Friday, July 27, 1973
Grand Prix Racecourse – Watkins Glen, NY
There are Grateful Dead tapes that often become guidepost in a collector’s journey into tape trading. For me there is no doubt that the 1973 Watkins Glen tapes were just that. The shows from 07/27 and 07/28/73 have played critical roles in my tape collecting life, from sparking my initial desire to trade heavily, to becoming my first, and easily my most effective ever, trade bait in generating inroads to the world of the “huge tapers” - guys with 3000 hours of music. Watkins Glen carves the deepest vein in the landscape of my tape collecting life, and can be seen touching more branches and tributaries in my tape collecting than most any other shows. So personal did these tapes become for me, that I’ve often worn the alias of “Glen Watkins” in online forums, cast upon me by friends who couldn’t help but poke friendly fun at this aspect of my obsession.
Stepping into my own personal Wayback Machine and setting the dials for the early 1990’s lands me squarely within a stone’s throw of the first time I ever heard the 07/27/73 Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam. Oddly, unlike my many other experiences of hearing a passage of Grateful Dead music that would be forever burned into my soul, I can’t quite manage to call up the memory of the first moment I heard this tape. I find that somewhat strange, but in a way it leaves the sense that the music on this tape might have always been there, defying time and space, and thereby eluding the ability of a pinpoint landing when I look back. Given the powerful music at play, it doesn’t surprise me.
I do know that this was one of those five tapes that my good friend Fritz handed me after I got the sense that I needed to hear more of this band. Fritz was my Deadhead friend who had collected lots of tapes. He was the same fellow who *forgot* his tapes of 05/08/77 Cornell and 06/23/74 Miami in my car after our road trip up to The Mecca in Milwaukee during the Spring of 1989 to see the Dead. Almost by accident, this provided my very first steps down the road into Dead bootlegs. Looking back on that list of five tapes (he gave me 07/27/73, 03/24/73, 08/27/72, 12/06/73, and 02/24/74), I can only imagine the knowing smile that must have appeared on Fritz’s face as he left me with that pile of music. This was still some years before I actually started trading in earnest myself, so this music served more as deeply planted seeds and growing roots, than it did as beautiful flowers to pick from a garden – as Fritz is fond to say about certain shows he holds dear, these tapes did some “major imprinting” on my psyche. I listened to them a lot. They touched me at a deeper level because they weren’t commercial releases – there was no other way to come in contact with this music apart from knowing someone who had tapes. Up until this point I really thought that I could be fully satiated by whatever the then brand new Dick’s Picks series would offer up. That changed with this pile of tapes.
Eventually immortalized commercially in the So Many Roads Box Set, the Watkins Jam is probably one of the most widely circulating Dead tapes of them all, not trailing too far behind the 05/08/77 Cornell tape. And while I will save the discussion around the way some of the most famous “best ever” Dead tapes reach such status simply because they happened to make it widely into trading circles in stellar sound quality, this particular 1973 tape is deserving of the highest honors. In this case, the music lives up to the historic accolades. This one really should be in everyone’s collection, and maybe that’s why it is.
Because I knew all too well that many seasoned tape traders would be stumbling upon this site early on, I had to resist coming out and touting the glory of this show right away, because to do so would understandably cast a suspicious eye on the touter’s tape cred. I would absolutely have been skeptical myself if I stumbled upon a blog like this, and found the first post centered around the Watkins Soundcheck. So heavily circulated is this show, I would have had to wonder if the person writing about it even had more than 10 tapes at all. So, I suppose getting to this now is all part of my grand plan. Not to mention, did you notice that this show date lands squarely in the middle of the period of 1973 I hold as the greatest ever? Neat, huh? Chances are that you’ve already heard this show, and the big jam therein. Chances are also that you haven’t heard it in a long long time. And even more so, perhaps you’ve never listened to the AUD. Now’s the time.
So, what’s it all about? What’s the deal with this jam, anyway? The easiest way to describe it would be to say the Watkins Jam is one of the most prolonged musical satori experiences in all of Dead tape history. The band drops into the zone from the first notes, and remains there for a solid 21 minutes, all while allowing the music to change direction and color many times over. The jam demands repeated listening, as the opening spacey noodling only reveals its intricate connection to the rest of the jam after you hear where it leads, how it returns, and where it leads again. In the sections of the jam that are up tempo, there is the full embodiment of the 1973 Jazzy Dead jamming going on. Yet, there’s much more.
