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Festival Express

April 24th, 2011 · 13 Comments · Grateful Dead, Movies, Music

Here’s an article I wrote on the film Festival Express, published in Relix Magazine, April 2004.

Drivin’ That Train . . .        

The Festival Express Rolls Again After 30 Years

by Brian Hassett


“That was the best time I’ve had in rock and roll,” said Jerry Garcia. “There were no straight people.”

In the summer of 1970, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band and scores of other musicians took a chartered train trip across Canada. And it’s on film. Really, really good film. Coming to theaters this summer. DVD to follow. But go out of your way to catch it on the big screen for the full concert experience. At the Toronto Film Festival last fall, tears were rolling down cheeks during Janis’s soul bearing, and spontaneous applause erupted mid-song, as if it were a jazz club.

Plus, this is the best Jerry Garcia on film. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

And it’s the wildest Band on film; looser, younger and even more alive than The Last Waltz, playing in their home country with the Hawks soaring thru ‘em.

The Village Voice said of The Janis Voice: this is “by far the most vivid evidence of her presence ever committed to film.” You will ‘get’ Janis-goose bumps, guaranteed.

And the swirling cinematic trip that Beatles Anthology director Bob Smeaton wove together from the 46 hours of uncovered footage is “the third jewel in the crown,” as Dead and culture historian Dennis McNally puts it, grouping it with Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

“Woodstock was a treat for the audience, but the train was a treat for the performers,” somebody said on the train, no one remembers who.

But someone did remember a camera and captured the best backstage party these sculptors of modern music claim they ever attended, at a peak in their collective creative lives. “Never had such a good time in my life before,” as Robert Hunter put in “Might As Well,” his ode to the train trip. The Band had just crawled out the window of Dylan’s basement and are sprinting through their solo prime. The Dead are in their original-six lineup, Pigpen trim and on harp. They’d just presciently written “Casey Jones,” and preciously recorded Workingman’s Dead-which hit stores the day before the Toronto show and included a brand new song about playing outdoor festivals called “New Speedway Boogie,” which they deliver a fresh-out-of-the-studio version of. Garcia wrote “Ripple” in Saskatoon, and Janis worked up her biggest hit, “Me & Bobby McGee,” just three months before final flameout. It’s like finding a film of Michelangelo sculpting David.

In a garage. In Canada. “The original filmmaker had it just sitting in an old box,” says film consultant James Cullingham, who’s writing a book about it. “He called me over, and I look in the box and there’s cans of film labeled ‘Dead,’ ‘Joplin,’ ‘Band.'” (Oh look, mom, it’s our summer vacation movies from that train trip with Auntie Janis and Uncle Jerry!) “Then we found the negatives and 8-track audio masters had been mysteriously stored in the National Archives of Canada.”

“It’s in pristine shape,” testifies film soundmaster Eddie Kramer. Both the audio and video seem like they were recorded last summer, not last century.

The pioneering promoter and conductor, Ken Walker, who brought John Lennon to town the previous summer for his historic non-Beatles Live Peace In Toronto show, said, “If we were bringing all the acts together for one festival, why not do more than one? So I got the idea of the private train and started negotiating with CN Railways,” many comical details of which are in the film.

“We were supposed to open in Montreal but it was cancelled last minute by the mayor. And we tried to do Vancouver, but couldn’t get the stadium. So we did the two shows in Toronto, June 27th and 28th, with different bands each day. Then one in Winnipeg, July 1st, and two in Calgary, July 4th and 5th, after which Janis wanted to hijack the train to keep it going!”

And just like Woodstock, the whole thing came together because of Bob freakin’ Dylan! “I’d just gotten Lennon, and I wanted Dylan,” Walker said. “So I called Albert Grossman, who was also managing Janis Joplin. She’d been looking for a new band and figured Dylan had done alright with his Band from Toronto, and so her new group, Full Tilt Boogie, was from there, too. So Janis wanted to do it right away. And I was talking to Grossman, so we got The Band. Once we had them, and word of The Orient Express got out, we got the San Francisco acts.”

The Dead brought along Jerry’s ‘other’ band, The New Riders of the Purple Sage-this being the “Evening with The Grateful Dead” era that included a Riders set with Garcia on pedal steel, and a Dead acoustic set. The other lucky gamblers onboard were the Flying Burrito Brothers the month after Gram Parsons left, Delaney & Bonnie, Buddy Guy, Mountain, Ian & Sylvia Tyson’s Great Speckled Bird, Mashmakan, Seatrain, Eric Andersen, the Good Brothers, Tom Rush, plus some local acts in each city, and that ubiquitous festival oddity, Sha Na Na. Traffic and Ten Years After also played the opening Toronto shows and are on film, but not in the movie.

