In the Summer of 1970, a number of rock bands, including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Band, and Buddy Guy, played a series of festivals across Canada. Instead of flying the musicians from show to show, the promoter rented a train that traveled from Toronto to Winniepeg. A film crew captured the historic ride, but the negative disappeared–until now, when director Bob Smeaton reassembled the lost footage and added contemporary interviews to complete the film. Unlike festivals like Woodstock, where musicians would arrive, play, and leave, the train ride offered them a unique opportunity to hang, jam, and party with each other. Crammed onboard the train for long overnight trips, rolling jam sessions evolved in every car. “The train was for many things,” the Dead’s Mickey Hart winks, “but not for sleeping.”
The footage in “Festival Express” bears witness to this: as the countryside chugs by outside, Garcia gets into a deep blues jam with Buddy Guy, somebody spikes the whiskey with acid, and in one of the film’s most fascinating scenes, a way-stoned Rick Danko sings with Janis while Jerry and Bob pick along. When the rolling party runs out of booze, the train pulls over in front of a liquor store in Saskatoon. Financially, the festival tour turned into a failure when protesters in Toronto, outraged by the high price of admission (fourteen dollars!), started to riot. Policemen got hurt, and in a natural display of their Sixties generosity, the Grateful Dead played in the park to calm the scene–for free.
But the film’s many privileged glimpses at some of rock history’s legendary icons are only a side show, and Smeaton never loses sight of the music. Mixed by Eddie Kramer (famous for his work with Jimi, Zeppelin, and Santana), “Festival Express” showcases the incindiary guitar work of Buddy Guy, the antics of Sha Na Na, and the country-rock of the Flying Burrito Brothers. The Band does “The Weight” and “I Shall Be Released,” and the Dead play “Don’t Ease Me In” and a beautiful afternoon “New Speedway Boogie.” The highlight of the film are two absolutely stunning performances by Janis Joplin: “Cry Baby” and “Tell Mama” are tight, intense, and so emotionally raw that it seems hardly surprising Joplin died only two months later.
Exuberant, outrageous, and seriously smokin’, “Festival Express” is an essential document of the heady days when, as Bob Weir puts it, “rock ‘n roll mattered.” It’s impossible to imagine a comparable trip–and movie — with today’s crop of ClearChannel performers. Garcia and Joplin appear as obsessively dedicated musicians who are as serious about their craft as they are about having a good time. The decision to retain the look of the original 16mm stock and to use montage and split screen effects truthful to the period turn “Festival Express” into a lost gem, an instant classic. The only complaint is the film’s brevity: I would gladly have sat through more than 90 minutes of this outstanding material.