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Festival Express

Review of the music content

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Copyright © 2004 Peter Viney

We happy few, well eight of us, watched Festival Express on its second day of release in London. There was plenty of room to work out a seat with an optimum surround sound position at least. The sound is excellent. I hadnít expected the print to be so grainy, but Iíd forgotten that 35 mm was an innovation for concert footage when the Band made The Last Waltz six years later. The film seems to have united press critics as three stars out of a possible five, but for a serious fan of any of the main artists it would edge up to four. For a Band fan the presence of all five original members plus 90s pianist Richard Bell makes for essential viewing. It is the best document we have of what The Band sounded like in full flight in 1970, more assured and muscular than their Woodstock performance which is preserved on the Woodstock Diary DVD.

This review is confined to the music. Elsewhere you can read how the story of growing protests (We want free music) forms a backdrop to the story. Even the Grateful Dead are dismissive of this one, and you do grow to like the wily promoter as he goes on doggedly, losing money on all sides as the trip progresses. I loved his reminiscences, which I wonít spoil by revealing. Anyway, the protestorsí children finally got their free downloads as time passed, which I fear will strangle the music. Iím not going to say too much about the train or detail the recent interviews, because these are the things that give life to the film when you get to see it. And you should.

As critics have agreed, the undoubted star is Janis Joplin. Iím among those who found her over-the-top delivery too histrionic on record, and she was lumbered with duff backing bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company, who failed to catch her dynamic. With a far better band on board just three months before her death, she flies. Cry Baby, shot close and tight on her face is the pinnacle of the film, far and away the oustanding performance. Sheís filmed at night, and the fact that her songs on the film follow The Band both times confirms to me that she was the headliner / closing act. Like James Brown and Little Richard, she is not an act anyone, even The Band, would want to follow. Her second song, Tell Mama, which ends the concert part of the film in Calgary after presents and accolades are handed to the promoters by Janis and Jerry Garcia, is not quite as strong. But as with most of the film, you get the complete song, not the snippets that bedevil other rock documentaries. As so many times, the backing, good though it is, fails to match the dynamism of the performance. I donít think she ever found people who could adapt and move with her. Youíre bound to wonder how she would have sounded with James Brownís Famous Flames, or the Motown session crew or the Stax house band behind her. Or The Band, judging by this film. The guitar solo is also intrusive and a bit too sadly 1970 for my liking. Inappropriate guitar solos (see also Woodstock) seem to dog her performances. Iíd assume that the film faithfully assigns songs to Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary as part of the narrative, but to be honest they could have switched the night stuff (like all three Band songs) and no one would be any the wiser. Robbie Robertson wears the same thick, tweedy rather hairy- looking suit on all three Band appearances, and as everyone else is in shirtsleeves on a summer prairie night, youíd have thought he would have felt the warmth under the lights, and that by Calgary you would be able to smell the suit from the front row. Which was a long way from the stage.

The three biggest names were Janis Joplin, The Band and The Grateful Dead, and it being Canada and 1970, it looks as if The Band were a bigger draw than The Dead. The Band appear to be second to last everytime, and at one point it is mentioned that there are 6500 in the stadium in the afternoon, but they expect many more in the evening. In contrast, The Grateful Dead appear to be early afternoon at every gig. Or knowing the length of Dead shows, maybe they were most of the afternoon! Jerry Garcia closely follows Janis as the most interesting figure in the film. He must have had the constitution of an ox, playing coherently while all around him are wasted, then popping up the next day to sing with The Grateful Dead early afternoon after the all night party (when the others could have been sleeping it off), then jamming onstage with Ian and Sylvia and Great Speckled Bird (who feature Amos Garrett), presumably earlier in the evening than The Band, then back again to do the closing speeches with Janis right at the end. The Grateful Dead spots are very pleasant, but their onstage sound shows up as pretty feeble in comparison to The Band (who easily walk away with the instrumental prowess awards). Garcia plays beautifully, Lesh holds it all together with great bass lines, Weir is great, as well as the most interesting of the current interviewees. Pigpen didnít get the job on musical ability (but we knew that) and as ever they use two drummers and yet sound weaker in the rhythm section that everyone else does with one. I donít mean just Levon, either. They do seem totally relaxed, and happy enough to do a free concert to ease the crowd troubles in Toronto. One great small shot is Lesh strolling off through the empty back stage area after Calgary, stepping over the snaking cables, with his bass nonchalantly slung over his shoulder. They were famous for taking a huge family of hangers-on with them, but they donít seem to have managed to enlist them as extra roadies.