One of the coolest things about this jam is that it isn’t any of the classic 1973 jams at all. It isn’t a Playin’ jam. It isn’t Dark Star-ish; not Other One-ly. It isn’t even that wonderful Phil-inspired jazz jam that we only hear in 1973. Not only is it not any of those, it’s not any of those twice. There are two distinct jam sections in the Watkins Jam and both defy anything that was stereotypically 1973, the second one even more so than the first – Keith’s amazing lead off to the second jam always sends shivers up my spine. These jams embody the fluid acrobatic and lyrical dancing of Jerry Garcia’s playing style in 1973. And coupled with the rest of the band locking in and playing such intricately inspired counterpoint, it is easy to see how this jam somehow becomes one of the greatest musical events of the band’s entire existence. But, I’m not interested in starting up a debate around the best Grateful Dead show ever. What happens on this night is extremely unique. The themes in this jam never happened before, and amazingly, the band did not immediately work them into every show that followed.
The Watkins Soundcheck is made even more special for a number of reasons. This really was the sound check for the next day’s concert, not a scheduled show by any means. The set of music could have stopped at any time, although the band was clearly willing and interested in playing. They hadn’t played a concert since July 1st, and the setting was pretty grand. The fact that the big jam is so utterly unique unto itself also makes it so much more special, especially for any of us who have pretty much heard the complete canon of music from the entire year. It just defies everything.
And the jaw-dropping, spine tingling, continually expanding inspired flashes of musical oneness that go on and on and on, serve to fuse your heart to this music completely. The entire jam exhibits how this band could become five fingers on one hand. By the time they majestically angle into the quasi-Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad jam toward the end, you’re at a point where there is little else in existence beyond the bliss of the musical moment. Nothing beyond the Now has been going on for such a long time that as the psychedelic kaleidoscope of music forms into the carefree 1971-like romp of Goin’ Down The Road, it starts to boarder on more pleasure than one can take in. Yet the music is so heartfelt and so beautiful there is no worry of overload. This entire jam strums the strings of an instrument that is more than simply Rock music. In its ability to intertwine formless spacey improvisation into spiritually and physically uplifting move-your-body music, into a good old country-folksy-rocking homegrown underground Americana jam, this musical journey goes beyond. It transcends.
So, this soundboard recording has essentially always been in circulation. As I said, this tape typically turns up in every collection. It sounds fantastic. The entire set is a good time, Bird Song in particular is phenomenal. Phil’s repeated references to this being a test, being clever androids – it all lends to the fun. Then the big jam appears and burns away all fabric of reality, revealing the hidden truth of Grateful Dead music.
As I’ve referenced a few time now, I was lucky enough to be trusted by older tapers via online forum and e-mail relationships. Bill Degen was one of the first older tapers I met online, and he warmly shared his music with me (Bill taped quite a few classics including 09/16/72, 11/30/73, 07/31/74, and even Watkins Glen 07/28/73). Bill sent me his reels (all of his masters were lost in a house fire), and on one reel B-side was the Watkins Glen Soundcheck from 07/27/73. I paid it absolutely no mind because I had it in some freshly circulating SBDMR lineage, and of course, everyone had that date already. Why even bother listening to a reel copy of Watkins from back in the 70’s? It couldn’t offer any form of an upgrade at this point.
Eventually I found myself checking out the reel more closely (probably while transfering whatever was on the A side) when I noticed that in the hand written set list for 07/27/73 the Me & My Uncle was listed. That was odd, because this tune was missing from the circulating SBD. So I queued it up, fast forwarding my way to where I could hear the Me & My Uncle. But I went too far, and ended up a few moment after the song, a few minutes into the classic Watkins Soundcheck Jam itself. But something was different. I landed right where Phil’s bass hits its long droning notes that completely over saturate the SBD completely, overdriving every other instrument right off the tape. But that wasn’t happening here. Phil’s bass was droning, but not driving the tape beyond its ability to capture the music accurately. Interesting.
