It’s upstate New York in summer 1973, and hundreds of thousands of music lovers have abandoned their cars, creating one of the biggest traffic jams the U.S. has ever seen. Worried they will miss the start of the festival, they complete their journey on foot. But this isn’t Woodstock; this music festival is a much bigger deal. And yet hardly anyone will remember it.
The festival, Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, was held on July 28 that year at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway, nearly 250 miles northwest of New York City. It was scheduled to last just one day, with three acts confirmed on the lineup – The Band, Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. However, in an interview with the blog Alanpaul.net, the Allman Brothers Band’s tour manager, Willie Perkins, recalled a scene of “armageddon.”
Summer Jam organizers Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik only booked three bands, compared to more than 30 that played Woodstock. And, perhaps learning lessons from the three days of peace and music four years earlier, they limited tickets to 150,000 at $10 each. However, the three bands were massively popular at the time and organizers vastly underestimated the event’s draw.
Around 600,000 concertgoers descended on Summer Jam on that hot July day, which was roughly 200,000 more than Woodstock. Furthermore, many showed up a day early, turning the soundcheck into a public performance. And while show day, like Woodstock, was hampered by inclement weather, the three bands managed to draw their free-flowing jams into the early hours of Sunday morning. So why is Summer Jam largely forgotten?
Writer Rex Thompson has opined on why Summer Jam’s cultural significance was less relevant than Woodstock. The latter festival occurred at the end of the 1960s, a pivotal decade, and was connected to the activism against the Vietnam War. By 1973 people were moving on and U.S. involvement in that conflict had largely ended. Many festival goers, too, were so far from the stage that bands failed to connect. Furthermore, recordings of the event were scarce, meaning there was limited archival footage.