Hive Five: Big Concerts With Big Draws

Bono and the Edge perform with U2 at the US Festival, May 1983. Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Simon and Garfunkel’s free concert in Central Park. The show, which was recorded for a live album and HBO broadcast, not only represented a reunion for the folk duo, who had been making solo albums in the 10 years since Bridge Over Troubled Water, but also holds the distinction of being the seventh highest attended live concert in history. 500,000 people descended on Central Park on September 19, 1981 to hear Simon and Garfunkel sing old hits like “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Boxer” and “The Sounds of Silence.” Though the biggest international concert ever was Rod Stewart’s 1994 New Year’s Eve show on Rio’s Copacabana Beach (estimated attendance: 3.5 million people) and a New York Philharmonic show in Central Park in 1986 holds the distinction in the U.S. (800,000 attendees), there are only a few American popular music concerts that come close to Simon and Garfunkel’s draw. In honor of their anniversary, Hive counts down the five other best-attended shows on our shores.

5. Blockbuster Rock Fest 1997

Is there anything more ‘90s than a festival sponsored by video-rental chain Blockbuster? Perhaps a festival sponsored by Blockbuster that featured headliners like Jewel, the Wallflowers, Matchbox Twenty, Bush and Counting Crows? But in 1997 a lineup like that was enough to lure 385,000 ticket-buyers to Texas Motor Speedway on a hot June day. When the ‘90s nostalgia train rolls in, remember that the decade wasn’t all about grunge, flannel and riot grrrl zines; as our No. 5 entry proves, sometimes it was about hundreds of thousands of Collective Soul fans singing along to “Shine” on a NASCAR track.

4. Woodstock

It’s no surprise that this 1969 weekend concert continues to be one the most attended concerts in U.S. history. Though its legacy has tarnished in the intervening years — with two crappy anniversary versions in 1994 and 1999 that ended in mud-fights and looting, respectively — its iconic performances more than make up for it (The Who doing “See Me, Feel Me” at 6 a.m., Jimi Hendrix’s closing set). Attendance was estimated at half a million people, but we prefer to think of it as 500,001, since at least one baby was born over the course of the weekend.

3. Summer Jam at Watkins Glen

So many concert-goers arrived a day early for this show, which drew roughly 600,000 fans to the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway in New York in July of 1973, that soundchecks by the Band, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead turned into shows in and of themselves. (The Dead’s soundcheck became a now-legendary two-set show, some of which is featured on the band’s 1999 boxed set So Many Roads 1965-1995.) Just how big was the crowd at Summer Jam? According to Robert Santelli’s book Aquarius Rising: The Rock Festival Years, “one out of every 350 people living in America at the time was  [there],”  and “close to one out of every three young people from Boston to New York was at the festival.”

2. US Festival

Think Apple is invested in music now? Years before iTunes graced our desktops, the company’s co-founder Steve Wozniak sunk millions into creating a festival that celebrated the intersection of music and technology, and even paid for the construction of a new venue near San Bernadino, California, to house it. In its second year (1983), 670,000 people braved the triple-digit heat of Memorial Day Weekend to see the Clash, U2, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, the Pretenders and David Bowie. Despite the huge crowd, Wozniak lost a reported $12 million on the show. Think about that next time you gripe about a 99-cent download fee.

1. Garth Brooks

The country-pop star doesn’t just have friends in low places. In order to fill Central Park with around 750,000 people, as he did on August 7, 1997, he had to have friends in places high, low and in between.  Like Simon and Garfunkel’s show, Garth Brooks’ Central Park gig was also free and broadcast on HBO to boffo ratings. And it had impeccable timing; the concert directly preceded the releases of Sevens, Brooks’s last true cross-over success before he started down the ill-conceived fictional-rock-star-theme-album road. Let’s just say that two years later, as “Chris Gaines,” Brooks wouldn’t have had quite the same success filling the Great Lawn.

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