Festival Express

Documentary-Festival-ExpressIt was a train full of insane people careening across the Canadian countryside playing music night and dayevery once in a while we’d stop and play a concert. — Phil Lesh (The Grateful Dead)

It opens with a faded map of north Ontario, Kapuskasing dead centre. Then the camera pulls back and from the middle of the screen comes a train — an old Canadian National engine — and tracks, lots of tracks. This is a movie about that train and the people who rode on it, and the places it stopped, and what happened one week in 1970 when this train went from Toronto to Calgary . . . with a cargo of rock’n’rollers and all their paraphernalia. What a summer.

Ken Walker and his partners had an idea. They’d get a train and fill it with performers and travel across Canada, bringing a traveling festival to the country. It would be like the Orient Express. Good food available 24/7 and a bar car filled with all the things that a bar car needs. Including a drum kit and amps in case of spontaneous jamming. When the booze ran out, they’d just pass the hat, stop the train, and buy some more!

It was our first experience with alcohol, for many of us. We’d done acid and stuff, but this was the first booze. It did the trick. — Bob Weir (The Grateful Dead)

The trip was chronicled by film-maker Peter Bizou, who had total access to all areas. Nothing was omitted. The drunken jams, the sober jams, the arguments with journalists, and the shows. Three shows: Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. And what shows they were: the Grateful Dead, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Buddy Guy and his band, Ian & Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, Delaney and Bonnie, the Band and Janis Joplin. So many young faces of performers gone: Garcia, Danko, Manuel, and Janis. But man, they live in this film.

At the Toronto show The Band is shown playing “Slippin’ and Slidin'” and it absolutely rocks the joint. Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing is stunning. You’ll see why Dylan called him a “mathematical guitar wizard” as he twists and twirls, working his wild mercurial magic. Awesome. Then over the solid drums of Levon Helm and Rick Danko’s bass, Garth Hudson displays that mysterious haunting organ noodling that could serve as modern classical music if taken alone. Beautiful. The camerawork is tight right in your face. When they were finished I felt like leaping to my feet in spontaneous applause. Then I remembered . . . it’s a movie!

Janis Joplin also transcends the medium with two breath-taking performances at the peak of her powers. “Cry Baby” and, later, “Tell Mama” are potent, filled with sex and lust and the deep musicality of the blues. Buddy Guy plays “Money” and takes a long solo out as close to the crowd as he could get, followed by an assistant who carried miles of guitar lead. Then Buddy leaves the stage, his band plays out and the assistant stands, centre stage, holding the guitar and the cable.

The Burrito Brothers bring some country twang to the proceedings, as do Ian & Sylvia with their band The Great Speckled Bird. Amos Garrett plays the lead guitar, but Delaney Bramlett gets the screen time. The only time Delaney and Bonnie are heard is an on-train acoustic rendition of “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.” I don’t think anybody on the train felt bad . . . except when they read the newspapers.

The young rock fans of Toronto tried to crash the concert. They’d decided the music should be free. And while one policeman required stitches for a head injury, no fans were hurt. But the papers blew it all out of proportion and the trouble dogged them all across the country.

The archival footage, which was only recently located, is complemented by new interviews with as many of the principals as were available. Weir and Lesh from the Dead, Eric Andersen (who was on the train but didn’t make the cut for a performance take), Buddy Guy, and Ken Walker describe the events with obvious glee, and fond memory. And the old footage shows one big party. The Dead’s performances are wonderful. Pigpen blows some great harp. Bob and Jerry trade licks and Phil creates a lacework foundation, while the two drummers supply the polyrhthyms. The scene where they join Ian & Sylvia for “CC Rider” is fabulous.

One jam, after the stop in Saskatoon to replenish the booze supply, shows Rick Danko, Janis, Jerry, and a host of others trying to play “Ain’t No Cane on the Brazos.” Their obvious state of inebriation leads to an unforgettable performance. Not tight maybe . . . but tight!

Party on the train and party on the stage. The interviews bring it all up to date, and Walker threatens (or promises) to do it again. Fantastic. I can’t wait. Don’t miss this glorious celebration of five days of music and love.