Festival Express

Festival Express

Having been so impressed by Janis Joplin in Monterey Pop, I was drawn to the 1970 concert film Festival Express in part because she’s in it. So let’s start with that.

Joplin performs two songs in this film, plus is shown a fair amount of time interacting with the other performers on and off stage.

Even though no mention is made of it in the film, it’s hard to watch her without looking for signs or clues related to the fact that she was to die of a drug overdose just a few months later.

No doubt how I read her in the film is colored by what little else I know of her, but she comes across as one of those people who, rather than just having fun partying, have to loudly proclaim at every opportunity how much fun they’re having partying, like they’re trying to convince themselves and everyone that they’re accepted as “one of the cool kids” and having a great time.

As far as her performances, while they are at least as impressive as anyone else’s in the film, to me they do not reach the level of the Monterey performance of “Ball and Chain.” She comes across in 1970 as more self-assured, more polished, more confident in interacting with the crowd, but paradoxically that makes her performance less effective.

The Monterey performance was more raw, more personal. By now she’s a seasoned professional doing what she does very well, playing to the crowd, giving people what they want and expect, but you don’t get that same sense that she’s having to dig deep, to take risks.

Which is not to say it’s a lazy performance or she’s just coasting (though maybe I mean that a little bit). She’s still shrieking with extraordinary energy. But—and this is just speaking for me, as I experienced it—at Monterey there was a transcendent quality to the shrieking, whereas here it’s closer to, well, just shrieking.

So her performances are still fine, but they didn’t blow me away, they weren’t as clearly the highlight of this film as her performance is the highlight of Monterey Pop.

But anyway, onto the film as a whole.

Festival Express is a documentary about a series of pop music concerts in outdoor venues in Canada in three different cities in the summer of 1970. The promoters brought in numerous bands, chartered a passenger train, and had them tour Canada by train.

I like the format of this film, because it strikes a nice balance between the Pennebaker, minimalist, cinema verité style that feels so artificially limiting to me, and an overly analytical approach where we see talking heads talking about the thing rather than seeing the thing itself. The film consists mostly of original footage from the concerts and from the train, but there are also interviews and other material worked in. The bulk of the other material is various of the participants reflecting on the experience after the fact, which effectively augments the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of the events.

Though again, it’s interesting that the editorial decision was made not to address Joplin’s impending death in any of the interviews. I’m guessing they wanted to keep this a more upbeat, celebratory story, and feared the explicit inclusion of that would have undesirably changed the tone of the film.

In terms purely of the performances, I would not rank this high among concert films I’ve seen. The assembled bands are not, on average, at quite as high a level—or maybe just not as much to my liking—as in some other concert films.

Which is not to say there are no “name” acts. In addition to Joplin, the tour included the Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy, and a few others of note. But it also included quite a few I’d never heard of. And on balance, even the “name” acts I wouldn’t say match up all that well with, say, the Monterey Pop lineup of Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, et al.

There’s also a bit of a sameness to the music. The bulk of the performances are the Grateful Dead or very much that same genre of music. Which is not a bad thing per se, but again to compare it to Monterey Pop, I preferred the eclectic assortment of that film, the juxtaposition of the Mamas and the Papas with The Who, with Ravi Shankar, with Hugh Masekela, etc.

But the music is still decent, and the rest of the film is unusually entertaining for a concert film. Actually most concert films are all or mostly the performances themselves, so maybe it’s not an apt comparison. But what’s especially good about Festival Express is how the supplementary material doesn’t feel like unnecessary filler, but is consistently interesting in its own right.

Among these intriguing supplementary elements is the insight into some of the social and political currents of the time. Specifically, the tour runs into a major problem in that large segments of the potential audience regard it as philosophically indefensible to charge for admission to the concerts. Their position is that the ethos of the times—of the youth-oriented revolution in social norms—requires that art be shared equally by all for all with no monetary compensation. (At least no mandatory compensation. I’m not sure they would have opposed a “passing the hat” type voluntary thing.) This is “our” music, they say, and no one should be excluding people from it in order to make a buck.

And this is not just some weird fringe position that one or two wackos espouse for the cameras. There were large protests at the events, masses of people trying to crash the events, and a lively debate about the matter in both the conventional and alternative press. Indeed, the mayor of Calgary, in grandstanding fashion, proclaimed “I demand that the children of Calgary pass through the gates free!” (and was reportedly punched in the face by one of the promoters in the ensuing hubbub).

People talk about how if you look at history with a broad enough perspective, things tend to drift in a progressive direction, and I think you can make a good case for that in certain areas like race, gender, sexuality, etc. But it’s striking that almost forty years ago, a blatantly, explicitly, anti-capitalist position like that could be put forth seriously by large numbers of people, and be endorsed by an elected official in a major city. Granted people nowadays complain about prices of concert tickets and everything else, but I would think the number of people who believe that on principle it’s morally wrong to charge anything at all is some fraction of 1%.

But you could say things like that back then and they’d actually gain some traction. No wonder the powers that be were scared to death. Now we can look back at it and see that the far out, most radical stuff had zero chance of ever really happening, but at the time all they knew was that a lot of the unthinkable had become thinkable, so there was no way to know for sure the thinkable wouldn’t become actual.

