- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

The 1970 Festival Express rock tour, a short jaunt by train through the Canadian countryside, with stops in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, would have been a smash if not for those darn Canadians.

As promoter Ken Walker explains in “Festival Express,” a highlight reel of original concert footage plus contemporary recollections, the communal ethos of Woodstock had hardened into a sense of entitlement. (Funny how that happens, isn’t it?)

For a chance to see the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Band, Buddy Guy and other treasures of the era, Mr. Walker and co-promoter Thor Eaton had set a price of $14. (I know what you’re thinking, Washingtonian, but I don’t know: It’s not specified whether those were Canadian or American dollars, nor is an inflation-adjusted figure given.)

Concertgoers in Toronto, the opening stop of the westward-steaming tour, flipped out in hippie indignation, staged a minor riot and managed to inspire sympathy for cops in Dead men Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. (No easy task, the latter.)

Moreover, the radical firebrand mayor of Calgary publicly demanded that “the children of Calgary be let in free” to the city’s Festival Express concert. The movie doesn’t name this mayor, but Mr. Google tells me it was a guy named Rod Sykes.

Mr. Walker claims he responded to Mayor Sykes’ official mau-mauing with a knuckle sandwich — although it sounds like it could be bluster, of which the ex-hippie promoter is full.

Ah, the ‘70s. I wasn’t there, but “Festival Express,” restored by director Bob Smeaton with sound mixed by the great Eddie Kramer, makes me wish I was.

The tour was flopping around their ears, but the musicians had a gas anyway. They were often blasted drunk or high or both. A moment of majestic ‘70s excess comes as the train runs out of booze. The musicians and crew pass the hat, scrounge $800, stop the train in its tracks in front of a liquor store and buy the place out.

The liver abuse is funny, but the joy of “Festival Express” is the music, of course. There are several galvanic performances here, notably from Miss Joplin (“Cry Baby,” “Tell Mama”), who was simply at the top of her game on this tour, and the Band (“The Weight,” Bob Dylan’s “I Shall be Released”), possibly the most underrated singing group in rock history.

I could take or leave marginalia such as Sha Na Na — tell me, fiftysomething, what was up with them? — and Ian and Sylvia.

As much as I idealize the music of A.D. 1968 through 1972, “Festival Express” is a helpful reminder that it wasn’t all greatness then; that era had its share of dreck, just like today.

But, man, was there greatness.


TITLE: “Festival Express”

RATING: R (Profanity, scenes of alcoholic excess)

CREDITS: Directed by Bob Smeaton. Produced by Gavin Poolman and John Trapman. Cinematography by Peter Biziou.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.festivalexpress.com


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