Trouble ahead, trouble behind – party onboard
“Can’t find a ride like that no more””Might As Well,” Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter
Some experiences are bound to be once-in-a-lifetime events. In such an event, the thing to do is recognize the uniqueness of the opportunity and live it for all it’s worth.The musicians and assorted tagalongs who rode the Festival Express – a 1970 rock ‘n’ roll tour, by train, from Toronto to Calgary – are unlikely ever to express regrets over their behavior during that weeklong trip. In “Festival Express,” Bob Smeaton’s new documentary of the festival-on-rails, musicians, promoters and journalists are bound by the knowledge that the experience would not be repeated, and the view that they acted accordingly. The assembled musicians – including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Band, Buddy Guy and others – drank like fish, jammed nonstop, shunned the sleeper car, and generally acted like the rock stars they were.’Might as well travel the elegant way’While Deadheads will rejoice at the acoustic version of “Don’t Ease Me In,” and music fans with more general interests will marvel at the powerhouse performances of Joplin and the unfathomable depth of the Band, the actual star of the story is Ken Walker. Appearing as a gray-haired talking head in a business suit, Walker seems to be a world removed from the stoned longhairs who were the main attraction.
Walker, however, was the promoter who insisted that the Festival Express be as memorable an experience for the musicians as for the fans. Walker stocked the bar car not only with booze, but with amplifiers and a Hammond B3 organ. Musicians were treated as first-class passengers. When the horde had drunk the train dry, Walker ordered an unscheduled stop – right smack in front of a Saskatoon liquor store – collected $800, and restocked the shelves. Assuming Walker’s memory is reliable, he was as possessed as any of the musicians: At the booze stop, Walker recalls, he demanded the clerk sell him the display-size bottle of Canadian Club.Such largesse wasn’t easy, given the floundering commercial prospects of the tour. The train was a party from engine to caboose, but the world outside the cars was a nightmare. At the first concert proper, in Toronto, ticket sales were weak as fans boycotted the concert, outraged by the $14 ticket price. (Another reality that isn’t about to be repeated.) The picketing, conflicts with the police, and low attendance were duplicated in the tour’s other two stops, in Winnipeg and Calgary. The audiences were ugly enough that Jerry Garcia, in what might have been his only moment in the role of responsible adult, gave a tongue-lashing to the Toronto crowd. “We would like, if possible, man, to have a half-hour of coolness so we can work something out,” said Garcia, advising the crowd that a separate free concert was in the works. “All this stuff is, like, voluntary in nature.” Garcia’s bandmate Bob Weir, in another out-of-character moment, defends the actions of the police to the media.’Never had such a good time in my life before’
The surly mood affected some of the stage performances more than others. The Band, on their home ground in Canada, wailed through “The Weight” and “I Shall Be Released,” and Joplin’s “Tell Mama” confirms that she was probably the greatest rock singer of them all. The Dead were noticeably stiff, and Buddy Guy may have had too good a time the night before the Winnipeg gig. Regardless, the makers of “Festival Express” seem to be music fans, favoring uninterrupted segments of most of the songs (even Sha Na Na’s “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay,” featuring a line of singers in gold lamé).The problems on the ground seemed to make it all the more important to revel inside the train. “The musicians couldn’t wait to get back on the train,” said Bonnie & Delany & Friends bassist Kenny Gradney, nodding more to the scene on the rails than the difficulties outside. The music never stopped, flowing from gospel-flavored acoustic picking to electric blues jams. As the green Canadian countryside rolled past outside, groupies, roadies and journalists crammed into a car, as Joplin, Garcia, Weir and the Band’s Rick Danko worked through folk songs. The ever-present bottle had a particularly telling effect on Garcia, whose taste in substances ran in the opposite direction of booze. The Festival Express has lived in Deadhead lore as the one time when Garcia got tanked, and the footage here bears it out. The spirit of abandon was captured in the Dead’s “Might As Well”: “Nothing else shaking so you might just as well.””Festival Express” ends on a note that points to how singular this all was. As the credits roll, the present-day Ken Walker offers a note of regret. “What I learned was I gave the public too much. And they didn’t deserve it,” he said without bitterness. Walker adds that he’s thinking about doing it again.But the odds are strongly against him. The Festival Express was a blink-and-you-miss-it-forever happening.
“Festival Express” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Friday through Sunday, Sept. 3-5.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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