This past Friday night I stayed home and had a Jerry Garcia celebration of my own.
Thanks to a suggestion from Michaelangelo Matos, I rented the documentary Festival Express. The film follows a 1970 tour—by train—that took the Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin, the Buddy Guy Blues Band, and several more acts to three different festivals across the Canada.
If you’re a fan of any of those bands, or have any interest of music and culture from a very inspired, very twisted era of recent history, the film is a must.
It’s astounding to see bell-bottomed longhairs protesting the concerts; after Woodstock, apparently, hippies thought that all festivals should be free. Kids rioted in all three Canadian cities—Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary—which brought out tons of cops, forced the cancellation of two more dates, and ensured that the promoters completely lost their shirts. Apparently $15 to see a daylong festival of the biggest acts of the era was too much.
The concert footage is riveting and the sound quality superb. I’ve never seen footage from that era so vivid and well-produced; Festival Express indeed surpasses Woodstock in that regard, as Matos suggested to me. And the set list, collected from the three concerts that the Festival Express stopped at, kicks ass:
“Don’t Ease Me In,” the Grateful Dead
“Friend of the Devil,” the Grateful Dead
“Slippin’ and Slidin’,” the Band
“Money,” Buddy Guy
“The Weight,” the Band
“Cry Baby,” Janis Joplin
“New Speedway Boogie,” the Grateful Dead
“Tell Mama,” Janis Joplin
There’s a bunch more, and the DVD comes with bonus footage as well, including Pigpen belting out a scorching rendition of “Easy Wind,” one of my favorite Dead tunes. These bands during this era were all at the top of their game and hearing and seeing them live sends chills. As does knowing that a few of them wouldn’t survive much longer.
Again as Matos suggested, the most riveting part of the film comes during an overnight trip aboard the train. At one point, the train runs out of booze; the train stops in front of a liquor store somewhere in Saskatoon and the promoters buy the place out. $800 and one enormous promotional bottle of Canadian Club later, the train is rolling. This massive bottle of Canadian Club—mounted with a plastic pump for easy dispensing—has been heavily dosed, and everyone’s drinking.
Seated in the train car are a clearly-lit Rick Danko from the Band, Janis, Jerry, and Bob Weir, surrounded by other musicians and friends and folks. They’re jamming freely—I mean freely—on an old spiritual-type song the credits list as “Ain’t No More Cane.” There isn’t much form to what they’re doing, other than improv. Danko is hollering a vocal, Janis is backing him up, while Jerry and Bobby play acoustic guitars. The whole car is trying to sing along, stay in the game with these four, who are in their own world, together, careening across the Canadian countryside in a train.
The scene is potent: You can feel the acid-soaked sweat, the twinge of in-the-moment psychedelic awkwardness, the sense of posterity being created in this footage. Jerry finishes a nimble, soulful solo and the session winds down with a loopy Danko shouting “Thank you Jerry Garcia!” Jerry smiles, and amidst the post-jam chatter, looks Janis in the eye.
“Janis, I’ve loved you from the moment I laid eyes on you,” he says.
GOOSEBUMPS. It’s impossible to tell from the footage—which is fucking astounding, that someone was in that train car with a camera and a mic right up in their faces—whether Jerry’s joking, tripping, self-conscious, or sincere. Janis demurs. The scene ends, and the train rolls on to another festival the next day.
The film wraps up with a ferocious Janis Joplin performance. All at once you can see exactly why she became what she was. She’s a powerhouse, caterwauling, overwhelming as she sings “Cry Baby.” But between verses, the facade cracks and you can see all the vulnerability, the need for approval. And somehow it only makes her stronger. She needs approval not because she lacks confidence, although she does. She needs it because she has so much to give back, she’s such a wellspring of faith and emotion that she’s actually invulnerable, invincible, and she looks it and sounds it in full force while she’s on stage.
She’d be dead four months after Festival Express was filmed.