Before there were concerts on cruise ships there were rock bands on the railway. Festival Express, the film document of a week-long summer tour of Canada by train in 1970 featuring some of the bigger names of the day is now back in print on DVD and Blu-Ray. With artists like the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin on board, the journey across the Great White North proves quite memorable, if not as always idyllic, with a rare, unguarded look at the legendary musicians on and offstage.
The idea in the year following Woodstock, and more importantly in the post-tragedy-at-Altamont social climate, to assemble a multi-band tour that would play festivals across Canada, with musicians traveling together on a train between cities, and expect it to be trouble-free seems naïve in hindsight, Canadian good-nature notwithstanding. Each city, starting with the first whistle stop in Toronto, contained large contingents of young people fixed on attending the concert for free and came organized to do so. Confrontations with security and police led to near riots, pleas for peace, and unsympathetic portrayals in the morning paper, dogging the production as it headed west.
From the all-access filming aboard the Festival Express, as the train was dubbed, the musicians appear unnerved by the actions of the gatecrashers, arguing the ticket price for such an event comprised of as much talent as this was not only reasonable, but a bargain. The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, the most vocal critic, stands firmly behind the police, in a heated, revelatory exchange with reporters. The tension at the concerts certainly influences the mood of the performances, and while those included in the film are lively and strong, especially powerhouse numbers from Sha-Na-Na, Buddy Guy, and The Band, it is the time on the train that provokes and provides equally top tier entertainment.
Loaded with booze and various other mind-altering elements, the Express was a rolling party across the plains, at one point making an unscheduled stop to restock the inventory of alcohol. Instruments and amps were set up in empty cars, allowing for imbibed and inspired jamming within and between bands, the highlights of which feature the Band’s Rick Danko and Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia on either side of Joplin for a loose and limber impromptu “Ain’t No More Cane.” It’s the type of moment made possible by these unique circumstances, and a far, wistful cry from the monster that rock and roll tours were soon to become.
Festival Express is a movie of two sides of the same coin, divided between what happened on the train and what happened off of it. Without consciously attempting to do so, it encapsulates all of the conflicting actions, emotions, and philosophies politically and socially prevalent at the moment when all it really wanted to do was film bands playing great music and people having a good time. It does that, but shines in doing so much more.