Festival Express (2004)

2004-07-23 (Limited release)

The Baby Boom generation continues to assert its stranglehold on the cultural and political imagination (and historical memory) of America. Despite the complications of the Vietnam War brought up this election cycle by the John Kerry vs. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth debacle, the general consensus, or perhaps insistence, is that everything was better back in the day. At least since The Big Chill (1983), we’ve been told repeatedly how Boomers’ politics were better, their protests more meaningful, their revolutions more earth shaking, and their sex and drugs more mind-blowing.

As Festival Express is here to remind us, their rock ‘n’ roll was the apex of Western music, if not of all music of all time. The documentary footage culled together here has been sitting around for some 34 years. The film chronicles a concert tour organized by Ken Pearson that traveled from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary in 1970. Rather than arrange for the many band members and roadies to travel on their own and meet up at designated venues in these cities, Pearson came up with the idea of cramming them all together on a train for a week long party.

The line-up included many of the greats of the era, including The Band, the Grateful Dead, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ian and Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, Sha-Na-Na, and Janis Joplin. The idea of a traveling rock concert, so Pearson asserts, was unheard of at the time. Interviewed recently — ’70s footage is interspersed with commentary from still-living band members — Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead declares they were all into “trying new things, following the spirit of the times.” As Richard Harrington points out in the Washington Post, long before Gen-Xer’s and Perry Farrell could dream up Lollapalooza, the monster rock tour format had already been done, and better, by Boomers.

The music and performances on display in Festival Express are impressive. Janis Joplin’s live renditions of “Cry Baby” and “Tell Mama” are a particular treat. The dedication of all of the musicians to experimentation and craftsmanship is likewise laudable. We watch Jerry Garcia wander among the various cars of the train, which have somehow become “naturally” organized by musical genre. So we see Jerry jamming with country musicians in one car, the folk folk in another, rockers and bluesmen elsewhere. This is one problem with Festival Express. If you are neither part of a certain generation, nor particularly interested in these musicians, watching jam session after jam session, live performance after live performance, can seem longer than a week on the rails of central Canada.

Other problems are twofold. First is the sanctimony of nearly all of the musicians. Nearly to a man (and I mean “man” — except for Janis and Sylvia Tyson, no other female performers appear), the rock gods are smugly self-satisfied that what they are doing is “real,” that it “means something” larger than their individual egos. This is as true in the contemporary interviews as in the ’70s footage.

More disquieting Festival Express disregards the very contradiction of Boomer mythology that it exposes. It chronicles the Canadian youth dissatisfaction with the capitalistic excess of the tour. (Tickets for the concert were either $14 or $16, as accounts differ, not an insignificant sum in 1970.) At the first show in Toronto, angry kids outside the arena cause mayhem and spar with local police, demanding that the show should be free and open to the public.

Something of a riot ensues, with youngsters and police both subject to physical harm. The concert grinds to a halt, and frustrated musicians whine about the unruly kids and the fact that they and their support crews have to get paid. It’s hardly the free love, free-everything, stick-it-to-the-man attitude we’ve come to associate with counterculture politics and entertainment. To be fair, the Grateful Dead at least live up to their ideology and agree to give a free performance at a nearby park after their set (though they don’t do it again for the rest of the tour).

The angry youth are out again at Winnipeg and then Calgary, souring the mood for many of the musicians. En route to Winnipeg, we hear from Dead member Phil Lesh, who calls the protestors are just a bunch of violent kids, and that their “politics” amount to busting open the heads of a few cops, all of whom he had found to be “good people.” He holds up a copy of the Toronto alt-press newspaper, Youthbeat, showing the headline “Ticket prices cause unrest,” and bemoans, “Must we put up with yellow journalism?” Though a contemporary Lesh expresses sympathy for the youth who were, like him (so he says), “pathologically anti-authoritarian,” his complaints back in 1970 suggest otherwise.

With this social unrest the backdrop to the “Festival Express” tour, the musicians increasingly retreat to the hippie paradise of the train. As one band member remarks, the gigs became more of a distraction from the “real” happening, and the musicians “couldn’t wait to get back to the train.” So much for the vaunted counterculture’s engagement with “reality.” All these musicians wanted to do was to escape from the youth rebelliousness that they are supposed to have influenced and represented.

These contradictions of Boomer cosmography become cemented in between Winnipeg and Calgary. Having run out of booze, Pearson demands that the engineer makes an unscheduled stop at a state run liquor store near the tracks in Saskatoon. The musicians pass around the hat, come up with $800, clean out the store, and retreat back to their self-enclosed “utopia.” This scene in particular is represents some sort of celebration of rock excess, though following on the heels of all the unrest the bands and hangers-on are ignoring, it becomes emblematic of their disengagement with the politics of the time.

While Festival Express raises all of these lacunae in Boomer lore, it ignores their implications. To maintain their stranglehold, Boomers must focus only on those aspects of their faded past that align with the history as they’ve constructed it. But why include footage that challenges this at all? Surely there were more jam sessions, more performances, and more drug- and alcohol-fueled shenanigans to secure that story.