Festival Express

In the summer of 1970, a bunch of the best rock musicians in the world played a festival across Canada. Unlike today's equivalents (Ozzfest, The Warped Tour...), this tour not only played together, it traveled across the country together on a train dubbed the Festival Express. Promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton decided that this would be both a fun thing to do, and a great excuse to jam together. Somehow, the footage was buried and is only surfacing now.

The roster is iconic. The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin (mere months before her overdose), Buddy Guy, The Band, The Flying Burrito Bros, ShaNaNa, and more were on the tour and in the documentary. Festival Express consists of three main elements; concert footage from the various stops, jam sessions on the train itself, and interviews with many of the participants reminiscing. Director Bob Smeaton does a great job of splicing all three together, and more importantly, letting the musicians play their songs all the way through. If anything, Smeaton should have included more concert footage.

Festival Express is an interesting portrait of its time. There is a weird confluence of counterculture and economics that reared its ugly head during the tour. For the most part, the artists had a great time, jamming and getting drunk on the train. According to Guy, many people did not want to sleep lest they miss some great jam session.  It felt sometimes like they played concerts and left the train as an afterthought. However, the tour was losing a lot of money. Walker and Eaton pressed on. Concertgoers began protesting the prices (a whopping $14), claiming they were far too high. This led to near riots, and Jerry Garcia appealing for calm and understanding. Remember, Garcia is essentially asking them to pay the man, which is a pretty weird thing.

Pretty much everybody interviewed, notably Guy, and surviving Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh has fond memories of the tour. Festival Express doesn't really aim to reveal any new secrets or give any real insight into the bands on stage, it just wants to present a good time. In this sense it's a pretty superficial movie.  The real reason is to see the great footage, especially of Joplin.  It's just a reminder of how good musicians can be when they sing, as opposed to the prepackaged, dancing lip-synching teens of today.  The music is good, the musicians are having fun, and so is everybody watching.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 30 minutes, Rated R for some language.

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