A nearly-forgotten 1970 train tour across Canada by a bunch of rock music’s most famous performers is the subject of this exuberant, winningly nostalgic documentary by Bob Smeaton. Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, The Band and Buddy Guy Blues Band are some of the acts featured in the concerts that made their way west from Toronto to Calgary to Winnipeg, and the picture uses contemporary footage from the performances and the journey, as well as recollections by still-surviving participants, to recapture the remarkable character of the event and the unique spirit of camaraderie and musical boundary-crossing that it represented.
The picture is very successful in providing a snapshot of the time, with its end-of-the-sixties atmosphere of near-anarchy; and though the concert footage is fine, it’s the behind-the-scenes material that proves most winning. Listening in on some of the unusual collaborations that occurred as the talent train sped westward, and watching the good cheer that reigned among the performers (with an unscheduled alcohol stop to replenish an exhausted supply), one can almost feel the joy of creativity that was in such abundant supply. The interviewees emphasize that the trip was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to jam with colleagues, and recall it with a fondness that’s truly disarming. The film also celebrates the concert organizers, who actually lost money on the venture after crowds demanded to be let in free and did battle with hired security (the artists actually offered some sets in the park to placate the protesters), but never cut back on the amenities they’d prepared for the performers. It’s no wonder the stars thanked them so profusely in 1970, and remember them with such affection today. The chief promoter, Ken Walker, is among those interviewed, and one senses in him a continuing feeling of pride at what he helped create, despite the financial shortfall.
The artists and the audiences obviously had a great time at the Festival Express a quarter-century ago, and you’ll probably have one at “Festival Express” today.