The Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, and The Band performed at a huge concert 40 years ago in Watkins Glen, NY in 1973. Your intrepid blogger shares memories of that remarkable event.
I was 16 back then, and I had already been to lots of shows. It seems like I remember them all, but events like Watkins Glen in particular would always color the way I experience live music as I’ve made my way through life.
Three friends and I had decided to go there, maybe four hours from where we lived in Brewster, NY, to see three of the biggest bands of the day – The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and The Band. It was the summer of 1973, yet news of the event had spread virally, by word of mouth, long before there were such things as viral events. Just like today, word spread fast then, but about less things.
We left early the day before the concert in order to avoid the crowd that would be on the road the next day. However, by the time we were within twenty miles of Watkins Glen, we were surprised to encounter already immense traffic. This was a problem, not only because we thought we had left well in advance, but because the engine of our Peugeot was air-cooled and the constant stop-and-go caused the engine to overheat.
Eventually, we just pulled the car over and bid it adieu for a couple of days, and walked the last few miles to the show, joining tens of thousands of other people along the way. The situation was certainly unexpected, but what choice was there?
By late afternoon, we finally made our way into the concert grounds, and pitched a tent as a base of operations. Then we easily moved up to maybe thirty yards from the stage to enjoy a soundcheck that turned out to be the real first night of the show.
The Allman Brothers began with a two-hour check, then The Band came on for another two. It was obvious there were so many people already there that the concert organizers had decided to give everyone an extra day if the musicians were willing, which they were.
Now it felt like a festival, not just a long concert. It had required a lot of effort to get there, but something great was happening, something almost spiritual. The heat of the day had disappeared, and in the dim, clear light of evening you saw people everywhere, but you could get around with no problem, and settle down anywhere.
For me, it had become a gorgeous good time. Four hours into our unexpected free night, The Grateful Dead jammed for four hours more, until midnight. I remember Jerry Garcia, 31 years old and hair still black, thoughtfully surveying the unexpected ocean of people before him, numbering around 150,000 souls, most either sitting or lying down, in one of the mellowest, most peaceful summer evenings imaginable.
The actual concert began the next day. It dawned clear, but you could tell – it was going to get mid-summer hot. I woke up to feet all around me, as overnight it had gotten a whole lot more dense with people. But I was determined not to give up our hard-won spot near the stage.
The Dead started things off around noon, then four hours later The Band took the stage. Shortly into their set it began to rain like mad.
I recall Garth Hudson performing The Genetic Method during the storm, but everyone else onstage had taken cover. An hour or two later when the driving rain mercifully stopped, I beheld a sea of sopping-wet humanity, and I myself was caked past my knees in mud.
But still, it was summer, everybody kept it together, and I recall looking around and noticing it didn’t look like anyone had left. Soon as the rain let up, The Band came back out and resumed things where they had left off, and everyone forgot about the conditions and went back to listening to the bands they had come to see.
Personally, I was there to see the Allman Brothers. Their set the night before had merely whetted my appetite for more. I sorely regretted not having seen the original band with Duane Allman (my all-time favorite guitarist, then and now) and Berry Oakley in concert (both died in motorcycle crashes), and at this point wasn’t going anywhere until I saw and heard the band that they had become.
It was the Brothers and Sisters Allman Brothers, and they did not disappoint. They took the stage led by a 26-year-old Gregg Allman, with Dickey Betts, the elder statesman at 30, up front, and Chuck Leavell on the piano on stage right. Butch Trucks, Jaimoe, and Lamar Williams put down an impeccable backbeat for the band, which performed with an almost regal confidence and authority.
Halfway through their three-hour set, I could no longer ignore how loudly nature called, so I walked back to the facilities, which I don’t recall being bad considering the size and density of this crowd. For me, it was certainly the most memorable porta-john visit ever: the fabled Watkins Glen sound system, set up with the help of Bill Graham, was doing its job beautifully, as the strains of Les Brers in A Minor mingled with my own sweet relief.
I found my way back near the stage and by then it was just my friend Nancy and I, as my other two friends had moved back to the tent. Unfortunately, when we walked back to the original campsite, they were gone. I can’t say I was terribly surprised. Conditions had taken their toll on a lot of folks by then.
So we began the long midnight trek into town as, in the distance, the Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead had come together to perform Mountain Jam. It was well after midnight, and I was essentially asleep on my feet, having only semi-slept the night before, completely out in the open, under the stars.
Once back in town the sun began to rise, and we went into a diner, somehow getting a seat. A nice-enough guy was hitting rather persistently on Nancy, so we thought what the heck, let’s see if perhaps there’s a ride here. His car was a few miles out of town, and so, like everyone else, we rode most of the way on the hoods of other cars.
Once at his car, we did indeed manage a ride – all the way home. This was something of a feat, because there were about 200,000 other hitchhikers. I should still be there, out on the side of the road, thumb extended, trying to get home.
It was a gentle relief to finally make it back and clean off the mud with a blessed hot shower, instead of enduring a pounding rainstorm. My dad had put the front-page picture from the NY Daily News (where my mother was a reporter) on the refrigerator. It was an image of the crowd shot from the stage, and he had circled what he thought was me in red ink. I leaned in for a closer look, and indeed, there we were.
Then I went to sleep unconsciously for 18 hours, the longest I’d ever, and have ever, slept. Summer was still in full swing, so the next morning I took the family car for a couple of days, without permission, and thus began yet another opportunity for my parents to deal with their circa-1973 teenage son.
Thanks Mom and Dad for letting me go in the first place, and for not asking too many questions when I made it back home. It was a great time that I’ll never forget.