In the summer of 1970, Janis Joplin, the Band, the Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, Ian Sylvia and others crossed Canada by train, playing concerts and partying. They made up the Festival Express tour and this documentary by the director of The Beatles Anthology, Bob Smeaton, captures the end of the ’60s in a bittersweet snapshot.
The ill-fated tour began at Toronto’s old CNE Stadium, where riot cops battled militant youths refusing to pay 14 dollars for two days worth of bands, demanding a halt to the “RRRRip-Off Express.” (The same protests plagued that year’s Isle of Wight Festival.) Surprisingly, counterculture heroes the Dead side with the pigs and castigate the demonstrators as freeloaders. To their credit, rich, young promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton know they will take a bath on the tour but insist that the train roll on.
The musicians spent five days and nights jamming, drinking, toking, screwing and tripping. There is a charming moment with the Band’s Rick Danko jamming with Joplin on “Ain’t No More Cane,” and a hilarious Prairie pit stop to load up on 800 dollars worth of booze when CN runs out. Musical highlights include the Band’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” Janis’s “Cry Baby” and the Dead’s bluesy “New Speedway Boogie.” The eight-track sound is bright and rich, and while the original 16mm footage is grainy and out of focus for some concert footage, its cinema vérité style creates a rare intimacy during the train scenes. (Apollo/Hanway)