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In the summer of 1970, concert promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton rented a train from the Canadian National Railway, stocked it bountifully with food and booze, set up a jam pad in the bar car, and emblazoned the side with “Festival Express.” They then stuffed it with the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Band, and Buddy Guy, and sent it on its way. It had been less than a year since Woodstock, and the promoters figured they could launch a traveling version of that Aquarian exposition, bringing it to the beautiful children spread far and wide over Canada’s expanse. They even hired a film crew, just like at Woodstock, to document the happening. But what Walker and Eaton had no way of grasping at the time was that Woodstock was not the inception of peace-and love rock harmony; it was the summit. And as we all know, there’s only one way to go from a summit, and that’s down.
There was trouble from the start. Woodstock the movie had come out only months before, but it was long enough for some to form an idea of just how such deals should go down, and free admission figured largely in the scenario. So, at the festival’s first date in Toronto, while the Dead play a less-than-inspired set to a somewhat straggly paying audience, split-screen action reveals that just outside, literal gate crashers are mixing it up with mounted police. Catastrophe is averted when Jerry and company agree to a free set in a park nearby—a show that finds the band perkier and the mood much more mellow—but the damage has been done. Rabble rousers and bad PR follow the tour as it chugs across the country, ticket sales flag and, with a few notable exceptions—including The Band’s suspiciously up-tempo version of “The Weight”—the next stop in Winnipeg is a largely half-hearted affair played to a half-empty stadium. The real action, it soon becomes clear, is on the train.
That Festival Express the movie got made at all is actually pretty amazing, for by the time the locomotive pulled into its terminus, Walker and Eaton were feuding with the intended producer, no one was left in charge, and the footage simply walked away with various organizers and crew members. Much of it wound up at the Canadian National Archives, where it languished for decades, becoming an object of lore until documentary filmmaker Garth Douglas, one of the finished product’s eventual producers, tracked it down. Another near decade of gathering, editing, acquiring rights and contemporary interviews, and the film was finally released in 2003, more than 30 years after the fact. The result is that Festival Express is both an on-the-scene record and a hindsight look back, and its view onto the past takes in high points and low lights in equal measure. How fitting, then, that the literal engine of the film is a train, that standby symbol of time and transformation. For the musicians, it was a both a haven from the hassles dogging the tour, and the thing that carried them from the ’60s milieu they themselves helped create, on into their futures. Some wouldn’t survive the ride, but while it was still on track, the Festival Express housed a hell of a bon voyage.
“We achieved liftoff, for sure,” remembers Bob Weir, and onboard footage of the non-stop love fest jam session is truly something to behold—hilarious, heartwarming, poignant and one-of-a-kind. After witnessing Weir, Garcia, Rick Danko and Joplin, all massively wasted, giggling and howling together like the world’s most talented alley cats, one wonders how they’ll be anything but DOA when they arrive at their next stop. Yet, the exact opposite holds true, as the festival’s last show beams with a benevolent energy clearly generated by all that togetherness. It comes out most movingly in Joplin. Her first song of the film, a version of “Cry Baby” delivered in Winnipeg, is good, great even, but it comes underlaid with a weariness of heart that reminds us all too terribly she will be gone very soon. Her final-night performance is another thing altogether. “I don’t know where you’ve been for the last two days,” she crows to the Calgary crowd, “but I’ve been at a party.” And then she launches into an elemental rendition of “Tell Mama” and transforms before our very eyes—from a lonely genius nearly at her journey’s end into a thing of light and beauty and pure happiness. It’s an apt and rapturous conclusion to a film that, by chance, offers the singular sensation of seeing and feeling the full measure of a moment.