Today in Grateful Dead History: July 27, 1973 – Grand Prix Racecourse, Watkins Glen, NY (The Watkins Glen Soundcheck)

stealieIn one of the more delightful ironies in a history filled with them, on this date in 1973 the Grateful Dead played one of their most legendary shows at a soundcheck on the night before they performed in front of 600,000 people on a triple bill with The Band and The Allman Brothers Band.

First, a little context.  This soundcheck came the night before Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, an enormous festival that was considered to be the largest outdoor pop festival of all time for many years.  According to Wikipedia (and confirmed by my elementary math), if the 600,000 person attendance figure is accurate, one out of every 350 people in the United States attended this concert.  So, as you can probably imagine, a huge crowd got there early, and The Band and The Allman Brothers Band each played short soundchecks in front of those intrepid souls.  But the Grateful Dead, because they’re the Grateful Dead, didn’t play a short soundcheck at all – instead, they came on, played for about 45 minutes, took a break and then came back on and did another 45 minutes, including the epic jam that made this show famous.

That the jam from this show is considered one of the greatest of all the Grateful Dead’s jams is a little surprising, seeing as how it was not a part of another beloved song like Dark Star, but instead evolved from a cold start and took off from there.  However, the lack of structure works here, allowing the Dead to go in several different directions, free from the shackles of a formal song.  And fly off they do, playing a brilliant 20 minute piece with at least three distinct themes – an opening, jazzier section, a second movement, beginning at the 14 minute mark, that could be the genesis for Fire on the Mountain (which wouldn’t come out for close to 4 years) and then a closing theme that resembles the transition into Going Down the Road Feeling Bad or I Know You Rider.  But, again, I’m just using these songs as musical reference points – the piece stands on its own.  (For much more on the jam and how this particular recording came to be, I strongly encourage you to read up on things at the Grateful Dead Listening Guide.  You can also hear it on So Many Roads.).

So, the jam is the thing here, but it’s not the only awesome musical moment – this is 1973, after all.  In fact, if it wasn’t for the jam, I think that this date would still be pretty well known because of the amazing Bird Song from the first “set”.  This is a very long Bird Song, one of the longest I’ve ever heard, and while it follows a fairly typical Bird Song structure, the playing after the halfway mark is remarkably free for a 1973 Bird Song.  There is also some thunderous bass work from Phil that drives the whole song, and Bob’s rhythm guitar, as usual, flourishes in and around Jerry’s amazing runs.  I love this one almost as much as the PNE Coliseum Bird Song on June 22nd and the much-hyped version from 1972’s all-time great show in Veneta.

Apart from these two songs, which are really all that you need, the Dead play a bunch of shorter material and a pretty good ten minute version of Wharf Rat.  I encourage you to listen to this show from start to finish and not skip around, in order to experience this amazing night as it builds towards that jam, just like the people who were there.

There are lots of recordings of this show – the AUD referenced on the Listening Guide gives you great bang for your buck, but is missing Sugaree.  That’s alright.  Listen here:


One thought on “Today in Grateful Dead History: July 27, 1973 – Grand Prix Racecourse, Watkins Glen, NY (The Watkins Glen Soundcheck)

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