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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Drivin’ That Train

posted by on August 7 at 13:57 PM

festivalexpress.jpg

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.

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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.

RSS icon Comments

1

$15 in 1970 is about $80 in 2006 (the last year for which inflation information is available).

I BET hippies protested. Ha!

Posted by Ari Spool | August 7, 2007 3:08 PM
2

Burn down the barbershop!

Posted by Jason Josephes | August 7, 2007 3:29 PM
3

Great movie. Check out Message To Love (1970 Isle of Wight Festival) and Fly Jefferson Airplane too.

Posted by elswinger | August 7, 2007 3:31 PM
4

you're just now watching this? Hasn't this been out for a few years???

Posted by jim | August 7, 2007 3:40 PM
5

yeah, it came out in 2004. im a dumbass.

have you guys heard of this other really cool movie "the last waltz?"

Posted by jz | August 7, 2007 3:56 PM
6

Hello, my name is Chet Helms and I am surfing the net from the afterlife to letcha know that you, sir, are a bonafide SQUARE. why in God's name would you, as the music editor for a high profile seattle newspaper, stay at home on a friday night to watch a '60's festival dvd that can be viewed anytime - instead of goin' out to a ROCKING *LIVE* Jerry Garcia celebration held that night at Nectar in ye olde Fremont? the show RIPPED, man! the capacity crowd went BANANAS! andy coe SHREDDED! might you have stayed home in order to try to dislodge the FOOT STUCK IN YOUR MOUTH? *YOU*, Mr. HIPSTER-SUCKUP SQUARE, are the only one who *really* SUCKS, and this blog posting don't really make up for the fact that... YA DON'T REALLY KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT...

Posted by Chet Helms | August 7, 2007 4:04 PM
7

Don't feel so bad. I'm 43 and still haven't watched Gone With The Wind.

Posted by elswinger | August 7, 2007 4:23 PM
8

All you fucking hippies should crawl into your time machines with your patchuli and go back to the early 70's in SF. Just get the fuck out of here. Then maybe the Stranger can return to writing about current music and events that matter. What the hell is it with The Dead, jam bands and Fremont?! Fuck off already. Please return the Stranger to some important standing in the music community. Next thing you know Zwickel is going to unload on us about his love for Jimmy Buffet. Fucking bell bottomed retro posts about Bernie Taupin and fools who just discovered Grand Funk. It's like Line Out turned into the freshman dorms at Berkely. Someone please stop this bullshit!!!

Are we really arguing about whether some hippy should be out at a Dead tribute or home watching some 60's tour documentary on a Friday. Are you all really this lame? Is this Bellingham or Seattle?

Oh well, guess it's time to start reading the Weekly again, goddammit.

Posted by Frank | August 7, 2007 4:24 PM
9

Even better than that Dead fest (I'm sure) was Crack Sabbath at the High Dive across the street. They did a ten-minute black metal drone jam that left the bunnies confused, then Ron went off against the Bush administration.

Posted by Mattydread | August 7, 2007 4:26 PM
10

I agree with the hippies, all festivals SHOULD be free.

Posted by nipper | August 7, 2007 4:51 PM
11

oh no, fremont! if it doesnt happen on the hill its not really music!

dont worry, frank, ive been fine-tuning my jimmy buffett thesis for the past few weeks. youll love it.

and chet, ive got bill graham on the celestial cellphone. he says you oughta take a a few deep breaths.

i know its crazy, but theres other stuff i like besides music. i was in friday night so i could get up and out saturday morning to go hiking. even that is me working--i ended up slogging about the trip:

http://slog.thestranger.com/2007/08/outtatown_del_campo_peak

Posted by jz | August 7, 2007 4:55 PM
12

i've got tim keck tuned in via my third eye and it appears that your days as The Stranger's marginally competent music editor are numbered (your "company-man" hippie-band dissing-plan has apparently backfired) ~ so take a few deep breaths of the same hot air that just spewed outta ya, drop your trend-hugging "i'm a deadhead" pretension, and then prepare thyself to take a permanent "hike"...

Posted by Chet Helms | August 8, 2007 6:41 AM
13

Buddy Guy effin rips it up in that flick.

Posted by dc | August 8, 2007 3:20 PM

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