Maybe that’s why the backlash against the ’60s never seems to end. As I mentioned in another of these essays, there was such a rage, such a fear generated by the kind of changes that seemed to be in the air, that people lash out at anything they associate with that time. The Drug War, the visceral-level hatred of “tree hugger” environmentalists (read “hippies”), the righteous indignation against (largely mythical) “reverse discrimination,” etc.—it’s like anything that threatens to let that ’60s genie of rebellion—of “everything’s up for grabs”—back out of the bottle must be stomped on, ridiculed, oppressed, killed, denied, lied about, and so on.

Which is not to say I agree with the protesters insisting that the musicians play for free. It’s a largely ludicrous, poorly thought out position. (And, as pointed out in the movie, by no means always a sincere one. A fair number of the people trying to crash the concerts weren’t about “principle” at all, but just wanted to have fun by causing trouble and getting something for nothing.)

Indeed, the performers themselves seemed to have a perspective more in line with my own—on the side of most “’60s” ideas, while quite willing to raise common sense objections to some of the sillier, more irresponsible, or more evil notions.

For example, there’s a scene of protesters arguing with some of the musicians over a cop who was seriously injured at one of the events. The protesters engage in dogmatic rants that pretty much amount to “All cops are evil. The kids are always right and the cops are always wrong. Fuck the cops!” Meanwhile, the musicians take the position that they’ve interacted with the people providing security for these events, and found them to be decent human beings just doing their job, that you have to take on a case by case basis whether kids or cops are in the wrong, and that nothing they’re arguing about as far as ticket prices and such is worth violence that sends cops to the hospital.

But there’s never a feeling of the musicians turning against the fans, of realizing the philosophy they represent is offensive. It’s more along the lines of “Hey look, we’re all on the same side. But when it’s a matter of excess or something we see as wrong, we’re going to speak our mind about it.” To me, in a way they represent the “reasonable” Left (much as I cringe to say that, since viewpoints of merit are so often disingenuously marginalized precisely by categorizing them as extreme and contrasting them with non-threatening, supposedly moderate positions).

Like on the free admission thing, the musicians are frank and unapologetic about declaring that it’s absurd and unfair that they (and the promoters, the people operating the train, etc., etc.) be compensated zero for their labor. But they’re not bitter about it, and they’re open to trying to work something out. They don’t insist on an inalienable capitalist right to squeeze as much money as they possibly can out of the situation, but they also aren’t willing to starve as a sacrifice to bringing closer some utopian future of anarchical, cooperative, communism.

They end up tolerating some of the gate crashers at some venues, while at others they arrange parallel free concerts in public places, and then move back and forth between playing at both of them.

But they know from early on that this tour isn’t going to generate any money to speak of, that they aren’t going to be compensated anything like what people assume big name performers would get.

And the promoters themselves know they’re taking a bath on this. But whereas they could have easily justified cutting their losses and cancelling the bulk of the tour, or at least scrimping on the food and the booze for the bands on the train, say, instead they decide just to let it play out and have fun.

So that was pretty much the attitude of all concerned: This is a colossal failure financially; let’s make sure it’s as much a success as it can be in every other way.

And that’s the other thing that most stands out to me about the non-concert portions of this concert film. Everyone seems to be having an amazing time.

Granted, some of it’s just that the drugs and liquor are flowing freely. (One of the interesting tidbits mentioned in an interview about this is that a fair number of the musicians were new to drinking. These are mostly people in their 20s, coming from a culture where drugs were all the rage but booze was something old people and squares imbibed. So they all were used to smoking dope, most had at least some experience with acid, and some had used other drugs, but for many of them, this is the first time they’ve ever stayed up deep into the night getting drunk.)

But besides that reason to feel good, there’s also a bonding over the music itself. As multiple interviewees recount, pretty much any time of day or night on the train, there were different people playing music. One person might be off in one car rehearsing a guitar solo for the upcoming day’s performance, five members of three different bands might be in the next car playing a favorite song together, in another car there might be a constantly changing number of musicians just laughing and jamming and making things up as they went along.

Throughout the train was this spirit of camaraderie and creativity. As Buddy Guy remembers in an interview, no one ever seemed to sleep, because you were afraid you’d miss something really special.

And then that spirit carried over to the performances. It was like one long jam session lasting multiple weeks. Sometimes you were playing with and for a dozen people, and sometimes there were thousands of other folks grooving with you, but it was all a big party where you let loose and enjoyed the music.

It’s cool the way the surviving folks who were interviewed for the film remember it so fondly. They compare it favorably to Woodstock even, due to the opportunity to bond over time on the long train trips. Woodstock, they say, was for the fans, and the Festival Express train tour was for them.

That’s the main positive I take from Festival Express. It effectively conveys the kind of experience that at the time includes lots of good stuff but is mixed with hangovers, hassles with unruly fans, the realization that it has fallen apart financially, lack of sleep, and on and on, but that in retrospect is appreciated as a really fucking awesome time where everything came together and you connected with some special people in a way that comes along maybe once or twice in a lifetime if you’re lucky.

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