The first Woodstock festival was endlessly documented, but the same can't be said for "Festival Express." Many music fans don't even know about it. The footage is only now surfacing of this extraordinary, five-day train ride and series of concerts across Canada that featured Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, the Band, Delaney & Bonnie, Ian & Sylvia, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
It was 1970 -- a year after Woodstock -- when they all piled into a private train with a no-holds-barred attitude and engaged in boozy, all-night jam sessions that form the core of this startling film. Seeing Jerry Garcia break into a sudden gospel tune in the bar car, or tenderly kissing Joplin just months before she died, is the immediate stuff of legend.
The financing for the film was reportedly cut off, and the tapes languished in a vault for many years before director Bob Smeaton (who also did "The Beatles Anthology") was called in to make sense of it. And that he did, crafting a beautiful tribute to an era that was over-the-top in its music and lifestyle.
"You could drift from car to car and get involved in any number of jams, some of which did amount to some pretty heady stuff," says the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, quoted in a latter-day, look-back interview in the film. Adds guitarist Buddy Guy: "I don't think I slept for more than one hour."
"It was in the spirit of the times to try new things," Dead drummer Mickey Hart recalls. "It was a train full of crazy people careening across the countryside making music night and day -- and then occasionally getting off the train to go play a concert." Or, as Sylvia Tyson of Ian & Sylvia, says, "The phrase has become common about leaving your ego at the door. We left our egos at the station."
The train actually becomes a sanctuary, because the public concerts in such places as Toronto (where the trip started), Winnipeg, and Calgary were often fraught with tension. Many consumers, following the lead of ticket-less fans at Woodstock, thought the music should be free, and protested at each tour stop. Tickets were $14 (about $1 per supergroup, one artist quips) -- yet, for example, the Toronto concert was interrupted by people trying to crash the gates. One scene shows the Dead's Garcia asking for "a half-hour of coolness" while the performers take a break, then later shows the Dead leaving the stadium to play a free concert for protesters in a nearby park.
The concert footage throughout the film is remarkably intimate and revealing, and the music has been remixed by Eddie Kramer, known for his work with Jimi Hendrix. The Dead are in great form and so is Joplin, whose incendiary presence has rarely been captured this vividly.
But it's the overnight jam sessions that steal the show. Surrounded by glassy-eyed musicians in the bar car, Garcia sings the gospel tune "Better Take Jesus's Hand" and blows everyone away. There's also a priceless, rather nongospel moment when the musicians run out of alcohol. Curiously, the train stops at some hideaway station that just happens to have a liquor store right next to the tracks. The musicians pool $800 to replenish their supply, and off they go.
"I'll carry [the memory of] this with me the rest of my life," Guy says of the experience. "And I'll never get the chance to be with Jerry and Janis again. Things like that only happen once in a lifetime."
Steve Morse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.