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In the summer of 1970, the year after Woodstock and Altamont, a crazy collection of future legends of rock and roll took a train across Canada, playing (in every sense of the word) en route as well as stopping for concerts in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary.

The Band, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and a dozen lesser lights sang, drank, and communed across the map between June 27 and July 4, while cameras recorded the escapade. “This was kind of like a traveling circus,” remembers Ken Pearson, a member of Joplin’s band. “It was a train full of insane people careening across the Canadian countryside,” Dead guitarist Phil Lesh recalls. People got very little sleep, Buddy Guy says, “because every time I went to bed I was afraid I was gonna miss something.”

The brainchild of 22-year-old promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton, the Festival Express would bring shows to the people rather than forcing them all to gather in one place for a concert. It incidentally proved to be a terrific bonding experience for the musicians, who were accustomed to whisking in and out of a venue without getting much hang time with the other performers. “Somebody on the train said Woodstock was a treat for the audience, and the train was a treat for the musicians,” relates journalist David Dalton.

Fondly remembered by its participants, the event remained largely unknown to the wider world until the passage of more than a third of a century. “Festival Express” tidily rescues this odd tale.  Along with “Riding Giants,” it provided a welcome alternative to 2004’s hue and cry of (and over) “Fahrenheit 9/11” and a dozen other political documentaries.

Why did the story take so long to get to the screen? A legal dispute with Walker forced producer Willem Poolman to stash the reels away in his garage indefinitely. Some material was taken by people as mementos. A young member of the production crew, Bill O’Farrell, had the foresight to collect as many reels as he could find and squirrel them away at the National Archives in Ottawa, telling them, this will be worth something someday.

In the 1990s, film researcher and music enthusiast Garth Douglas dug up the long-lost negatives and audio tapes at the archive, and began the long job of putting it all together. Original producer Poolman’s son Gavin became the producer for the revived project. Bob Smeaton, director and co-writer of the “Beatles Anthology” project and “Hendrix: Band of Gypsies,” was brought in to direct. In the end, about 46 hours of an original 75 hours of negatives survived; 15 hours had never been printed.

The footage of Joplin is the greatest find. The filmmakers save her first appearance for the second major stop, Winnipeg, where she hits the stage for “Cry Baby” with a scream that most singers would have saved for the climax of their set. She wears no makeup. She scratches her head onstage, unselfconsciously. What modern pop star would do any of this? Blue lights in the stage array give Joplin’s pupils an unearthly glow. During a break in the music she talks to the audience about the repeated heartbreak of men racing off to Casablanca or somewhere else far away to “find” themselves. “You know where your life is? It’s waiting like a god-damned fool right here!”

At the final stop in Calgary, she tears into “Tell Mama,” but only after presenting Walker and Eaton with a couple of gifts onstage. “I finally met someone who can throw a better party than me.” One present is a model train mounted on a board and signed by all the musicians. Then, “This box is from me: It’s a case of tequila. The train is for remembering, the tequila is for continuing.” Most memorably, she adds, “Next time you throw a train, invite me, man.” Although she is light and energy and joy itself in nearly every frame, Joplin has but three months to live before her accidental death on October 4.

There are also fine sets of the Band doing “The Weight” and “I Shall Be Released” (with doomed Richard Manuel singing a wailing lead and looking like some sort of demented street Jesus), Buddy Guy’s blistering rendition of “Money (That’s What I Want),” and the Dead churning through “New Speedway Boogie,” “Friend of the Devil,” and “Don’t Ease Me In.”

Curios include Danko leading a howling sing-along of “Ain’t No More Cane” on the train with Janis and Jerry Garcia (who afterward tells her “Janis, I’ve loved ya ever since the day I saw ya”), and the snatch of a grand jam on “Sunshine of Your Love,” also on the rails.

