Festival Express takes a crazy train to ’70s rock history

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By Steve Newton

There’s been some pretty sweet concert Blu-rays released in the last little while. Hugely impressive was last week’s Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration–Deluxe Edition, from Legacy Recordings, the same folks who gave us recent killer box sets by Johnny Winter and Mike Bloomfield.

Yesterday I finally got around to watching another primo concert Blu-ray, Festival Express, which was issued last month on the Shout! Factory label.

Festival Express was a three-concert event held in June and July of 1970 in which an assortment of American and Canadian rock and blues acts–including the Grateful Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin, and Buddy Guy–put on outdoor shows in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary, and tied them together with a ride on a privately booked CN Rail train. (The original plan called for the tour to begin in Montreal and end in Vancouver, but those cities were taken off the  itinerary for various reasons, most security-related.)

But as it turns out that just the three gigs–and the train-traveling in between–were plenty to provide enough historical footage to make Festival Express a must-see for fans of the earliest of ’70s rock. It’s like a mini-Woodstock on rails.

The best stuff is what was captured on the train, where the various band members clearly had the times of their lives jamming for days and partying it up. Many of them are obviously wasted on whatever–like the Band’s Rick Danko in the midst of a shit-faced sing-along with Joplin.

The Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir are right in there whenever it’s time to sip and strum. And who wouldn’t want to be stuck on a train car with Buddy Guy when he’ll pull out his Strat at the drop of a doob?

My fave performances on Festival Express are of the Band (“The Weight”), the Grateful Dead (“Friend of the Devil”), and Buddy Guy (“Hoochie Coohie Man”), but also of note is Tom Rush’s solo rendition of Murray McLauchlan’s “Child’s Song” and the lesser-known Mashmakhan doing their then-new single “As the Years Go By”.

As well as the performances, the interviews on the Blu-ray with the artists, filmmakers, and original promoter Ken Walker give invaluable insight into what actually transpired during that tumultuous trainride–and the multiple challenges that had to be met to pull off the tour.

Although the original event lost a lot of money, in the long run the winner was rock ‘n’ roll itself.

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