True-Life Rock Tales

Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, Part Two

Issue 147

In Part One (Issue 146) Ken talked about his journey to Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, which took place on July 28, 1973, and his experiences at the festival, which featured the Allman Brothers Band, the Band and the Grateful Dead. In this concluding installment, he examines some then-new and radical live-sound technology and remembers the good – and the bad – about the event.

For Summer Jam, the then-fledgling pro audio company Eventide was hired by Bill Graham’s FM Productions company to fix the problem of the live sound from the stage being out of sync with the speakers placed farther out into the audience. They brought three DDL 1745 Digital Delay Line units for use in the event’s massive outdoor sound reinforcement system. The DDL 1745 was the world’s first piece of digital professional audio hardware, and Summer Jam was the first time it was used. This unit would revolutionize large-scale sound system quality.

 

Eventide DDL 1745 Digital Delay Line. Courtesy of Eventide Audio/A.Agnello.

 

The Eventide DDL 1745 had the capability of up to 200 milliseconds of adjustable delay time. In the Summer Jam sound reinforcement system, besides the on-stage speakers, there were four additional speaker towers that were located about 200 feet from the stage, and more towers that were located about 400 feet farther away from those (around 600 feet from the stage). Previous to the use of these delay units, the sound from the towers farther away from the stage would be noticeably out of sync with the main towers and with the onstage visuals, because of the speed of sound as it travels through the air (about 1,100 feet per second), and the fact that sound travels much more slowly than light.

The DDL 1745 was a brilliant solution to the problem. 350 milliseconds of delay was applied to the sound towers located 400 feet away from the stage, and 525ms of delay was added to the sound coming from the farthest towers. As a result, the sound from the onstage amplifiers and PA system and the sound from the more distant speakers arrived to listeners who were far from the stage at approximately the same time, giving everyone a much better audio experience.

The Eventide DDL 1745 incorporated a module had a bunch of 1,000-bit shift-register integrated circuits. Yikes! who knew there were computer chips in 1973? And yes, these units were expensive, each one was, as the Eventide website puts it, approximately the cost of a new car back then. Another benefit of the more balanced sound was that the people in front were not blown away by the increased volume that would have been required by the attempt to reach the people in back. This new sound application became the standard for all large events going forward. To this day, such sound towers are commonly known as “delay towers.”

 

The sound booth at Summer Jam showing the DDL 1745 delay units. Courtesy of Eventide Audio/A. Agnello.

The sound booth at Summer Jam showing the DDL 1745 delay units. Courtesy of Eventide Audio/A. Agnello.

******

As I was watching the Band’s set with my friends Lanny and Jim, a group of four skydivers jumped out of a small airplane. Pretty cool; they had flares that bellowed orange smoke as they dropped into a nearby field. However, afterwards, one of the skydivers was found burned to death in the woods close by. It seems his flare ignited his jumpsuit on the way down. Yet that was the only fatality at the festival, though approximately 150 people were treated for minor injuries and problems from ingesting too many drugs or bad psychedelics.

Maybe about an hour into the Band’s set the sky began to darken, and it looked like a serious rain was going to fall. We decided it was time to go; we had heard all of the groups if you included the time we were able to hear the sound checks. We had gotten the lay of the land, so to speak. We drove back on our motorcycles the way we came in, worming our way through the backstage crowd and then past all the wandering people and abandoned vehicles. That turned out to be a smart move on our part.

We didn’t see any of this first-hand, but heard about it from reports. The Band had left the stage as the skies opened up. Levon Helm’s remembrance of this moment in his autobiography was that the band members drank some Glenfiddich whiskey and then watched as Garth Hudson returned to his keyboard for “The Genetic Method,” his effort at driving away the rain through the process of this extended solo. Titled “Too Wet to Work” for this particular performance, Garth traveled through numerous musical landscapes, until the weather dissipated and the Band returned to the stage. Everyone gave him credit for stopping the rain.

 

By the time we hit Route 16 the rain came pouring down, but we were ten miles away from the festival site and now we were easily moving down the road, heading in a southeastern direction. Riding in the rain is certainly no fun, not to mention that being on two wheels makes it quite dangerous. We stopped and took shelter under a bridge. The rain kept up and did not look like it would be stopping anytime soon. In the distance, we saw the lights of a Ramada Inn. Jim said, “let’s go for it!” and we hopped on our bikes and raced over. We got a standard room with two beds. Lanny got one bed and Jim got the other. Being the youngest, they gave me the choice of either the chair or the floor. That was okay with me.

Later the torrential rain slowed and then stopped. We debated whether to spend the night in our run-down motel room or to hit the road and go home. We opened the door and stepped out to the parking lot, and saw a sky full of stars. It had cleared up and we made our decision –  rather than spending the night in that depressing room we decided to head home.

According to reports, the concert went on with various delays and ended about 3 am with an all-in two hours of an often sloppy and sometimes brilliant jam. “We always loved playing with the Allman Brothers,” said Bob Weir in an interview that Alan Paul and Blair Jackson did for Parade magazine at the time. “It was clear from the first time we played together that we were kindred spirits.”

It is not clear whether Weir meant to say the jam was great or terrible – but Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks was far more direct in his assessment in the Parade interview: “the jam was just ridiculous, because by the time we all got together everyone was f*cked up – and f*cked up on different drugs. The Band was all drunk as skunks and sloppy loose, the Dead were full of acid and wired in that far-out way, and we were all full of coke and cranked up. You put it all together and it was just garbage. While we were playing, we thought it was the greatest thing the world had ever heard, but then we listened to the playbacks.”

 

Five months after the landmark concert, the Allman Brothers played the Cow Palace in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve, in a performance nationally broadcast on radio. The Dead were off that night, and Jerry Garcia and drummer Bill Kreutzmann sat in for much of the second set and encore, with Kreutzmann taking over for Butch Trucks, who was dosed with LSD and was unable to continue playing. The friendship between the two groups continued to grow stronger, but they would never again share a bill. My thinking is that both groups became such big headliners that economically the only way to for them to play on the same bill would be in a festival setting. Those circumstances do not happen very frequently.

Back at Watkins Glen the first deluge had turned everything to mud, with half-naked fans joyfully dancing in mud puddles. Seemingly, most of the attendees were stoned. Some of those who took reds and Tuinals passed out in the mud while their friends, totally oblivious, danced on.

The concert ended before dawn. People were trying to leave before the sun came up and the roads quickly became impassable as everyone was trying to leave simultaneously. Those without rides attempted to hitch. All were unsuccessful, nothing was moving, so quite a few of those hitchhikers wandered into the village of Watkins Glen. Soaked and shivering in their wet clothes, they huddled anywhere they could. It was not a fun moment. When the sun came up, they warmed up and dried out, and were no longer miserable, but still filthy.

“The news reported there were 600,000 there and maybe two million people in the area and it was declared a disaster area,” recalled Weir (in an old Grateful Dead fanzine). “As disaster areas go, it was a pretty nice one, but people who were interested in going home, for instance, well, they couldn’t. If they wanted to leave, it just wasn’t possible. People had to be peeled away layer by layer.”

The all-day exodus was a slog. Every road was packed with cars and hitchhikers holding signs. Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Toronto. Jacksonville, Macon. Just about everywhere on the North American continent, particularly the Northeast.

Back at the concert site what remained was a disgusting mess. Phewy, a sea of stinky garbage so thick and muddy it covered the entire 90 acres of the concert area. Previously, it had been a beautiful grassy knoll. The promoters said they had contracted a bulldozer for a cost of $10,000 to clear the garbage, but till that happened the area would reek of a smell so thick that in the heat of the humid summer days it was said you could almost see steam rising from the manmade swamp. Then, there was also the problem of abandoned cars left on the roads and even in the woods.

The show had run over mostly due to rain delays and three very long sets by the bands, followed by the two-hour jam. Despite all the difficulties, the bands went all in. This was the reason why they got into music, for these moments.

 

The crowd at Watkins Glen and the speaker delay towers. Courtesy of Eventide Audio/A. Agnello.

The crowd at Watkins Glen and the speaker delay towers. Courtesy of Eventide Audio/A. Agnello.

 

In his book, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, official Grateful Dead historian Dennis McNally reported that the county sheriff said, “We have four or five times as many people here as we have at our races, and we are getting less than half the trouble. These kids are great.”

That is amazing considering that Summer Jam at Watkins Glen was purported to have been the largest outdoor rock festival in history according to many experts and historians. It made the Guinness Book of World Records as the “largest audience at a pop festival.” I do not know if that record still stands. In essence, that meant that on July 28, 1973, one out of every 350 people living in America at the time were there and were listening to those three bands. 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 New England and the New England area were at the festival.

 

Watkins Glen Summer jam poster, 1973.

 

The promoters, Jim Koplik and Shelley Finkel, paid the Dead and Allman Brothers $110,000 each (I can’t confirm what The Band got, probably less because of how they were added to the festival later). Ticketron handled the advance sale of tickets, with only a limited supply to be available at the gates, which opened July 27 at noon the day before the event. At that point it was organized and under control, so they also had some walk-up ticket sales. People who had planned to be there (and most likely all of them were legit ticket holders) had brought tents and camping gear. They came early and benefited from their foresight. They were comfortable and they got the seating areas with the best views.

In the vicinity of 150,000 tickets were sold for $10. The crowd far exceeded that number, reaching an estimated 600,000, making it a free concert for the other 450,000 of those who had crashed the so-called gates. It was reported by some attendees that at least at one of the rear entrances had no one there to collect their tickets; they just walked in. Despite ticket sales grossing in the vicinity $1,500,000, the promoters had stated that they would most likely only net about $200,000 in profit.

This was a lot of work for these promoters. Do not think that this was an easy job. It took many months to set the festival up. Most likely the work had started a year in advance and got more and more intense as the date for Summer Jam approached. The event was a success, which was amazing considering how many things that had the potential of killing the project or going wrong. The bands were great both in spirit and demeanor. They gave it their all and played their asses off.

Header image: the Grateful Dead at Watkins Glen. Courtesy of Eventide Audio/A. Agnello.

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