FESTIVAL EXPRESS is a rousing record of a little-known, but monumental, moment in rock n' roll history, starring such music legends as Janis Joplin, The Band, and the Grateful Dead. Set in 1970, FESTIVAL EXPRESS was a multi-band, multi-day extravaganza that captured the spirit and imagination of a generation and a nation. What made it unique was that it was portable; for five days, the bands and performers lived, slept, rehearsed and did countless unmentionable things aboard a customized train that traveled from Toronto, to Calgary, to Winnipeg, with each stop culminating in a mega-concert. The entire experience, both off-stage and on, was filmed but the extensive footage remained locked away -- until now. A momentous achievement in rock film archeology, FESTIVAL EXPRESS combines this long-lost material with contemporary interviews nearly 35 years after it was first filmed.

The film was directed by Bob Smeaton, the two-time Grammy award-winning director of The Beatles Anthology, and Hendrix: Band of Gypsies, produced by Gavin Poolman (son of FESTIVAL EXPRESS' original producer, Willem Poolman,) and John Trapman, shot by Peter Bizou (a then - young cinematographer who would go on to win an Academy Award for his work on Mississippi Burning,) and mixed by legendary music producer Eddie Kramer (producer and/or engineer for Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Santana). FESTIVAL EXPRESS will be released nationwide in late Summer 2004 by THINKFilm.

FESTIVAL EXPRESS has been described as the greatest and longest non-stop party in the history of rock n' roll, and that is exactly what promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton imagined when they first conceived the event. They wanted to create a setting that would be irresistible to the talent they hoped to attract. They rented a train, named it the "Festival Express," and, using the Orient Express as their model, stocked the dining car with food and drink that would be available to night owl musicians twenty-four hours a day.

Initially, the railroad wanted the train to travel from west to east -- but Walker and Eaton refused. The time-honored expression is "Go west, young man," and they wanted the FESTIVAL EXPRESS tour to embody that spirit of adventure. Participating musicians thought the novel idea of the train ride sounded like "the party to end all parties" and many signed on at fees far below their going rate just to join the ride. Once they boarded the train, they never wanted to get off. Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead described the FESTIVAL EXPRESS as "a train of insane people careening across the Canadian countryside, making music night and day and then occasionally we'd get off the train to go play a concert."

As the train rambled along for five days, it presented a unique opportunity for musicians such as Joplin, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Rick Danko of The Band, Delaney and Bonnie and Ian and Sylvia, Buddy Guy, and New Riders of the Purple Sage to collaborate. When they played traditional concerts, musical acts would rarely overlap because they were on staggered schedules. The train ride gave them a chance to party, and more importantly, to play music, together. Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, recalls that, "Everything was constantly revolving. There was a blues car, a country car, a rock and roll car. It was like musical chairs. There was never anything like that level of talent and musicianship encapsulated in such close quarters for that length of time." As the trip progressed and the jam sessions lasted until the wee hours of the morning, the musicians began playing each other's music. There was so much going on all the time that Buddy Guy admitted, "Every time I went to bed I was afraid I would miss something." "It was fusion," says Hart, "all these different kinds of players playing each other's music. Here's Buddy Guy playing country, Janis singing Canadian folk..." The trip even resulted in at least one famous song about the FESTIVAL EXPRESS, the Grateful Dead's “Might As Well."

FESTIVAL EXPRESS provides an unusually intimate look at two of the film's most legendary musicians, Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin. The train is a retreat from the pressures and responsibilities of their high-octane lives and they appear young, enthusiastic, and happy to be in the company of their peers. Joplin can be heard asking playfully "Are we there yet?" and it is clear that she is enjoying the companionship, the music, and the freedom of being on the road. Her contentment is reflected in her singing. At one concert, she steps up to the microphone and tells the audience, "I don't know where you've been all week, but I've been at a party." And she turns to FESTIVAL EXPRESS organizers and says, "The next time you throw a train, man, invite me." There would be no "next time" for Joplin. Her life ended tragically just two months later. But while she is on the "Festival Express," Joplin is relaxed and at the top of her game. Her performances, as documented by Peter Biziou, have never been shown in their entirety, or blown-up digitally with Dolby digital sound, making FESTIVAL EXPRESS a rare and powerful experience for Joplin fans. The Village Voice said, "This is by far the most vivid evidence of her presence ever committed to film."

The film offers a remarkably personal look at Jerry Garcia, too. His delight in playing music -- any kind of music -- becomes apparent as he is photographed jamming with one group after another. "Jerry was the natural-born ringmaster of that three-ringed dream train," recalls Buddy Guy. When he wasn't playing, he was enjoying the train. Ken Walker remembers Garcia riding up front with the conductor, blowing the whistle and laughing as the landscape rushed past. There is even one poignant, on-camera moment when Garcia, euphoric from the camaraderie and all that music, tells Janis Joplin he loves her. When asked about his experiences on the train, Garcia said, "That was the best time I've had in rock and roll. It was the musicians' train. There wasn't any showbiz bullshit. It was like a musicians' convention with no public allowed."

