“Festival Express” is a documentary following some of the most famous musicians of the twenty-first century, as they traveled across Canada on a music, booze and psychedelic laden train. Their goal was to put on three music festivals in the three biggest cities of Canada in 1970, the summer after many of them performed at Woodstock. From The Grateful Dead to Janis Joplin to The Band to Buddy Guy, some of the most talented musicians of the sixties and seventies were all holed up together in a giant train for days on end in between stops to play for tens of thousands fans. This created one of the most unique gatherings of musicians before or since, due to the unprecedented amount of time these artists had to just hang out, jam and spend time in each other’s company.
Those familiar with the music revolution of the 60’s know of Woodstock, the Acid Tests, the story of the bus Further, and many other various misadventures of these artists back then. It seems, though, that this is one of the less known happenings of that time period. Maybe it’s due to the lack of drama or the fact that it wasn’t on American soil, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to penetrate the collective consciousness on the sixties, when from a musicianship and historical standpoint it stands at an important crossroads. It was a summer soon after the “Summer of Love” and the end point of the sixties and beginning of the seventies, the end of which was a devastating one for music, losing both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in the span of a few months. Unfortunately Jimi was not on the Festival Express, but thankfully Janis was, and through the lens that captured so much behind the scenes footage of the train and the concerts we were able to catch one last glimpse at a totally unique and unparalleled artist. It truly is amazing to see her playing along with Rick Danko, the bassist for The Band, and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead with no frills or amplifiers, just friends enjoying hearing each other play and sing.
That really was the magic of the Express. Not the festivals themselves, as there have been hundreds and hundreds of those up to present day, from Woodstock to Lollapalooza, but the train ride. As they say in the documentary, ‘no expense was spared’. There was a car for every type of music, whether you were playing country western, jazz, blues or Americana rock n roll, creating a sounding board for these amazing musicians to collaborate with each other in a fun, relaxed atmosphere. Seeing these giants, who broke new ground in psychedelic, blues, funk and almost every genre of music, playing together having a good time like many of us musicians have in our anonymity is extremely humanizing. It makes us remember that while they are legends to us, many of which were taken before their time by drugs and partying, they were just people who wanted to play music and got swept up in the moment themselves. The Festival Express tour was likely the first and last of its kind, both in light of the footage gathered of these historic artists and the collaborative shows they put on. It was an important bookend to the sixties, one that seems as though it has been overlooked and not properly celebrated, and for people who celebrate these artists and draw inspiration from them, it should be a mandatory documentary to watch, share, and experience these musicians as they lived and had fun as people in the moment, not gods on the mountaintop from a lost era of music.
This article was written by Jake Perry, a writer for dusk magazine.