All but the most knowing Yankee fans will be pleasantly surprised by the fast blues instrumental “Comin’ Home Baby” by Mashmakhan, a Canadian band that sold big in Japan and elsewhere but is not much known south of the 49th parallel. On the other hand, Sha Na Na look as out of place here doing “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay” in gold lamé suits as they did with “At the Hop” in “Woodstock.” The Burritos, who have already lost Gram Parsons, look like shaggy white suburban kids in nice button-down collared shirts tucked into their jeans, doing a fairly pedestrian rendition of “Lazy Day.” And though Sylvia Tyson looks terrific in her burning orange dress and long black hair, a little bit of her mezzo vibrato goes a long way on “CC Rider.” (Heaton reportedly edited a long-winded bass solo from this performance, which has Great Speckled Bird and quite a bit of the Dead backing the Canadian folk artist.)

The trip at the time wasn’t all sweetness and light. Like the Isle of Wight Festival, Festival Express encountered difficulty with fans demanding to be let in free. Woodstock had set a bad precedent by not charging most of its listeners because the organizers had pre-sold the lucrative broadcast rights. Along the Canadian route, a boycott movement squelched ticket sales, miniature riots occurred at the city stops, and the promoters ended up taking a bath. By the time they got to Calgary, a mayor bent on appealing to young constituents demanded a free concert for all. Walker refused, and remembers: “He called me an Eastern scum and a capitalist rip-off son of a bitch. And my answer was his teeth in my fist.”

One is treated to the gentle irony of rock artists complaining about the rioters’ abuse of the police hired as security, and defending the “outrageous” ticket price of $14 or $16. Garcia asks a restive Toronto crowd to chill for a half hour “so we can work something out” (which turns out to be an alternative, free set at nearby Coronation Park). Ian Tyson, in black-and-white archival footage, tells an interviewer “It’s less than a dollar per supergroup.” During a press conference, Bob Weir complains about a Canadian policeman getting his head busted by protestors(!). “I talked to a lot of the cops and they were all boss, they were all good people,” Weir says.

Weir provides the most drily humorous comments among the recent interviews granted for this film. Of the protestors, he says, “They were pathologically anti-authoritarian. I know; I’m that way myself.” Elsewhere, he explains that most of the musicians were not longtime drinkers: they had been connoisseurs of acid, pot, and other substances more difficult to obtain in the Great White North, so “This was a new experience for us. And it worked just fine.” Midway through the journey, the train ran dry, so it stopped in the prairie town of Saskatoon, the riders passed the hat and raised $800, and they bought out a liquor store, including a huge display bottle of Canadian Club that the owner did not wish to sell. Weir claims he avoided the giant bottle when he noticed gel caps had been dropped into it. “The train was sort of buzzing down the rails. We achieved liftoff for sure.”

In his current guise, Walker is a bit hunched and looks a little furtive, as if he’s not entirely sure he should be sharing this story, but still good natured and unbowed. “I think the lesson that I learned was that I gave the public too much. And they didn’t deserve it.” But then he adds that he’s thinking of doing it again.

In sum, “Festival Express” is not a deep or particularly illuminating documentary. But it does a fine job of rescuing some wonderful performances from oblivion, gives Baby Boomers another opportunity to relive a certain, special era of their lives, and offers the rest of us just a taste of what it might have been like to be young and alive then.

David Loftus, Sept. 6, 2004


Although he hasn’t been to too many concerts, David Loftus once worked the sound booth at one end of a stage where Etta James was trying to lead an audience sing-along, pointed at Loftus and told the crowd: “He’s singin’ louder than y’all.” A die-hard Gentle Giant fan (he saw them live three times in the late 1970s and got to sing one of the band’s ballads in front of three former members in October 2003), he also likes the Roches, the Dixie Dregs, Murray Perahia, the Bobs, Yes, Tuck & Patti, the Moody Blues, Oscar Peterson, Kronos Quartet, Andre Watts, Bobby McFerrin, the Butthole Surfers, and Take Six, among the artists he has seen perform in concert. During his days as a reporter, he got to interview Hoyt Axton and Robbie Bachman. David Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com


Bob Smeaton  – Director
Gavin Poolman  – Producer
Ann Carli, Garth Douglas, Willem Poolman – Executive Producers
Peter Biziou, Bob Fiore – Cinematographers
Eamonn Power – Film Editor
Martin Jensen – Music Editor
Blair Jollands – Sound Editor
Eddie Kramer – Music Mixer

2003, 88 minutes

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