There were times when it made sense to keep the public at bay. Ironically, most of the performers were not big drinkers: they were more experienced with other recreational substances that were impossible to import to Canada. Alcohol became the "high" of choice and a few days into the cross-country trip, the FESTIVAL EXPRESS ran out of supplies. The non-stop party -- dubbed the "Million Dollar Bash" by Rolling Stone magazine -- threatened to come to a grinding halt. But festival organizers came up with a quick and effective solution that has been described as a cross between the Marx Brothers and Spinal Tap, with a touch of "A Hard Day's Night." They literally stopped the train at a liquor store and reloaded, even walking off with a giant display bottle of Canadian Club. Erik Andersen, who was part of the FESTIVAL EXPRESS tour, is still somewhat incredulous as he recalls the moment. "They just stopped in Saskatoon," he said. "The whole damn train just stopped like, in front of a liquor store." Anything to keep the talent happy. And happy they were.

But like Woodstock, its American counterpart, FESTIVAL EXPRESS was not without controversy. Catering to a youth movement caught up in the counter culture of the day, FESTIVAL EXPRESS faced its share of criticism, most notably from fans who thought that the $14 admission fee was too steep. In the spirit of the day, these fans felt the music should be free. On the day of the first stop in Toronto, a group calling themselves "M4M" or "May 4th Movement" urged fans to storm the festival gates instead of paying. The resulting chaos, clashes with police, bands' reaction, and promoters' spin control were all caught on film. Jerry Garcia takes control of the crowd, pleads for coolness, and stages a free concert in a nearby park. With a surprising nod to the practical side of rock and roll, several performers suggest that the ticket price is a fair amount for a full day's worth of multi-band entertainment, pointing out that the promoters are entitled to make money on their investment.

The protestors may have affected ticket sales, but they did not dampen the enthusiasm or the energy of the performers. By the time the train reached Calgary, the last stop, the artists knew that they had shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One musician said, "It was a brief moment in time when everybody came together for one last time to celebrate that utopian vision we all started with." And amazingly, that "brief moment" was captured on film. But, adding even more value to the experience, the footage -- 75 hours of negative -- was lost or overlooked for decades.

By the time the traveling concert came to an end, the promoters were feuding with Willem Poolman, the principal producer of the original planned film, and there was no one in charge of the production. The footage was scattered across parts of Canada and beyond, with unpaid cameramen taking portions as leverage and promoters taking reels as mementos. Work prints were stored in Poolman's garage, where they survived severe Canadian winters, a fire, and being used as ice hockey goals by young Gavin Poolman and his friend, John Trapman. Bill O'Farrell, a young man involved with the original production, took whatever reels he could gather from various sources and drove them to the doorstep of the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa, with the caveat that they should hold on to them as "they will be worth something one day."

The reels remained at the Archives for nearly 25 years, until a young music aficionado and documentary filmmaker named Garth Douglas and his friend James Cullingham – who long heard rumors of a filmed "Canadian Woodstock" – put out feelers to anyone and everyone who had information about the lost film. After some initial false leads, Douglas tracked down the footage at the Canadian National Archives. However, it took almost another ten years to finish the film, sync the audio, clear the performance rights, and shoot contemporary interviews to accompany the historic footage and fuse it together to create a truly amazing piece of rock n' roll history.

"Making FESTIVAL EXPRESS was like being handed a giant jigsaw puzzle, minus the lid to the box that shows the picture of how the film was meant to look," says director Bob Smeaton. As each piece was put in place, the picture became clearer. Fortunately, he was working with remarkable raw material that was in excellent condition. FESTIVAL EXPRESS was shot in cinema verite style and edited in keeping with the time period in which it was filmed. This includes the use of split-screens, allowing the best possible use of so many hours of footage.

Of the 75 hours of negative shot, 46 hours remained, of which 15 hours had never been printed. "One of the interesting things for me technically was the negative had been printed only once in 1971, and then it just sat in a film vault -- perfectly stored at the right temperature and humidity," producer Gavin Poolman explains. "What we had was the perfect negative."

The producers' first impulse was to try to make the film look modern. They changed their minds after seeing some tests. "We decided that this approach made the film lose its magic," explains Poolman. "What we have on this negative is something nobody else can get. People pay a fortune to try to get their films to look like this and we actually have it. The colors are perfect, but they are the colors of the time." Smeaton adds, "The original 16mm footage was blown up to 35mm. Peter Biziou, who had been the director of photography on the film, was a great help during the blow up and grading stage of the process. He insisted, and rightly so, that we retain the original look of the old 16mm stock and not try to make it appear too modern. This way, we were able to create a film that looked exactly the way it would have had it been completed in 1970." The footage is among the very first to document musicians' lives, both on and off stage, for such an extended and continuous period of time, and offers glimpses of a lifestyle perhaps never to be seen again. Contemporary, first-person interviews with a selection of the musicians, crew, and even some of the music lovers who were there, provide a unique insight into what may have been the last great rock n’ roll ride. According to Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, "That train was buzzing down the rails. We achieved lift off for sure."

JamBase | Canada
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[Published on: 7/15/04]

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