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Published: 2011/07/01
by Josh Baron

On Your Marks: From Ball Things Reconsidered (The Phish Festival Newspaper)

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

Watkins Glen. Remember the name. They’ll be talking about the huge rock concert at the upstate New York community in the same way they’ve talked about Woodstock. But, by comparison, the crowd staggered the mind as 600,000 rock buffs streamed in for a one-day concert inside the race track. They came by car. By truck. By motorcycle. On foot. They transformed the grounds into a massive bivouac…sleeping, rapping, singing until the 12-hour show began. Remember the name. Watkins Glen.Sunday News, July, 29, 1973

Up until the Summer Jam concert in 1973—a one-day show featuring The Band, The Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead—the village of Watkins Glen was known mostly for its renowned racetrack that had begun 25 years earlier with the first post-World War II road in the U.S. dubbed “The Day They Stopped the Trains.”

Approaching Watkins Glen International raceway today, one can imagine the now-vintage sports cars careening past barns and hay bales and down winding roads past rolling pastures. Time hasn’t stood still in Watkins Glen but it has, seemingly, moved as slow as the turtle crossing the road we swerved to avoid yesterday.

So, when Phish approached the venue about hosting a music festival, the reaction was understandably lukewarm. “There are a number of people still living here [that were here for the ’73 concert] and we play very well with our neighbors,” says Brett Powell, Senior Director of Marketing, Fan Experience of Watkins Glen International. “We take things pretty slow.”

Four years ago, Powell began exploring the idea of bringing music events back to the raceway. Some time after—about a year and a half ago by accounts—Phish approached the venue to explore opportunities.

“I first came here with [Red Light Management founder] Coran [Capshaw] in March of 2010 and we really liked it because it’s got some bones to it— this is different, unique and vibey,” says Phish tour manager Richard Glasgow who also helps oversee the band’s special events.

“It was always a ‘what if’ site,” says Phish management’s Jason Colton suggesting that the Watkins Glen seed existed perhaps over a decade ago.

“We liked it but [the Watkins Glen residents] were reluctant because of what happened on that campground over there,” Glasgow says gesturing toward the Dakotas, Oklahoma and Arkansas campgrounds which were ground zero for Summer Jam, which reportedly had 600,000 in attendance.

The now-legendary show, which lasted some 15.5 hours, was only expected to draw between 150,000 and 200,000 people. The overflow resulted in a third of the crowd settling for spots nearly a half-mile away from the stage and out of visual range of the performers. Nevermind the gridlock and lack of waste management that plagued the area in a town that normally —then and now—boasts a population of less than 3,000 (for more on Summer Jam, check out this feature, just posted to the site).

Despite the chaos, Henry Valent, the head of Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corp. in 1973, told reporters a few days following the concert that, “The kids were just wonderful. I would say that 99 percent of those young people were fine, fine youths. Sure there was dope and drinking, but for a crowd that size, they behaved admirably well. Under similar circumstances, with an older element, I don’t think they’d put up with it. These youngsters seemed to enjoy the Spartan experience.”

So to soothe any residual fears from ‘73, Glasgow and his Phish team flew the sheriff, some track officials and a local politician to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. last April to show them how a modern music festival functions. (Phish’s previous festival, Festival 8, was held in the same venue in October ’09.) “That really started the process,” says Glasgow astride a bike in the shadows of the Super Ball’s Ferris wheel.

And in regard to how it would be far easier for the band to return to the same site for their festivals, Glasgow responds succinctly: “We don’t want it to be easy—we want it to be great.”

Rumors already abound about what’s going to make Super Ball IX special for fans that made the trek. A popular one has to do with the campsites being named after the seven states where Phish has not performed—the theory being that the band could do some sort of late night flatbed truck jam ala the ’96 Clifford Ball and quickly “play” all the remaining states. (It should be noted that former Phish tour manager Brad Sands is still responsible for naming all the campgrounds though Glen Close is Colton’s brainchild.)

Another fun rumor, playing to the festival’s namesake, centers on the return of the “Big Ball Jam,” which was a staple for a period in the early 90’s. The jam featured the release of four large balls from the stage—each representing one of the band members—with the band improvising to the balls’ movements as they bounced over the crowd.

And then, of course, there is the simple and age-old experience of hoping for a particular song to be played. Longtime Phish artist Jim Pollack, who’s helping raise funds for the Waterwheel Foundation this weekend, says he’s hoping for “The Wedge.” “I’m told they might be pulling out some Gamehenge stuff,” he adds. “I like some of that nerdy, early Trey music.”

If the band’s hour-long soundcheck that began at 4pm was any indication, the seven announced sets portend music both focused and exploratory. Opening and closing with freeform jams that vacillated from groove-based to mildly psychedelic—the Grateful Dead’s famous ’73 soundcheck furtively lingering in the late afternoon’s shadows—Phish worked through a brief selection of four songs in between. (Fun fact: they also soundchecked “Undermind” and “Sleep Again” at Festival 8.)

Whatever goes down, rest assured that you’ll once again remember the name: Watkins Glen.

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