A major missing link in the chain of films from those early outdoor rock festivals that snaked roughly from Monterey in 1967 to Watkins Glen in 1973, “Festival Express” brings to light long-dormant footage from a summer 1970 whistle-stop railway tour across Canada by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Band, Buddy Guy and other less familiar but no less influential acts. An instant ancillary classic for music fans, pic could also chug through first-run and tube engagements before hitting the jackpot on DVD.
The event was the brainstorm of then-22-year-old business student Ken Walker and Thor Eaton (of the Canuck retailing powerhouse Eatons). It was conceived as a movable musical feast, with the creme de la creme of rock acts steaming westward from Toronto to Winnipeg and Calgary in a string of cars specially outfitted by Canadian National Railway with gear, beds and booze.
Trouble began right away in Toronto, as idealistic young people stampeded the gates to protest what they felt to be an outrageous $14 ticket price. Jerry Garcia grabbed a microphone and pleaded for “coolness.” This unrest followed them throughout the tour, resulting in a financial bath that has left Walker bitter to this day: “The audiences weren’t worth the effort,” he says in contempo interview footage that provides pic’s often split-screen running commentary. “I gave the public too much and they didn’t deserve it.”
Yet for the next five days talent jammed and drank their way cross-country, interrupting the bacchanalia long enough to turn in some electrifying sets. Robbie Robertson delivers a blistering guitar break as the Band performs the chestnut “Slippin’ and Slidin'” and later a transcendental “Up on Cripple Creek”; Buddy Guy ambles into the crowd for an extended solo during “Money (That’s What I Want)”; an endearingly plump and pimply Janis Joplin tears through “Cry Baby” and “Tell Your Momma” in tight close-up, backed by the crack Full Tilt Boogie Band; and the full Grateful Dead, complete with original “Rhythm Devils” percussion lineup of drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, do three tunes intact (including “New Speedway Boogie”).
Most everyone else on the bill has either a snippet of time or a full number, though only hard-core fans will be able to identify artists like Eric Andersen and the Canadian band Mashmakhan.
Backstage high point finds exuberantly altered Band bassist Rick Danko, who died in 1999, leading a midnight jam through “Ain’t No Cane on the Brazos” accompanied by Joplin, Garcia and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Band actually performed the number at Woodstock, but the set didn’t make it into the film.
Though performance footage is breathtaking, pic’s value comes from the intimate look at a roster of artists on the cusp of major, unanticipated change.
The Dead were between their studio masterpieces “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” with the ill-fated Medicine Ball Caravan tour on the horizon and keyboard player “Pigpen” McKernan’s health already an issue (he died in March 1973). Six months removed from being on the cover of Time as “The New Sound of Country Rock,” the Band was on the eve of the release of their third, disappointing, album. Joplin died of a heroin overdose the very next month.
Tech credits are terrific for a pic resurrected from legal and financial limbo. Sixteen millimeter footage (shot by Peter Biziou, who won an Oscar for “Mississippi Burning”), which sat unedited in an Ottawa archive for three decades, has been lovingly restored with a minimum of grain and wear, while ace music producer Eddie Kramer has done a sterling job on the muscular sound mix. Bob Smeaton, co-helmer of the 1995 chronicle “Beatles Anthology,” helms event’s saga with snap. With a reported 90 hours of negative and 40 hours of sound, the inevitable expanded DVD edition will be a must-own.