180 – Festival Express

In July 1970, approximately two weeks before I was born, a monumental rock and roll experience took place. Its importance in the grand scheme of history has been lost somewhat during the ensuing years, but ultimately it was an experience that was bigger than Woodstock, bigger than Monterey, bigger than (thank God) Altamont.

Promoter Ken Walker rented a Canadian National train to travel across Canada, filled with musical acts (including The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Sha Na Na, Buddy Guy, and more) and a lot of booze. The train was to stop in five cities: Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, and Winnipeg. At each stop, the bands would perform a concert. In theory, this sounds like a pretty nifty idea, But theory ran recklessly and headlong into reality, which subsequently beat the living crap out of it.

In Toronto – the first stop – thousands of pissy “fans” protested the concert, claiming that the music belonged to the people. The show almost didn’t go on, and as a direct result of the protestors the promoters of the shows lost a lot of money. In Calgary, the city’s mayor actually confronted Walker with the same idea – and met with the promoter’s fists.

This documentary, which was only recently released, offers a brief glimpse at life on at train. Very brief, as a matter of fact. The entire show is less than 90 minutes long, and a lot of the footage is composed of recent interviews. A few songs are shown in their entirety, however, such as “Don’t Ease Me In” by the Dead, “Cry Baby” by Joplin, “The Weight” by The Band, and “Lazy Day” by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

It’s really fascinating to see some of these acts in what one for everyone involved a real once-in-a-lifetime experience. We get to sit in on impromptu jam sessions – and bull sessions – on the train and see the performances off the train. We see the rock stars as they are in real life, without the bells and whistles of a full-blown concert. We see a very young Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead) complaining about the behavior of the “free music” fans; we see Janis Joplin, toasted out of her gourd, singing and carousing like there’s no tomorrow.

Interestingly enough, two of the finest performances of the show are by The Band, which does “Slipping and Sliding” and the legendary Dylan tune “I Shall Be Released.” The photography is pretty much what you’d expect from a cinema verite’ film; atmosphere so vivid you do feel like you’re riding the rails along with everyone else.

Festival Express is a wonderful hidden treat, a real microcosm of the times. How much it appeals to you may depend strongly on how much you like any of the acts.

Festival Express: ***1/2

(Subtract a full star if you’re not a fan of the music.)


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