And with all these assembled masters in their prime, “Jerry was the natural born ringmaster of that 3-ringed dream train,” as pedal steel pioneer Buddy Cage put it. Not only does he seem to be in on every jam, but also as the crowd gets out of hand at the opening show, it’s Garcia who actually rises to the microphone for a solo stage-front plea for “coolness,” and he initiates the violence-diffusing free concert in the adjacent park.

“Garcia was the obvious leader in a scene that claimed no leaders,” says tour scholar Cullingham. “Jerry, Janis, Walker and [Rick] Danko were the forces of nature behind the whole thing.”

And it wasn’t just the music Casey Jones was driving. “Jerry wanted to go up to the engine,” Walker said. “He was really interested in the geography and wanted to be up front for the moment the prairie flatlands suddenly open up in front of you. So we go up there and Jerry climbs up in the seat and sticks his head out the window until the engineer warned him about the bugs! He showed Jerry where the whistle was, and just as we were crossing into Manitoba he was blowin’ the whistle and giggling away!”

Garcia: “It was the musicians’ train. There wasn’t any showbiz bullshit. It was like a musicians’ convention with no public allowed.” John Till, Full Tilt Boogie: “It wasn’t only a concert on stage, it was a concert for the entire trip.”   Mickey Hart: “It was like a dream music camp with all your friends.”  Eric Andersen: “It was this little La Bohème society.”

“The promoters promised us all the pot we could smoke cuz we had to cross the border,” Mickey said. “Of course they didn’t come thru. They had cars full of Canadian liquor, but we weren’t experienced drinkers, so we all got just shit-faced drunk. I’ve never seen Jerry so green in my life! We were just heaving out the windows. I hope they don’t have that on film!”

No, but they do have Jerry telling Janis he loves her. And Delaney playing “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” in the bar car where he taught it to Garcia. And Danko, Janis and Garcia singing together on a couch like a drunk hippie Rat Pack. And there even seems to be a bonafide, three-act drama played out on the stages of the three-city arc: The players first meet in Toronto, face some conflict, then bond on the road to Winnipeg where they rise and play their best “top this!” sets to each other. Then there’s more trouble ahead, but they all come together in different configurations for the triumphant Calgary climax.

In the heart of the movie and country is Winnipeg, a blissfully black and white 1950’s Pleasantville. Suddenly the swirling-color psychedelic train hits town 12-cars-long! And just to stir the prank, it’s Canada Day, out of nowhere there are gate-crashing protesters, the summer fair’s in town, and . . . the Prime Minister pulls up alongside in another train! Meanwhile, over in the small-town nearly-empty-anyway football stadium, Janis and The Band are laying down Olympian, Hall of Fame performances.

Fortunately there is a small wild crop thriving in the same wacky-weed prairie soil that budded Neil Young and The Guess Who and the real-life characters Matt Groening based Homer on, and the freak underground comes through with a healthy dose of psychedelics and combustibles for the rest of the ‘trip.’

Another soon-to-be classic scene is when they run out of booze in Saskatchewan and the Marx Brothers meet Spinal Tap on the train platform in A Hard Day’s Night. “I dunno,” Eric Andersen says, almost disbelieving his own memories. “They just stopped in Saskatoon, the whole damn train just stopped, like, in front of a liquor store!”

“Everything was constantly revolving,” Mickey remembers. “There was a blues car, a country car, a rock-n-roll car. It was like musical chairs. There was never anything like that level of talent and musicianship encapsulated in such close quarters for that length of time.”

And it was also an impromptu country-rock summit, with Buddy Cage a central bridge, playing with the influential Great Speckled Bird, and inadvertently passing the audition to replace Garcia in the New Riders. “Ian Tyson’s folk-country grew into country-rock, and suddenly here was everybody,” he says of the Grateful Speckled Purple Sage Burrito Band onboard. “Jerry asked me to set up the steel on the train, and that carried over to the stage in so many ways,” like when an ecstatic Garcia and others join Speckled Bird for a sunset “C.C. Rider” that explodes with the newborn joy of the train’s country-rock-blues ménage á trois.


“It was a fusion,” Mickey says. “All these different kinds of players playing each others’ music. I thought, ‘This is the world’s music.’ Here’s Buddy Guy playing country, Mountain doing gospel, Janis singing Canadian folk…”

Trains are hypnotic, mythical, inspiring, magical, eternal. And so is this transportive movie. From the Western Expansion to any kid hopping a freight out of town with Kerouac in their rucksack, trains meant freedom and untold adventure. And that’s without instruments. By some blessing from the archeological gods, some tremendous positive energy gift is rollin’ down the track, and for just a moment we’re all gonna get to be that headlight on a northbound train.

As Janis adieu’s, “The next time you throw a train, man, invite me!”

= = = = = = = = = =


Festival Express has joined a very small family of the great rock films ever made, and it comes by its magic honestly.

