Monday, February 28, 2005

Festival Express

Comcast's OnDemand service is pretty cool, including offering up this little known gym. In 1970, a bunch of festival promoters got the idea to do a Woodstock in Canada, except to make it a travelling show. Then they decided to put it on a train, going from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary, and to set up the train with cameras and microphone to capture all of the music. The lineup- The Band, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Ian & Sylvia & Great Speckled Bird, the Flying Burrito Brothers. And those are the standouts. Unfortunately, the concert film that was to be made from all the footage of the four concerts- the three Festival Express shows and then a free Grateful Dead show in Toronto- never was to be, until a studio bought some of the footage and secured some of the rights. The concert film was then mixed with documentary style interviews with some of the people involved looking back on the experience, and a great concert film becomes better- there's a hell of a lot more going on than a lot of good bands doing what they do interspersed with shots of hippies freaking out.

And the actual story of the Festival Express is interesting- a bunch of kids sitting outside of the first show in Tornto demanding to be let in for free and causing trouble with cops leading to the Grateful Dead playing a free concert in a park to satisfy the broke ass hippies; the fact that, as Bob Weir of the Dead said, drinking was new to a lot of the crowd, who were mainly used to pot and acid, which lead to the train being drunk dry and an uscheduled stop in Saskatoon; the promotors losing money and the free ticket sensation spreading to the other locations. What's really interesting is that the tickets were about $15- some guy says 16 at one point, Ian Tyson says 14 at some point, so let's go with the mean- for an all day concert featuring huge acts. Fucking hippies- how could they not be happy with that? Sure, concerts are really expensive now, but even then, that was a good price. This is like hearing stories about how people complained The Last Waltz was too expensive when they got a five hour concert featuring not only a really awesome band, but great guests, ballroom dancing, a poetry reading by some of LA's finest, and a turkey dinner. A turkey fucking dinner! How expensive were those tickets? Twenty-five bucks. In fact, this is what I really hate about being so young- all you old ex-hippies were spoiled! Great prices, great bands, and you fucking protested that shit? I hate you! What the fuck!

But right. So when the tour got 'round to Calgary, the mayor of Calgary told promotor Ken Walker that "the children of Calgary" will get in for free. Ken Walker basically said "Well fuck that" and punched the mayor of Calgary in the mouth. How badass is that?

But the film is still a concert film. A really, really good concert film. Well, maybe okay. There's a lot of Grateful Dead. A lot. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just that Sha Na Na, who looked like a bunch of rockabilly greasers, and sounded like a bunch of rockabilly greasers, only got in one song, Mashmakhan only got in one song which was awesome and the only time I've ever heard of them, too. Ian & Sylvia & Great Speckled Bird got in one song, and it was a revelation to me, hearing "C.C. Rider" done with a psychedellic backing band (though Jerry Garcia was on-stage playing with them). The Band turned in three really short songs. Buddy Guy had one song. Janis Joplin had two very long songs.

And then there was the train. The train, the train, oh the train. Nearly every jam that's shown on film involves either Rick Danko or Jerry Garcia, not that it's a bad thing. Sylvia Tyson and Jerry go through a Gospel song, the Buddy Guy Blues Band and a few others tear through "Sunshine Of Your Love." A very tripped out Rick Danko leads an entire rail car in the prison song "Ain't No More Cane." And though it's a really great moment- Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir playing guitar behind the entire car, Rick, Janis Joplin, Ian & Sylvia singing- it's also kind of tarnishing, watching Rick forget a verse and stumbling over sentences, telling Jerry what to play, and sounding very much like whatever drugs he had ingested. Which really brings out the kind of unspoken side of the film- someone says that "Woodstock was a treat for the audience and [Festival Express] was a treat for the performers." They enjoyed themselves the way bands were doing in the 70s, the way Janis killed herself doing.

It's also double edged to think about who is interviewed- beyond promoter Ken Walker there's Sylvia Tyson, but not ex-husband Ian who has moved away from this period of his life in nearly all respects, Buddy Guy, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart. Buddy Guy makes it a point at the end to say how it was a great way to spend time with Janis and Jerry. Nobody from The Band is interviewed, probably so a bitter piss fight wouldn't make its way across the screen. It's also interesting, at least for me, to note that The Band, the top-billed act at the time of the toor, is for the most part shoved to the back-burner; the film's focal point lies on the Dead and Janis Joplin, which is a disservice I think.

All in all, the film is awesome. Go see it.


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