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Dead of the Day: July 27, 1973

Grand Prix Racecourse
Watkins Glen, New York

Our Dead of the Day comes from upstate New York back in 1973. The next night, the Dead played before a massive crowd at Watkins Glen raceway. But the recording we have here is an extended soundcheck for that show. Just listening to the cheers from the crowd – Heads who were camping out for the next night – makes clear, though, that this is far more than just a simple soundcheck. And while the tunes here lack a little of the flow of a full concert, they are as hot as just about anything the Dead played live. A Promised Land rips out of the gate to begin the night with everyone firing from the very beginning. From there, a Sugaree comes on the scene, initially sounding like two people in a closet are noodling on the theme, but quickly morphing into a full-on, resplendent version, held fast by Phil’s ringing bass and Billy’s sweet and simple drums. Following the Sugaree, they come back with a fun Mexicali before heading into one of the highlights of the soundcheck, an immense Bird Song. There is a clear New Speedway Boogie emerging before Jerry takes over and sends it into Bird Song, which was definitely for the best. While Bird Song is always good, listening to this incredibly jammed out – they reach some distant territory in the midst of the massive middle jam – you cannot help but wonder why they did not play such epic versions on a more regular basis. Regardless, this rendition is not to be missed. On the heels of the Bird Song, the boys fire up a stellar Big River, rolling right on down the river into another awesome tune in Tennessee Jed. After that, I am not quite sure what the boys get into, but it is a fun minute of music heading into a break, whereupon Jerry reminds everyone, lest they forget, that “this is only a test.” Coming out of the break, Phil makes sure everyone knows that this is still a test before rolling out a splendid, crisp Mississippi Half Step. Me And My Uncle then shoots out before a luscious and monumental jam appears. There are some hints of Fire On The Mountin in the jam, and some folks see this jam as not only the hightlight of the night, but an early precursor to the breakout of Fire four years later at Winterland. To our ears any resonances with Fire are simply serendipitous. Still, the jam is scintillating and focused, every moment worth savoring until it settles into Wharf Rat, which is itself out of this world. Finally, the boys put the cap on the soundcheck with a short, rocking Around And Around.

The next night was a summer music festival, The Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, featuring The Band, The Allman Brothers, and The Grateful Dead. Some 600,000 people came out for that show, making it the largest audience ever at a “pop festival” according to the Guinness Book of World Records. All three bands performed an extended soundcheck the night before with the Dead coming out last.

Judging by commentary on the internet, the festival was the highlight of the summer for many and a turning point in quite a few people’s lives. On Archive, a gentleman named Gary gives a fairly representative take on the soundcheck.

Summer Jam or bust! We drove Thursday afternoon from South Jersey to upstate New York for the time of our lives! Blew a head gasket on my 65 Chevy on the way, but pressed on anyway. Got to the outskirts of town and picked up a hitchhiker. He was a local and when we hit the traffic to get to speedway, he told us to turn around because he knew of a better way to go. We took the risk, and for sure, we entered on the back side of the speedway. After a morning of frisbee, we broke camp in the parking lot to try to get close to the concert entrance. When got to the gates it was already open and we set up our tent near the second set of speaker towers (center). Luckily there were boxes of bottled water in the field that we were able to gather. As we sat down to eat dinner, someone came on stage and said, "you don't mind if we tune up, do you?" "...that's when it all began..." It first was the Allman Bros (2hrs), then The Band (2 hrs), and finally the Dead (2hrs) for the start of the legendary "soundcheck" on the night before of the main event. What a night of music and partying. It was rounded off with Van Morrison piped through the speaker system. The next morming we woke up to a sea of humanity surrounding our tent.

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