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'Festival Express': Rocking the Rails

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page WE39

HAD "Festival Express" pulled into theaters in a timely fashion, we might be comparing it to its contemporaries, Michael Wadleigh's "Woodstock" and Albert and David Maysles' "Gimme Shelter" (about the ill-fated Rolling Stones Altamont concert). Instead, 34 years late, we have a great "lost" concert film, a riveting documentary about a traveling rock festival that took place 25 years before anyone thought of the word "Lollapalooza."

Woodstock and Altamont -- the former taking place in August 1969, the latter in December of that year -- had closed out the '60s on high and low notes, respectively. The films that captured those disparate events both came out in 1970, the same year that a couple of concert promoters envisioned a Canadian Woodstock on wheels. So they hired a private train and some pretty good passengers -- the Grateful Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, the Flying Burrito Brothers -- and in late June embarked on a five-day jaunt from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary. The plan was to whistle-stop and play concerts in those cities, but also to create a jam session/party atmosphere as the train kept a-rolling through vast Canuck expanses. Film crews were on hand for both the concerts and the journey, notably chief cinematographer Peter Biziou, who would win an Oscar 18 years later for his work on "Mississippi Burning."

Janis Joplin -- a revelation in the film -- and members of the Grateful Dead (including Jerry Garcia, at right) in "Festival Express," a time-capsule treasure chronicling a train-traveling 1970 rock festival in Canada. (Thinkfilm)

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Unfortunately, the Festival Express was, like Woodstock, a financial disaster for its promoters. In the golden age of rock festivals, these concerts were surprisingly under-attended, particularly after the Toronto opening was marred by a mini-riot by a small but active contingent of "music should be free" agitators protesting the "outrageous" ticket price -- $14! By the time the tour ended, the radical mayor of Calgary insisted the gates be open for free to the city's "children." One frustrated promoter promptly punched him in the nose; the concert went on as planned, albeit expensively.

Huge losses derailed the Express: When the film crews weren't paid, the raw film footage vanished, transformed into ransom/collateral, consigned to gather dust in various locales until some music archivists got wind of the 60 hours of unedited 16mm footage and 90 hours of unmixed audio that had gradually found its way to Canada's National Archives.

Realizing the import of their discovery, they hired Bob Smeaton, who'd directed "The Beatles Anthology" television series, to reenvision the event, which he does with the same musically instinctive eye Martin Scorsese brought to the Band farewell in "The Last Waltz." Smeaton, who also favors the split-screen overview familiar from "Woodstock" and "Monterey Pop," added some contemporary interviews with surviving musicians, the promoters, journalists and fans, but the heart of the film is in the official and spontaneous performances, all brought to crystalline clarity by engineer and remix master Eddie Kramer.

There are sterling concert performances by several bands in peak form. The Band was coming off the double triumphs of "Music From Big Pink" and "The Band." Richard Manuel's anguished reading of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" is particularly spectral and transformative. The Grateful Dead, having just put out its seminal "Workingman's Dead," performed "New Speedway Boogie," a barbed commentary on the Altamont disaster, which the band had wisely refused to play at.

The revelation here is Janis Joplin, whose ferocious rhythm-and mostly-blues renderings of "Tell Mama" and "Cry Baby" may well be her most powerful filmed performances. In the latter, Joplin digresses mid-song about how the men in her life are always going off somewhere distant, and you can't help but empathize with her romantic fragility amid the full-throated anguish of the song. Joplin leaves it all on the stage, her voice magnificent, her spirit seemingly strong. Less than three months later, she was dead of a drug overdose.

The joy of this journey lies in its seemingly constant jams: Blues man Buddy Guy confesses he refused to sleep more than an hour at a time for fear of missing something wonderful, like the shambolic "Ain't No More Cane on This Brazos," featuring a mile-high Rick Danko of the Band in rough-edged harmonies with a giddily inebriated Joplin as Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir strum along on acoustic guitars. A beaming and slightly buzzed Garcia, who clearly loved the all-music-all-the-time focus of this short, strange trip, would call the Festival Express "the best time I ever had in rock 'n' roll." No wonder the musicians didn't want to get off the train to actually play the shows!

Ironically, drugs were pretty much absent: The mostly American musicians simply didn't want to risk bringing drugs into Canada. Instead, they made do with alcohol. Weir jokes that while the Dead surely knew LSD and marijuana, "this was new to us." In one hilarious scene, the motley entourage, having drunk dry the train's resources, refuels by having it pull up in front of a rail-side liquor store in Saskatoon, which is quickly cleaned out. Weir again: "That train was buzzing down the rails. We achieved lift-off for sure."

Call it the disoriented express.

Thankfully, the performances are complete -- even the jams. Not all of what makes it into the film is top-notch: Sha Na Na is already a joke just a year after its Woodstock debut, Guy's blues is surprisingly rote and a vibrato-drenched Sylvia Tyson warbles "C.C. Rider" in front of a jacked-up Great Speckled Bird. But most of "Festival Express" resonates with the power and passion, even the innocence, of the era. Toward the end of the journey, a beaming Joplin gives the promoters several thank-you gifts and a special request: "Next time you throw a train, man, invite me." Me, too.

FESTIVAL EXPRESS (R, 90 minutes) -- Contains adult language. AtCinema Arts Theatre, AFI Silver Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company