist. It later became known as ‘Too Wet to Work’.
When they returned, The Band found that the audience was now standing in a field more akin to Passchendaele than New York. Almost in competition with the downpour, The Band offered up a torrent of their most joyful numbers, including ‘Up On Cripple Creek and ‘Rag Mama Rag’, both of which recaptured the audience’s enthusiasm with ease and surely warmed even the dampest of fans. Then, to end their gargantuan set, The Band slid into a honey-sweet instrumental version of ‘Amazing Grace’ which, thanks to the intricately woven textures of Rick Danko and Robbie Roberston’s dual guitars, achieved something close to the sublime before dissolving in a haze of drums, keys, and the cheers of 600,00 people.
The Band’s performance at Watkin’s glen is legendary. It easily could have been a complete disaster, but Summer Jam at Watkins Glen ended up being the biggest music event in history. Listening to the recordings taken of that day’s acts, it is impossible not to feel a little bit jealous of the people who attended, people who knew they were witnessing something which, decades later, would be looked back on as a defining moment in music.