"Next time you throw a train, invite me, man." – Janis Joplin
In 1970, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and a host of other musicians participated in a tour across Canada. The concerts were not especially noteworthy, but the mode of transportation between shows, a private train filled with amplifiers, instruments, all-star musicians, alcohol, and psychedelics, was the stuff of legend. This madcap caravan was captured by documentary filmmakers, but by 1975, legal entanglements shelved the film. The footage was forgotten for years until pieces of it started to surface in the early 1990s. Much of the film stock and sound reels were badly damaged, and thanks to over ten years of work and the investments of some angelic producers, this 33 year labor of love, Festival Express, finally saw the light of day. Anyone who is interested in the history of rock should get down on their hands and knees and thank these tireless filmmakers because this production is an amazing document of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The festival, itself, was a financial disaster. By 1970, the anti-capitalist hippie movement had reached Canada, and after Woodstock and Altamont, music fans believed that concerts should be free. Toronto youth revolted against the $14.00 ticket price, so savvy promoter Ken Walter had The Grateful Dead perform a free show in a nearby park to quiet the angry mob. Unfortunately, the protesters clashed with local police, and word of the altercations spread across Canada. For the remainder of the trip, the festival encountered hostile crowds, and the mayor of Calgary even attempted to demand free entrance for his constituents. His ultimatum was met with the swift fist of the volatile Walter (literally).
Despite sagging ticket sales, the performers still delivered onstage, and the film catches some nice moments, including Buddy Guy soloing through "Money" while riding a forklift down into the audience. The Band are in fine form, with a rousing take on "Slippin' & Slidin'" and a straightforward cut of "The Weight." Jerry Garcia and Buddy Cage trade groovy licks on a multi-band jam through "C.C. Rider." The Pigpen-era Grateful Dead are captured here, and although none of their songs achieve liftoff, the film has spirited versions of "Don't Ease Me In" and "New Speedway Boogie." Of course, the real treat is watching Janis Joplin. Performing only weeks before her untimely death, she oozes sex appeal while tearing through numbers with her ferocious Full Tilt Boogie Band.
While the concert footage is excellent, the crown jewel of this film is the window it provides into the private lives of these superstars on the train. Here they are getting stoned, drunk, waxing poetic, and jamming their asses off with Garcia prominently featured throughout. One Rick Danko and Garcia led drunken jam on "Ain't No More Cane" yields some hilarious moments with Garcia declaring his love for Joplin. The train segments also provide some delicious irony as Bob Weir derides the protesters while defending the police and Garcia declares, "You can't play music and get rich."
Festival Express is chock full of DVD extras, including a bonus disc with additional and informative interviews, as well as a segment on the painstaking labors incurred over the thirty-three year production of the film. After learning of the difficulties the editors faced, it's a minor miracle that the sound is of such credible quality in DTS Surround Sound mode. Musically, the DVD has almost an entire hour of additional songs, where one can discover the more obscure Canadian acts, such as the prog-funk of Mashmakhan and the vocally-warbling passionate roots music of Ian & Sylvia & The Great Speckled Bird. Also, it should be noted that the extras feature the Dead on fine cuts of "Hard To Handle" and "Easy Wind" and Joplin shredding her way through blistering takes of "Move Over" and "Kozmic Blues."
Concert films from this era are few and far between, and Festival Express is certainly a meticulously well-produced film. However, this is not the reason to purchase this DVD. The train footage is unparalleled, and in most cases, it's the only chance we'll ever have to see our musical heroes raw, unedited, and relaxing in their element. That alone makes Festival Express a "must buy" for any serious music fan.
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