What happens when a train full of legendary rock ‘n’
roll performers do nothing except make music and feel the highs of
life for five straight days? The result is shown in a
behind-the-scenes documentary about the lesser known Canadian
Woodstock, “Festival Express.” Icons such as Janis
Joplin, the Band and the Grateful Dead were just a few of the
musicians performing at the event.

The tour had its first show in Toronto, where it was met with
thousands of delighted supporters at an open theater. However, the
mounted police officers were met with less than pleased fans
outside the gates. Believing that the $14 tickets were too
expensive, they began to riot. They demanded to be let in for free,
so Jerry Garcia came to the rescue by creating a free show in a
nearby park.

The troubles at Toronto did not in any way damper the
musicians’ 24-hour party. Full of laughter, the clink of
glasses and music, the festival rambled on to the next show in
Winnipeg. The bands played another flawless show, without getting
more than a couple hours of sleep if any at all. Drummer Mickey
Hart of the Grateful Dead explained, “This train was not for
sleeping. It was for a lot of other things but not for
sleeping.”

The biggest catastrophe of the tour occurred halfway to their
last show in Calgary. The last drop of alcohol disappeared, and the
musicians refused to go on any further without drinks. The entire
train came to a halt. Fortunately, in the town of Saskatoon, liquor
stores are right across from railroad tracks, and the musicians
pitched in $800 to last them through their last performance.

While “Festival Express” does a fine job displaying
the fans’ inebriated swaying to the music, the movie could
have included more cinema verite-style footage of the musicians on
the train. The clips of Garcia playing his guitar with Joplin and
others singing and laughing along are far more appealing than the
clips of the concerts themselves. Fans who come to see this movie
already know what the artists’ music sounds like. They want
to see the magic that takes place behind the scenes and feel like
they are on the road with the bands.

Janis Joplin’s performance saves the film. Singing
“Cry Baby” and “Tell Mama,” Joplin talked
directly to the audience and drew the listener on stage with her.
Her stage presence, intoxicating to fans and new listeners alike,
is a reminder of why she went down in history as one of the
greatest musicians of all time.

Garcia summed up the overall feeling of the tour when he said it
was “the best I’ve had in
rock‘n’roll,” meaning that the entire tour was a
musicians’ convention. There was no “show biz
bullshit.” It was a rare opportunity for the bands to be in
each other’s company for long periods of time without the
media, fans or celebrity schedules. With an explosive set list that
included the Band’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’
” and “The Weight,” the Grateful Dead’s
“Casey Jones,” “Don’t Ease Me In,”
“Friend of the Devil,” and many more classics,
“Festival Express” proved to be a fun step back in
time, when “a train of insane people careened across the
Canadian countryside, making music night and day and then
occasionally got off to play a concert.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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