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Festival Express Print E-mail
Tuesday, 02 November 2004

Festival Express
New Line Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: The Band, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy Blues Band, Ian & Sylvia & The Great Speckled Bird, Janis Joplin, Mashmakhan and Sha Na Na
DVD release year: 2004
film rating: Four-and-a-Half Stars
sound/picture rating: Four-and-a-Half Stars
reviewed by: Jeff Fish

From the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 to Watkins Glen in 1973, festivals were a huge part of the rock ‘n’ roll landscape. Some of the most memorable performances in rock history were recorded at festivals: Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar at Monterey and setting the world on fire is clearly etched into the rock consciousness, as well as his fiery rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock; a little-known Big Brother and the Holding Company mesmerizing the crowd at Monterey; The Who at The Isle of Wight in 1970 was one of the greatest sets by any band in history. These are all things that we know about thanks to festivals. So in the summer of 1970, another festival was about to take place, but the big difference here is that the festival came to you this time (if you lived in Canada, that is). The Festival Express was the brainchild of Canadian promoter Ken Walker.

Previously, Walker was probably best known for his 1969 Toronto concert with John Lennon (Eric Clapton being Lennon’s guitarist at the time), the Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival Festival. What he wanted to do this time, instead of having one really large festival (with their own issues and problems), was to get an all-star line-up with some of the biggest names of the day and bring them from east to west by train, stopping and playing festivals along the way. He set this up beautifully (at least on the train) by having a bar car be the “club” where the musicians could go to jam. There would be a drum set always on hand, amplifiers for the guitars and bass and a P.A. This was to be a moving party or, as Phil Lesh put it on the documentary, “A place where you’d go and jam, music all around you and, oh, yes, you’d have to get off the train and play a concert occasionally.” Watching the scenes on the train made me envious, jealous and melancholy. This is what rock music used to be about: the music. Not the hangers-on, not your bling-bling or the trappings of fame, but music. Well, that and some party substances …

But there were also a lot of other things going on in 1970. Student protests for any number of reasons were quite common, as was the idea that music should be free, especially in its performance aspect. While Woodstock is widely known for all of its stellar performances, and rightly so, it also set up this idea that all live music festivals should be free. What a lot people at that time didn’t realize (and probably still don’t) is that the promoters are shelling out large sums of money and generally going broke doing it. Walker is such a promoter. He really wanted to bring the music to the masses, but as he says in the documentary, “The musicians deserved it, but the fans didn’t.” Starting in Toronto, there were large protests outside the gates, which reduced the number of people who could see the show and cost them some ticket sales, but also put the performers in the uneasy light of trying to calm the masses (which included The Grateful Dead playing for free in a Toronto park) just so the show could continue. Watching this disc brought back memories of growing up in the San Francisco Bay area and watching these demonstrations on the nightly news. Bob Weir talks about policemen fighting the protestors, which really brings home the human element and what these performers were dealing with more often than they would like.

But the music is still so incredible and moving. The movie’s first performance is The Grateful Dead’s acoustic “Don’t Ease Me In.” They had just released Working Man’s Dead and were also in the process of recording American Beauty, so you can see that this was their time. The Dead were operating on all cylinders and the band was in full stride. But they weren’t the only ones who were on top of their game. The Band was touring with still-new songs from Music From the Big Pink and The Band. When you get to Janis Joplin and Full Tilt Boogie Band, “devastating” is the only word that comes to mind. The first song we get to see Joplin sing is “Cry Baby” and, quite simply, she was the greatest female vocalist of all time in my book. After the song was over, I turned and saw my wife wiping her tears away. You could tell that one was from the heart. You could also see the pain in Joplin’s face, for this was only three months prior to her untimely death. There is unfortunately a lot of this kind of foreshadowing in the movie: Richard Manuel and Rick Danko from The Band, Jerry Garcia and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan of The Dead and, of course, Joplin.

The grainy nature of this film, at least to me, helps it greatly. It really underscores the understanding that you’re not watching something that was filmed recently, but truly seeing history. After watching a young Buddy Guy, you can really see were Hendrix got some of his ideas from. “Money” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” from Guy are just full-on barn burners, plus to hear Guy talk about the train and jamming with Joplin and Garcia … what more could you want? There is one scene on the train, with Danko, Joplin, Garcia and Weir all jamming on “Ain’t No More Cane.” You can just see the absolute joy and intoxication of them all, but that was all part of the time in which this took place.

This movie is for anyone who really gets or is into music. You don’t have to be a fan of any type of music per say to enjoy this movie, either. From a sociological viewpoint, it’s an interesting view into a volatile time in our history. Mostly, from a musical standpoint, this movie is priceless. Just to see all these performers in their prime again is worth almost anything. Even the acts that many people really knew nothing about -- Mashmakhan, Ian & Sylvia & The Great Speckled Bird, Eric Anderson, Seatrain and Tom Rush -- are really good. This was a festival that rivaled any festival of its time or any time. The joy that we hear in these performances and the pride all these musicians had in their music is so evident that it makes this movie a must-view if you’re interested in rock music at all. This is what it all used to be about, and hopefully will be again one day.

I was blown away by this movie. I know I’ll keep watching it for a long time to come.


more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital 5.1; English DTS 5.1; English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Two Discs; Festival Music Highlights Uninterrupted; Over 50 Additional Minutes of Unreleased Music; Extended Interviews with Phil Lesh, Buddy Guy, Bob Weir and Ken Walker; “Making Of” Documentary; Photo Gallery; Theatrical Trailer
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Denon DVD-2200
receiver: Denon AVR-4802R
main speakers: Paradigm Monitor 7
center speaker: Paradigm CC-37
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-370
subwoofer: Paradigm PW-2200
monitor: Sharp

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