Central New York is gearing up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest concerts of all time.
An estimated 600,000 people attended Summer Jam, featuring the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and The Band at Watkins Glen on July 28, 1973. Approximately 150,000 tickets were sold, but an additional 450,000 fans were admitted for free after overwhelming the small Finger Lakes site and creating a miles-long traffic jam.
Anniversary concerts are taking place in New York City, Vermont, Washington D.C. and Florida — but the real party is here, near the original site. And wouldn’t you know it? You’ve got two options to choose from.
“Summer Jam 50″ will take place July 28-29 at Wonderland Forest, a brand-new 500-acre venue in Otisco, N.Y. The two-day event, taking place 15 miles south of Syracuse, will pay tribute to the original performers with Dark Star Orchestra (Celebrating the Grateful Dead Concert Experience), Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country (A Celebration of The Allman Brothers), and The Weight Band (Celebrating the Music of The Band) on both nights.
“Summer Jam ‘23: Celebrating 50 Years since Watkins Glen” will take place Saturday, July 29, at Lincoln Hill Farms in Canandaigua, N.Y. Doors open at 3 p.m., music starts at 3:30 with performances by Friends of the Brothers – Tribute to Allman Brothers Band, Terrapin Flyer – Tribute to the Grateful Dead, and The The Band Band (Tribute to The Band).
Both events are less than 100 miles from the Summer Jam 1973 site in Watkins Glen. Neither expect to draw anywhere near as big of a crowd as 50 years ago — Wonderland Forest has a capacity of just 5,000, according to promoter Dan Mastronardi — but that’s not the point. The point is to celebrate a historic event and celebrate the music.
Tickets for Wonderland Forest’s grand opening event have been sold to fans in 20 different states, Mastronardi said. Many of them were at the original concert, he added.
At Wonderland, Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country is planning to bring some special guests that were involved in the Allman family, and the Dark Star Orchestra will play a full two-set recreation of the Grateful Dead’s original show at Watkins Glen. The Weight Band also features guitarist Jim Weider, who performed at the original Summer Jam, according to Mastronardi; Weider also replaced Robbie Robertson in the reformed The Band in 1985.
“It’s going to be pretty cool,” Mastronardi said. “If we’re going to recreate something, we wanted to recreate something special.”
Alan Paul, bandleader for Friends of the Brothers and author of “Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Album That Defined the 70s,” told syracuse.com | The Post-Standard that his group won’t try to perfectly imitate the Allman Brothers Band’s Summer Jam set at the Lincoln Hill Farms concert.
“This is just special for us… I’ve seen some tribute bands they’re a little too precious, like try to play it exactly like the band,” Paul said. “I don’t know if this makes any sense but to us, it’s holy… like the only way to honor the music is to put yourself into it. … Because that’s what they did they didn’t play the same things every night the same way.”
“I’m really excited about it,” Paul added.
Paul told syracuse.com | The Post-Standard that he started Friends of the Brothers for a tribute to Butch Trucks in 2017, but kept the music going because it meant so much to them.
“It was emotionally satisfying to do it for Butch and we all had fun playing together and playing the music,” Paul said. “I mean, we just really love it so every time we play, even though we’ve played a lot more now, we try to bring that same spirit like we’re playing in memory of Butch and Gregg and Duane… The music is just timeless.”
Summer Jam history
In 1973, Summer Jam overwhelmed a small village of 3,000 people when hundreds of thousands of people showed up at The Glen, the home of Watkins Glen International racetrack. The estimated crowd of 600,000 ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records for “largest audience at a pop festival,” holding the record for years.
By comparison, the original 1969 Woodstock festival drew a smaller crowd of about 450,000 people to Bethel. Woodstock organizer Michael Lang planned a “Woodstock 50″ concert at Watkins Glen in 2019, but the event fell apart due to financial and organizational issues.
Despite having a larger crowd, Summer Jam doesn’t have the same reverence as Woodstock. Part of that is due to the larger three-day lineup at Woodstock — which included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone, and, yes, the Grateful Dead — but also how well Woodstock was documented, including an Oscar-winning film and soundtrack recording that launched then-unknown artists like Joe Cocker and Santana into the stratosphere.
“I think Woodstock in 1969 was sort of an earthquake to the mainstream culture because hippies were considered sort of a fringe countercultural movement and the size and scope of what happened. There was a little bit of a wake up call to mainstream America of just how viable it was and just how large it was,” Paul said.
Andy Aledort, who co-wrote another of Paul’s books, “Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan,” pointed out that many teens who were too young to go to Woodstock likely seized on the opportunity to go to the next big festival in Upstate New York four years later, according to Paul.
“Those kids who were that age, say 14 to 18, were too young to go to Woodstock four years earlier but old enough to be really aware of it,” Paul said. “[It] was like looking through the plate glass windows and they all were sort of determined. Like, ‘Well if anything like this happens again, you know, I’m going.’ And they went and so that was a big part of it… it’s just kind of incredible.”
According to New York State Police, Summer Jam was generally peaceful despite having a city-sized crowd estimated as high as 650,000. Troopers made 13 felony arrests, 71 misdemeanor arrests, and 49 vehicle and traffic arrest (14 for driving while intoxicated). No violence was reported, but Willard “Smitty” Smith Jr., a 35-year-old skydiver from Syracuse, died when two flares he was holding ignited while attempting to parachute into the concert grounds; his body was found in the woods about a half-mile away.
Paul said Summer Jam could have been a book by itself, but he learned a lot of stories beyond the concert during interviews for his new book, “Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Album That Defined the 70s.” For example, there’s a chapter on how Gregg Allman went to drug rehab in Buffalo after the band broke up in 1976 and performed at a Canisius High School assembly with a local bar band after some students wrote him letters; his then-wife Cher attended, too.
How to attend Summer Jam anniversary concerts
Tickets for Summer Jam 50 at Wonderland Forest are available through wonderlandforest.com. Single-day tickets start at $75, two-day passes start at $125; camping options are also available.
Wonderland Forest is located at 4812 South Cook Road, LaFayette, N.Y., near Beak & Skiff Apple Orchard and the site of the LaFayette Apple Festival. Gates open Friday at 11 a.m. Friday, July 28 (with music starting at 4 p.m.) and gates open at 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 29 (with music starting at 1).
Tickets for Summer Jam ‘23 at Lincoln Hill Farms are on sale through tixr.com. Prices are $35 in advance and $45 on the day of the show; additional fees may apply.
Lincoln Hill Farms, located at 3792 NY-247 in Canandaigua, is about three miles from the CMAC (Constellation Brands – Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center) amphitheater. Doors open at 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 29; music begins at 3:30.
“Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Album That Defined the 70s,” by Alan Paul, is available through Amazon.com and other book retailers.
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