‘Festival Express’ explores the music of a little-known concert experience

'Festival Express' t-shirt serves as the cover art for this documentary
‘Festival Express’ t-shirt serves as the cover art for this documentary

Seems to me that the concert experience in the early 1970s and before was vastly different than what you generally get today. Nowadays, you’re treated to fancy light shows and pyrotechnics, mixed with video screens and lip-syncing performers. But, back in the day, all there was was you and the musicians.

A stage, some instruments, and the band just singing their hearts out. How could you possibly watch footage of Janis Joplin screaming on stage and think otherwise? Watching Festival Express, you are literally taken back to the days where real musicians took the stage and played to half-packed stadiums in the middle of no where.

To be honest, I’m not much of a concert goer. I’ve probably been to a handful in my entire life, and only really enjoyed one or two of those. I’d rather sit in a smoky bar listening to a blues band go at it than in a crowded Madison Square Garden and watch some music industry product pretend to belt out tunes while fireworks explode with multi-colored lights flashing around the ceiling.

Festival Express is a musical documentary about a three-city traveling festival that toured Canada in 1970, and to me it shows what live performances are supposed to be. No fuss or muss, just talented artists doing what they do best — play music and entertain the audience. The film highlights performances by such legends as the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, but also the Flying Burrito Brothers and Sha Na Na.

The performers were shipped from city to city on a decked-out train, where they spent the majority of their time jamming tunes, doing drugs and getting drunk. And from what little is shown of the train ride, they were clearly having a good time doing it. Seeing Joplin and Garcia (who were honestly the only two performers I was really familiar with) was really interesting because in some brief moments you actually got to see these people off stage.

'Festival Express'
‘Festival Express’

Unfortunately, the movie rarely moves away from the music, so the film itself really doesn’t take you too far behind the scenes of the concert tour. It’s made pretty clear that between performances everyone was stoned and drunk, and spent a lot of time just playing music, but you really don’t get to see a lot of it. And the interviews only offer general feelings from the time, rarely discussing events and relating stories.

It does, however, discuss what caused the festival to be a financial failure, which I thought was probably the most insightful portion of the film. Taking place shortly after Woodstock, the festival was hurt by protestors demanding that the festival be free. Unwilling to pay the $14 to $16 is cost to get in, they regularly threatened to storm the concerts and clashed with police. The musicians comment on the protestors, often siding against them and effectively pointing out that the festival costs thousands of dollars to produce. The musicians weren’t doing this out of the kindness of their hearts, it’s their job and their doing it to earn a living.

The argument that “music belongs to the people and should be free” is responded to beautifully by Ken Walker, one of the promoters. He threw a protestor down a flight of stairs. I thought this element to the film was an interesting commentary on the times, but also relevant to the present argument over online music piracy.

If you are curious about some of the behind the scenes details, than you’ll need to turn to the second disc. The best is “Chugging Along”, which features more interviews from the few musicians who appear in the film, as well as Walker, who is without a doubt the most entertaining part of the film.

His stories, such as when he punched the mayor of Calgary, are just plain hilarious. And while his encounter with the mayor of Calgary is only briefly mentioned in the film, you get much more information in the extended interviews.

You’re also given the option of viewing a dozen other performances that were not included in the film. By far my favorite of these was “Child’s Song” by Tom Rush.

Festival Express is an entertaining trip back to the 70s, filled with iconic imagery of folk music and good old fashioned rock and roll. It highlights a time where most of the people we heard on the radio were actually musicians and not music industry products, packaged and hyped.

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