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Festival Express (2003).

November 13, 2009

The Scoop:
The stretch from about 1967 to 1971 was a hotbed for innovative music, and it was the heyday of the festival concert. But it was also the heyday of the concert film, and every festival worth its name – Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Big Sur, even Altamont – had a film attached. The result of this huge archive of film, of course, is a valuable time capsule of that era. “Festival Express” is a latter-day addition to that genre.

In the summer of 1970, a short festival tour was organized across Canada, featuring the Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Ian & Sylvia, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Bonnie & Delaney, Sha Na Na and Mashmakhan. (Traffic and Ten Years After also were part of the tour, but don’t appear in the film due to a conflict over music rights.) Everyone on the bill traveled together by train across country. It was an arrangement that was clearly a hit with the performers, who created a traveling commune, spending the long days living, eating and, most importantly, jamming together. And the film crew was there for all of it.

The tour itself was a financial disaster, not just because of the expense of the train, but also because it was dogged by protests and bad press along the way from kids who demanded that all the shows be free. The business side wound up in chaos, which is why all the film footage of the tour ended up on the shelf for more than 30 years. Which is a shame, because the footage is fantastic.

With the benefit of three decades of hindsight, director Bob Smeaton includes new interviews with the promoters and many of the performers to put the footage in context. But at times the interviews intrude too much. The film is at its best when the footage from 1970 speaks for itself. The live performances are uniformly excellent, as the musicians were obviously energized by the creative cauldron inside that train (which a couple of the interviewees describe as “heaven”). But the real treat is the train footage, which is full of great jamming from a host of talented musicians, and which also offers an extensive offstage glimpse of the people involved – something the other classic concert films of the era can’t match.

Especially poignant are the performances by Joplin. She was at the top of her game, and because she died shortly after the tour, these are among her last ever performances.

Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the era, “Festival Express” is still a must-see if you’re a fan of live music. Plus, there’s lots of rail footage too if you’re a fan of train movies, so everyone wins!

Best Bit:
The liquor run in Saskatoon.

Side Note:
The guitar used by Jerry Garcia during “C.C. Rider” is the same one that was played by George Harrison during the Beatles’ rooftop farewell performance the year before.

Companion Viewing:
“Woodstock” (1970) and “Monterey Pop” (1968).

Official site.

Take a Look:
The Grateful Dead perform “C.C. Rider” with Ian & Sylvia and others:

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