I listened a bit farther up to the point where the band kicks into the first true jam section, and I heard people in the crowd shouting and clapping at the transition. Now realize, at this point my ears understood what I was listening to as a SBD recording, one that was somehow alternately recorded as to have Phil at a different recording level. But the clapping and shouting were unmistakably the hallmarks of an audience tape, and in this case, one hell of an audience recording that sounded clear enough to mimic an old soundboard recording. I was already a good long way into my love of audience recordings by this point, so for me, this was a star aligning, synchronistic, “what did I do to deserve this?” moment. I had just stumbled upon an AUD of the Watkins Glen Soundcheck. An AUD?? Unheard of! I remember stopping the tape right then and there, not wanting to hear one minute more until I could arrange my listening experience into an optimal setting – this was all probably happening late some Tuesday evening after we had just gotten the kids to bed, etc.. and it wasn’t the right time to turn the stereo up to ten and melt into the music. I called my good friend Fritz and told him what I had found. A day or two later we had Fritz and his wife over for dinner, and somewhere between the main course and dessert Fritz and I made our way to my basement listening room and took the whole thing in together. Audience tape nirvana.
Right up to the taper getting busted by the gigantic roadie named “Tiny” as he screams into the mic, this a good five to seven minutes before the actual end of the jam. Somehow, this great taper bust being captured on tape in the middle of an amazing recording of one of the most amazing jams ever, made this tape even more special. I included this as filler on the first tape tree I even ran (The Watkins Glen 25th Anniversary Tape Tree), because I just had to share this amazing recording with anyone who would listen.
Years later, I was contacted by the actual taper of the Soundcheck (Bill’s reel copy of the date was not of his own recording. He didn’t arrive until the next day for the show proper) after he read my Watkins Glen story online somewhere. Man, the Internet is wonderful for that kind of thing. The taper, Jeff Siniawsky, hooked me up with his own master copies of both the 27th and 28th and I got them into circulation via the gdADT. But I’ll save the Siniawsky story for my review of 07/28 down the road.
More years later, again due to the Internet’s ability to connect us all, I was sent another audience recording of the soundcheck altogether – this time a stereo recording, not busted by Tiny, who was busy making trouble for Jeff. This new recording was even better than Jeff’s, yet of unknown lineage and taper. It beautifully feeds the mystery that exists even to this day of who was at Watkins and Roosevelt Stadium for both 07/31 and 08/01 always sitting way up front with this great recording rig. I’m still waiting for these masters to make their way out of the dusty past. They will, I’m sure.
It is this stereo recording, also seeded on the Audience Devotional Tree, that I want you to hear now. Frightfully clear and upfront, with incredible stereo separation of all instruments, this outdoor AUD recording easily battles for the top spot of best Dead AUD of 1973. The small amount of hiss speaks only to the fact that the mystery of this unknown taper still exists to this day. Worth noting here as well is the fact that these tapers went ahead and recorded on 07/27, when they had only come to record the next day. Realize that tapers had to prepare blank tape and battery supplies gauged to the event they were coming to tape. So, this was an unscheduled addition to the taping event, and they went for it. This without the aid of a 24/7 convenience store right across the street from the venue where they could restock on tape and batteries for the next day.
Living in the shadow of the big jam, yet not to be forgotten from this date, is the sensational Bird Song. Easily one of the longest of the year, this version exudes a psychedelic energy that overtakes the audience and provides the first hints that far more than a friendly extended soundcheck is happening. Billy’s drumming is fantastic, coming at you as if played by more than one single person. It’s a perfect example of where the jazz elements of 1973 were anchored. Phil leaps from note to note, playing his own lead lines throughout. And Jerry’s leads emanate that glorious 1973 characteristic of a bird swopping out of tree canopied shadows into the crystal clear diamond sunlight above again and again. But here it all happens in prolonged slow motion, as if on the back of a giant bird with massive wingspan causing it to take more smooth extended arcs as it sings its triumphant song to the sky. Bird Song seems to have matured many times over while the band wasn’t playing shows in nearly a month’s time. The band seemed to be bursting with the desire to play back into the magic center of their own musical experience on 07/27/73.
So take some time and let yourself settle into this audience recording version of a true classic. It provides every gift we ever look for in an AUD recording, and breathtakingly launches you down an unforgettable journey of Grateful Dead greatness.
07/27/73 AUD etree source info
07/27/73 AUD Download
And if you're interested in hearing the Siniawsky AUD with the taper bust, it is here: