By Lachman Balani
TORONTO: Considered fools for having actually purchased $10 tickets to the Summer Jam concert on July 28, 1973, three of us landed at Watkins Glen in upstate New York from nearby Ithaca a day earlier on July 27 so that we could position ourselves advantageously.
We were considered idiots because at that time the word had gone out that all the 150,000 tickets were sold, and, that like Woodstock, more people would show up and gatecrash for free. Woodstock was pretty fresh in people’s mind at that time.
An estimated 300,000 people were expected to come to the concert because unlike Woodstock where a multitude of musicians performed, only 3 bands were going to play at Summer Jam.
What ensued totally skewed up everybody. Much to the surprise of the organizers, people in the thousands showed up on July 27, ourselves included. Members of the three bands were already there to do sound checks. From our position right up front, we could see they were stunned but extremely pleased. The musicians simply known as ‘The Band’ came on first to do the sound check and gave us a few favourite songs.
Then came on ‘The Allman Brothers Band’ and to the delight of everyone played their signature number “Ramblin’ Man” along with other songs.
Following that stupendous rendition, the most anticipated band that had a monumental cult following in the US because of their well-known four-hour-long live concerts, songs that were relevant to Middle America and their well-publicised drug use- The Grateful Dead- indulged in their sound check! They gave us the customary 3-4 sound check songs and when they heard the roars of approval from the crowd, one simple nod from the leader Jerry Garcia to the rest of the band and the session turned into the most glorious sound check of all time as it mushroomed into a two set full blown concert marathon with the members jamming and improvising to their hearts content!
This was superlative material and has gone down in history as being the longest rock sound check ever, if one can call it that. It was a sonic feast for all those present!
The following day, 600,000 people congregated to see three of America’s top bands! The organizers were completely unprepared for a crowd of this magnitude! Cars were abandoned on the streets and roads leading to the venue as people ditched them to walk in the sweltering heat so as to catch the opening on time!
Historians claim that this was the largest gathering of people in the US where 1 out of every 350 Americans were present. Considering that the majority of the young fans were in the age bracket of 17 -24 and from the Northeast, that narrowed it down to 1 out of every 3 Americans being there to revel in that mind-blowing concert!
The Grateful Dead came on first and did themselves justice as pioneers of the rock jam bands jamming and extemporizing throughout their customary two- set concert.
Then came on ‘The Band’ whose performance was interrupted as heavy rains came down and everyone danced and sang as they do when the first monsoons hit India. After the rain stopped, they continued with their masterful performance.
Finally the Allman Brothers Band came on, playing yet unreleased songs and the crowd favourite “Whippin’ Post”. It was a day to remember!
Then to the total astonishment of all and to make the day even more memorable, members of all three bands joined together for a grand finale treating the crowd to the most amazing covers of established rock tunes ending with Chuck Berry’s rock anthem “Johnny B. Goode” with 600,000 fans joining in to sing all the lyrics. This was the most magnificent moment!
When the concert ended and the crowd dispersed, there was a heavy feeling hanging in the air as everyone knew that this superlative concert signified the end of the beautiful hippie era and its tumultuous times that started with the Monterey Pop Festival, matured at Woodstock and reached its stately eminence with this concert known simply as ‘The Summer Jam.’ Much would be written, sung, photographed, painted and filmed in celebration about these times that gave rise to musicians who stretched their imagination and skills to reach grounds that prior musicians didn’t even know existed.
That era will never return again!