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FESTIVAL EXPRESS (director: Bob Smeaton; cinematographers: Peter Biziou/Bob Fiore; editor: Eamonn Power; cast: The Band, Grateful Dead, The Buddy Guy Blues Band, Janis Joplin, Mashmakhan, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Sha Na Na, Eric Andersen; Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: R; producers: John D. Trapman/Gavin Poolman; THINKFilm; 2003-Canada)
“The music was fabulous–a reason enough to cherish this first-rate documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The pair of 22-year-old Canadian entrepreneurs and rock music lovers, Ken Walker and Thor Eaton (his family owned one of Canada’s most successful department store chains), in the summer of 1970 hired a chartered train (with a bar car) from CN to carry the musicians in style across Canada for a week to stage three concerts from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary with the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, the Band, Buddy Guy, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and many other top-flight acts. They called the tour “The Festival Express,” and a camera crew tagged along to capture the magic, all-night booze parties, and jam sessions on the train, something the performers and their entourages and groupies really enjoyed. Surviving musicians wax poetic about the tour in interviews recently given, telling how they really enjoyed the train ride and being with their fellow musicians. The only controversy and unexpected moment in the film is the number of fan protesters (gatecrashers and those complaining of the high ticket price of $14) showing up in Toronto insisting on a free concert, but were turned down with the musicians siding with the promoters. The protests continued in the other cities despite the Dead providing a free show wherever the tour landed.

The only stop was an unauthorized one in Saskatoon to restock the bar. The tour might have been a critical success, but was a financial bomb. This prompted the now older and more mature Walker to recently state from hindsight “We gave the public too much and they didn’t deserve it.”

Director Bob Smeaton (“The Beatles Anthology”) used the lengthy footage that sat around for over thirty years to recut the material, and he proved to all those not aware of this concert how it can from a music perspective, though certainly not a cultural one, be compared favorably to Woodstock. The highlight of the film is Janis Joplin’s rousing timeless solo numbers “Cry Baby” and “Tell Mama” and her casual moments on the train jamming with Jerry Garcia and goofing around. Janis just might be the greatest white soul-singer of all time (I certainly believe that), and this moment on film caught the flower child at the height of her vocal powers. The on-train jams attest to the good vibes the performers were feeling, and their loose boozy rendition of “No More Cane on the Brazos,” led by a howling Rick Danko and a tuned-in Jerry Garcia was a real treat. Deadheads could take pleasure in the on-stage performances of such familiar Grateful Dead songs as “Casey Jones,” “Don’t East Me In,” and “Friend of the Devil.” If not interested in the history aspects, at least, the music was fabulous–a reason enough to cherish this first-rate documentary.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”