In the summer of 1970, some of the era’s biggest rock stars all took to the rails for Festival Express, a multi-artist, multi-day, multi-city concert tour that captured the spirit and imagination of a generation. What made it unique was that it was portable; for five days, the bands and performers lived, slept, rehearsed and let loose aboard a customized train that traveled from Toronto, to Winnipeg, to Calgary, with each stop culminating in a mega-concert.
Festival Express captures some of rock’s most iconic artists in an extraordinary setting, during an incredible time in music history. These were some of Janis Joplin’s final performances, as she would tragically lose her life just 3 months later. The Band were at the height of their time together, and the Grateful Dead were in the midst of releasing future classics Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
The entire experience was filmed both off-stage and on, chiefly by Peter Biziou, who would later win an Oscar for “Mississippi Burning,” but the extensive footage and sound tapes of the events remained locked away for decades, only recently having been rediscovered and restored. The film Festival Express is a momentous achievement in rock film archaeology which combines the long-lost material with contemporary interviews that add important context to the event nearly 35 years after originally being filmed.
In reviewing 'Gimme Shelter' by The Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, I wrote about the film being the last part of an unintended trilogy, along with D.A. Pennebaker's 'Monterey Pop', and Michael Wadleigh’s 'Woodstock,' about youth culture in the latter half of the 1960s. 'Monterey Pop' is filled with promise and potential. 'Woodstock' finds things come to a head because not everyone grasps the ramifications of all they are embracing. 'Gimme Shelter' presents one of the key events that signaled that the "peace and love" '60s were over, the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Although it wasn't released theatrically until 2003, 'Festival Express' serves as an interesting epilogue since some of the same musical acts and issues occur.
During the summer of 1970, rather than have a major concert pull in an audience, the musicians went to the people in a series of three music festivals taking place across Canada. As the Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones" plays, opening titles reveal that "after the first festival in Toronto, the musicians, their roadies and a film crew traveled by private train to the remaining festivals in Winnipeg and Calgary.” Aside from the aforementioned Dead, the film features performances by The Band, The Flying Burritos Brothers, Buddy Guy Blues Band, Ian & Sylvia & the Great Speckled Bird, Janis Joplin, Mashmakhan, and Sha Na Na. In addition to presenting the bands on stage and off, interviews recorded shortly before the film's release were compiled by performers, promoters, and journalists reflecting on the events and offering good insight about the entire endeavor.
The first concert was held on June 27, 1970. The venue was packed full of people, but many more showed up, hanging about outside. Some were looking to sneak in; others grabbed seats on top of the buildings nearby. There was also a group of folks who complained about the advance price of $14 price for the two-day event. A protest was suggested and a few were trying to agitate things. Eventually, a compromise was reached and some of the bands played for free in a park to keep things calm. Before the July 4 concert in Calgary, the mayor, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, wanted the kids allowed in for free. The promoter was having none of it.
The musicians' time on the train is shown to be a joyous, non-stop party where sleep was barely taken advantage of and many played all night thanks to the alcohol and psychedelics. They drank so much they emptied the supplies and a non-scheduled stopped occurred in Saskatoon so they buy hundreds of dollars' worth of alcohol. The on-board highlight from the film is the drunken jam session where the Band's Rick Danko, New Riders of the Purple Sage's John Dawson, the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, and Janis Joplin perform "Ain't No More Cane".
Even better are the concert performances. Not surprisingly, the well-known acts are the standouts. Buddy Guy wails on his guitar during "Money (That's What I Want)" and wanders off stage into the audience while still playing. Although Sha Na Na played the music of the kids' parents, the band's high energy and sense of humor was so infectious they won the crowd over during "Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay." The camera captured the intensity by moving through the crowds with the cameras undercranking to give the appearance of fast motion. The Band and the Grateful Dead are shown playing classic songs, such as "The Weight" and "Friend of the Devil" respectively. Joplin was the headliner and is force of nature in her two brilliant performances, making it such a tragedy she died of a heroin overdose just a few months later at the age of 27.
For fans of classic rock, 'Festival Express' offers a great collection of performances. It is also interesting to see the bands try to continue on with the ethos of '60s while some who claim to be fans missed the point entirely due to their false sense of entitlement.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Festival Express' is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a standard blue case. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements.
The video has been given a 1080p / AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There's noticeable grain that increases in low-light situations, as seen when the train drives under gray skies and some of the nighttime performances, but not to the point where it was distracting. During the latter scenes, the video presents limited depth, sharpness, and clarity as revealed during The Band's performance of "Slippin' and Slidin'". With pianist/singer Richard Manuel receiving the sole spotlight, Robbie Robertson's head blends into the darkness.
Colors come through with accurate brightness as seen in the colorful clothing of the attendees, although when the external light is diminished, the dimmer they appear. Blacks are just adequate and occasionally crush. The brief scene of black and white news footage is also grainy. White specks and scratches can be seen on occasion. A hair appears on side of frame during the Dead's performance of "Don't Ease Me In" and bits of dirt occasionally appear around some frame edges. A bit of banding occurs as sunset light streams into the train during opening credits. Focus issues occur due to the source as the cameramen captured what they could and had to adjust on the fly. There didn’t appear to be any other artifacts.
The disc comes with two DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, 5.1 and 2.0. I chose the former. A studio version of the Grateful Dead's “Casey Jones,” apropos being a train song, plays under the opening credits and the subwoofer helps showcase Phil Lesh's great bass groove and the bottom end. During their "New Speedway Boogie", the bass increases and borders on distortion but never does. Later, the high pitch of the tinkling piano keys during The Band's "Slippin' and Slidin'", demonstrate the wide dynamic range that track offers throughout the film.
The vocals are well mixed with the music during the performances. The audience heard in the surrounds creates a little ambiance. The interviewees play out the front center as well as being positioned in the front speaker of the side of the frame they are on. The source sounds clean and shows no sign of age or wear.
While being a fan of the music is a bonus, the story of 'Festival Express', both the event and the creation of the film, is interesting enough to make it worth viewing. The Blu-ray delivers great audio, good visuals considering the conditions, and the bonus performances alone add to its value, especially for classic rock fans. High recommended.