Ridin' That Train
A Review of "Festival Express"
by Bob WigoFrom the Band guestbook, July 2004.
Without going into a great deal of detail I will share just a few thoughts. It is not a great film but it is a damned good one on the basis of some very special performances. Unlike TLW there is not a lot of fascinating dialogue or scene setting stories leading into the music. The interspersed comments of tour promoter Ken Walker, filmed long after the fact, are unintentionally amusing in a sort of "SCTV" way, and one can't help but see him in that light. That, by no means, should diminish the vision he had or the effort he put forth to bring Festival Express to fruition. He clearly intended for the artists to enjoy the ride and put himself and a lot of money on the line to see to it. A curious phenomenon is brought to light by Walker as he explains, and the footage verifies, that there were protesters at every stop demanding the music be presented at no cost to the Canadian public. There were some violent encounters between the protesters and the police and it was interesting to hear Bob Weir among others speak out against the behavior of the young people attending the shows.
The dialogue and musical scenes aboard the train are entertaining but by no means awe inspiring. There are a few instances when the jamming and raucous dialogue mesh to create some real magic. Jerry Garcia absolutely sparkles during several of those scenes and certainly during the Dead's concert footage. His acoustic picking and his wonderful sense of timing shine through every time we see him on the screen.
Rick has some good scenes and one none too flattering one in which he, Janis Joplin and Garcia among others, belt out a drunken, tripped out version of "Ain't No More Cane". I guess knowing how the story turns out for some of these players colors one's reaction a bit but I will admit to a huge smile brought on by memories of Rick's love of life and the innocence of those times. The fact is that these were young men and women living very much in the moment and without the benefits of hindsight.
The concert footage is very good considering the lack of detail that went into planning the filming and the sound was mixed well. I don't know the details of the mixing but can say it sounded quite good from my seat in the theater. Garcia's guitar was wonderfully rich. The Dead's performances were vibrant and it is apparent they were very much at the top of their game. Buddy Guy's performance of "Money" was a blast and for the record, I'll have one of whatever his rhythm guitarist was having because he was cooking. Janis' performances were soul stirring as they always were. As great athletes like to say "she left it all out on the field". Watching her I realized that no recording could ever capture the raw energy she spent on every note. If no one else but Garcia and Janis Joplin performed in this film it would be worth the price of admission. There are other notable scenes. Among them are Ian and Sylvia's rendition of "CC Rider", "Lazy Day" from the Flying Burrito Brothers with Sneaky Pete on pedal steel and Sha Na Na's rousing "Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay" drew cheers and applause from the audience.
And, of course, we come to The Band. Frankly, when the camera captured Richard romping all over the opening of "Slippin and Slidin" well, to quote another famous keyboard rocking Richard,"it made my big toe stick straight up in my boot!" Levon, with his cowboy hat pulled down tight, jumped all over his kit and gave the song that kick in the ass he has always been capable of providing. Rick was bouncing furiously, Robbie was burning it up with some of his very best and most frantic guitar leads while Garth had the tune spinning, whirling and circling above the crowd. It was a positively electric moment and the audience reacted quickly with rousing cheers and applause. An aside here, you know that eerie,silvery light that we see surrounding Garth in TLW? Well it shows up here as well. I've decided it is not shining down upon him but, in fact, is coming FROM him.
A short time later we are treated to a nice rendition of "The Weight" with some interesting shots of Levon framed in red reflective traces bouncing off the cymbal and mike stands. Here again all five bandmates carry their parts off flawlessly. The mix on "The Weight" was a little rough but still quite adequate and it was a joy to hear this tune performed again. Rick's harmonies on this one, as on all three tunes, were superb and his verse, as it never fails to do, drew smiles frm across the crowd.
The Band's last song "I Shall Be Released" was not an emotionally overwhelming performance like some others we have heard but it was heartfelt and strong. Richard's voice climbed those walls once again. He was a beautiful soul and he never failed to bare that soul to his audience. It brought a tear to see Rick and Richard together again, weaving those magical harmonies.
In all, The Band's performances were simply wonderful. They were a young, energetic, honed musical tour de force at this stage of their careers and you can clearly feel the confidence in their performance. The vocals, leads and harmonies, are dead on and their playing is inspired. I know this opinion may well be deemed a bit slanted but I was once again amazed at just how goddamned good these guys were together. No band, before or since, has managed to create in me the feeling I get when I hear The Band.
I started by saying I wouldn't go into great detail and here I am, nearly a dozen paragraphs later, attempting to wrap this up. The best I can do is to say "go" and enjoy the film for everything that it is and try not to pick it apart for what it is not. Because so many of the performances are so very special and because we have sadly said goodbye to several of those gifted musicians, I consider the film an unexpected gift. It's sort of like discovering you've inherited a lovely painting from a long lost relative. It may not be priceless and it may not be perfect, but it is special, and we are blessed and fortunate to have it.