It has…

  • the split-screen, too-much-happening-to-catch-it-all atmosphere of Woodstock, except common performers the Dead, Janis and The Band are in the movie!
  • the backstage intimacy of Don’t Look Back – in fact, it may be the first real challenge to Pennebaker’s portrait except this is in color and the songs are complete.
  • the story-telling, big-picture of Gimme Shelter, except nobody gets killed and the Dead get to play.
  • an Academy Award-winning cinematographer capturing The Band and music’s brightest lights like The Last Waltz, except it’s on a train trip and everybody’s six years younger.
  • the child-like joy of A Hard Days Night set in the psychedelia of Magical Mystery Tour.
  • the fiery landmark live performances of Monterey Pop, with as much backstage footage as onstage.
  • the Python madness of the textbook ‘rockumentary’ Spinal Tap, except they went too far with this one and the characters are barely believable!
  • a feisty promoter at the center of a high-speed, week-long all-star rock ‘n’ roll freight-train like The Last Days of the Fillmore, and filmed exactly one year to the day earlier.
  • the natural, relaxed and intimate outdoor setting of Celebration at Big Sur, but . . . you’re gonna get to see this one soon!

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

For another cool Canadian music story — check out the time I wrote a song with the founder of The Guess Who, Chad Allan.

Or here’s the de facto prequel to Festival Express — when the same promoter put on the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival the year before and John Lennon flew over to perform.

For more Adventures in Music — you may want to check out the (Route) 66 Best live performances ever captured on film.

Or for an excerpt from my forthcoming book on Kerouac, the Dead and Ken Kesey — check out arriving at a Dead show in 1982.

Or for that time George Harrison went to a Beat play and raved about it to Paul McCartney — check out The Beatles, The Beats & The Beard.

Or for another riff that included Janis, Robert Hunter, Pigpen and a few hundred others — check out Famous People Who Don’t Have Kids.

Or for a linked list of over 500 of the greatest movies ever made — check out The Hot Movie List.

Or take the New Orleans Jazz Fest ride.

Or the night Dylan showed up at Springsteen’s show at Shea Stadium in New York.

Or check out some other little movies about Woodstock and the Merry Pranksters.

Or how The Grateful Dead came to play my 30th birthday.

Or when Jerry showed up at another birthday 20 years later.

Or when Neil Young returned to Massey Hall in Toronto.

Or Paul Simon doing Graceland in Hyde Park in London.

Or the night  Furthur came back and reprised the Dead.

Or the night I was hanging with Dr. John’s band in Toronto.

Or here’s the day I finally “got” Bob Dylan

Or the night we all lost John Lennon


by Brian Hassett

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13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alex Nantes // Apr 24, 2011 at 10:24 PM

    Man, this is so Grate! Thanks for the background. One of the Gratest rock-docs ever!

  • 2 Barnaby Marshall // Apr 25, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    Hunter! That night you brought Ken Walker out in Toronto is still one of the all-time classics. What a night, what a guy, what a trip, what a movie.

  • 3 Will Hodgson // Apr 25, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    I’ve got the Relix issue on my shelf. Of COURSE you saw it before everybody else. Keep the Beat, my Beat brother.

  • 4 Megan Reese // Apr 26, 2011 at 7:51 PM

    Mr. B! Thanks for the turn-on! Gotta get this DVD.

  • 5 Debbie Vazquez // Apr 27, 2011 at 11:37 AM

    You’re “on the train” and “on the bus” always. Thanks for taking me with you.
    Luv, Deb

  • 6 John Cassady // Apr 29, 2011 at 1:16 AM

    “Drivin that train, high on … ”
    Of course the Gratest band ever is at the heart of the Gratest “trip” ever.
    Thanks for bringin it home, Brother Bri.

  • 7 Stacey Anderson // Jun 3, 2011 at 2:13 PM

    Janis brought me to tears. And you’re right — it’s the best Janis on film. Thanks for all the background on the beauty.

  • 8 Susan Saunders // Aug 16, 2011 at 10:21 PM

    Nice review. It’s amazing this footage survived … and somebody found it … and this exists. I wish somebody would do something like this again.

  • 9 Jason Bowman // Jun 16, 2012 at 9:05 PM

    Best piece on the movie I’ve found. Thanks.

  • 10 Al Robinson // Mar 7, 2013 at 7:23 AM

    Thought you’d want to know — The whole movie is up on YouTube now …

  • 11 Ben Nathan // Aug 9, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    The best Jerry in a film of any of the great rock documentaries.

  • 12 The Wrecking Crew film review // Feb 8, 2015 at 11:00 AM

    […] For another great music doc — check out Festival Express. […]

  • 13 Judy // Jan 27, 2024 at 2:52 PM

    The whole thing, this time of life, was wonderful.

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