There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
A rock doc that’s as much road movie as performance vehicle, Festival Express revisits a summer-of-1970 package tour that was most notable not for what happened onstage, but what took place in transit. Intending to create a bacchanalia on rails, fest promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton spared little expense on their artists—which included Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, the Band, and Buddy Guy, among others—treating them to a private train outfitted with musical gear and an open bar. Needless to say, everyone had a blast. “Every time I went to bed,” Guy says in an interview with filmmaker Bob Smeaton, “I thought I was gonna miss something.” And there were plenty of things to miss: Guy’s Afro-topped rhythm guitarist leading a tight ’n’ tantric “Soul Jam,” Jerry Garcia picking and crooning a church-worthy rendition of “Better Take Jesus’ Hand,” and booze-wasted Band bassist Rick Danko teaching Garcia, Joplin, and the Dead’s Bob Weir how to play Basement Tapes nugget “Ain’t No More Cane.” Even a tapped-out bar becomes a high point when the Festival Express hits Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: As singer-songwriter Eric Andersen reminisces, “The whole darn train stopped, like, in front of a liquor store, and they bought the place out.” Despite all of the glorious excess involved, Smeaton has put together a pretty tight little film, generally avoiding go-nowhere performances and behind-the-scenes longueurs. The director does, however, have a decidedly unrepressed sensibility when it comes to all that nature whizzing by: He intercuts the train revelry with a generous number of lingering, Almendrosesque shots of rural Canada designed to complement the music’s rootsy vibe. Still, the 90-minute film, largely assembled from 40-plus hours of 16 mm footage three decades after the fact, isn’t all peace, love, and harmony. The festival’s opening show in Toronto was marred by violent protests from hippies who believed that professional musicians should entertain them for free. And, thanks to the Canadian media, which sensationalized the fan-vs.-police altercation, that sentiment spread to other cities, resulting in less-than-profitable ticket sales. “I gave the public too much, and they didn’t deserve it,” Walker says late in the movie. The musicians, for their part, seem to agree: Weir calls the protesters “uptight,” and the rest just seem happy to get on the train and away from the fans. Of course, by the time the tour pulled out of its first station, the ’60s were chronologically and spiritually over: It had already been some seven months since Albert and David Maysles filmed the free concert that was Altamont. If their Gimme Shelter captured the true snuffing of the Age of Aquarius, then Smeaton’s movie is an early glimpse of what would follow: the Me Decade.