Thirty-four years ago, in 1970, a private train bustling with music superstars, their roadies and equipment traveled across Canada, stopping to put on concerts along the way. It was “a train of insane people careening across the country,” says The Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart. Like a traveling circus, this Woodstock-on-wheels packed musicians together for five days, and just kept rolling. With good food and liquor supplied by a benevolent promoter, this musical entourage partied and jammed until they all dropped, and then got up for more.
The moving party was caught on film by young filmmakers and resurrected recently, with added contemporary footage. Like a time capsule aimed to enlighten a new generation, Festival Express brings to light this little-known but monumental happening in rock annals.
The phenomenal lineup includes Janis Joplin (and the Full Tilt Boogie Band), The Grateful Dead, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Buddy Guy (and the Buddy Guy Blues Band), Ian and Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, Mashmakhan, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, and Sha Na Na.
This first-only train festival was the brainchild of Canadian promoter Ken Walker, a naive visionary who spared no expense for his musicians. Concert tickets cost $14, considered a very fair price at the time. But throngs of hippie music lovers, remembering that Woodstock the summer before was free, demanded that the Festival Express concerts be likewise.
Starting off in Toronto, the audience became violent, pushing down the gates to the stadium and seriously injuring a policeman. Festival Express hadn’t sold its TV rights as Woodstock had, so being forced to give free concerts meant the backers lost their shirts. At each stop, the underbelly of Flower Power was revealed in unprovoked harassment and violence toward authorities. And this was Canada, remember — big, plodding, well-behaved Canada.
“I gave the public so much,” says Walker. “And they didn’t deserve it.”
Nevertheless, the musicians themselves had a grand time. When not performing, they hung out in the dining cars, laughing, smoking cigarettes, passing joints, dropping acid, imbibing liquor by the quart — and playing music. The joy of their experience was having the chance, for many uninterrupted hours, to share their talents with one another, sparking an inevitable cross-fertilization that benefited them all. Each frame of film shows the love of music that moved each of these gifted individuals, that unquenchable passion that has since made them legendary.
Much of the dining-car footage is focused on Jerry Garcia, effortlessly playing his guitar to whatever muse is inspiring him at the time. It’s utterly amazing to see the grace with which he played and the basic decency of the man. Granted, everyone was blotto, but there was such a lovely gentleness and good cheer that permeated the relationship between musicians. You can’t help but compare it to the ragged aggression of many of today’s musicians and wonder what the hell went wrong.
For those who remember (admit it, you’re a Baby Boomer), and for those who want to know what all the hoopla was about, you owe it to yourself to catch Festival Express. (Better hurry; it may not be showing for long.) Seeing all these bands perform is a trip — so young, so alive, so damned earnest. But witnesssing two complete performances by Janis Joplin, so close you can see the pores in her skin, is the incredible, unforgettable experience this movie brings. That banshee screech, that feral growl, that primal longing that only the wild woman of rock could deliver. If her rendition of “Cry Baby” doesn’t make you cry, then baby, you’re not alive.
Three months later, Joplin would be dead of an alcohol/heroine overdose. She was 27.
— reviewed by Marci Miller