The other stage performances in full are confined to one per group. I liked Mashmakanís number, not because they were particularly good (they werenít), but because they were the epitome of the average band you saw live at college gigs in 1970, right down to the obligatory couple of bars of flute from the keyboard player.

Buddy Guy proved one of the best modern interviewees recalling the tour, and is shown having lots of fun on the train. Sadly his full number on stage is risible and drew derisory laughter from the small audience when I saw it. He did Money, with high pitched histrionics. He decided to solo on a long guitar lead, which had to be sorted out by a plump roadie in full view of everyone, then he sets off to find a way round to the audience in front of the stage. This involves walking off the side soloing, which means he walks off towards completely empty bleachers before he can struggle back round to the people behind the fence, while doing an attempt to emulate Jimi Hendrix which reminds you of how much better Jimi was. Then he goes off leaving the aforesaid plump roadie standing bemused holding the guitar gingerly by its neck centre stage while the band finish it off around him. He is a sad and lonely figure, waiting and wondering if Guy is going to come back, defining the phrase Ďa spare prick at a weddingí forever.

The Flying Burrito Brothers are on at night. I saw them less than a year later, and found their take of Lazy Days on this show hurried and unconvincing. I remember them as way, way better than this, though it was good to see the pedal steel playing, 34 years before Burrito DeLuxe united two of the nightís performers.

Ian and Sylvia had a great little band behind them, and accommodated Jerry Garcia at the side, but C.C. Rider really is a boring totally overdone song to grind out, and doesnít suit her voice or style. The bonus DVD due in December 2004 with the DVD release promises their take on Tears of Rage which is potentially far more interesting. I suspect the film editors were seduced by the presence of Jerry Garcia on this track (it enriches the Jerry Garcia subplot!) to prove yet again that celebrity jams on dull songs are dispensable.

Sha Na Na, as ever, appear with great gusto and attack on Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay and itís good to see that some people were performing rather than just standing and playing in 1970.

The Bandís three songs are spread across the film, and I felt a shiver of anticipation as the first one was announced. This was Slippiní and Slidiní presumably the encore from Toronto. It may be the pictures, but itís better than other versions Iíve heard of their classic closer. It gives the lie to the suggestion that Robbieís mic used to be switched off- heís very clearly switching lines with Levon. The accusation was levelled that Robbie had conived with Scorsese to hog the limelight at The Last Waltz. He gets the same sort of exposure from a different director six years earlier. Richard and Garth donít get enough. Rick tends to hang slightly back and to Robbieís right (as he always did). I would say that any camera would favour Robbie purely because of their stage positioning. Anyway, the contrast with every other band on the show is immediate. They have the best rhythm section by a mile. And the best singers. And the best keyboard player. Best guitar player too...

The Weight has some fairly mangled lyrics (old Anna Lee?) and Richard doesnít take a solo verse as he did later, so itís Levon and Rick taking the leads, with Richard and Robbie chorusing, but with Robbie getting more camera. I thought it rocked more than the gentle Woodstock 1969 take, showing its development in a year with a lot of major shows. Superb. I still think it suffers a little because Robbie couldnít / wouldnít switch guitars during the song.

The masterpiece is I Shall Be Released with Richard Manuel at last getting the full camera attention he deserved. I would say itís the best Richard Manuel performance on film. It runs Janisís Cry Baby a close second for Ďbest performance in the movieí.

Then youíre down to the bits and pieces captured during the train ride, where Rick Danko forms the party triumvirate with Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia. The rest of The Band seem to be invisible, and itís said that Robbie at least was mixing Stage Fright (but why, if they sent them away to Glyn Johns?) and flew between gigs. Maybe the others did too? I thought I spotted Richard once, but youíd have to watch it a few times, and Iíve only seen it once. The highlight of the jamming is Ainít No More Cane with Rick, Janis and Jerry. How Rick manages to both remember the song and persist to the end in the state heís in is remarkable. But if the concert footage is genuinely assigned to the three shows in the way it appears to be in the film (and I do have growing doubts that these are from three different Band shows), then heís back and on form the next day for I Shall Be Released.

The promised bonus DVD is going to add Eric Andersen (an interviewee here), Tom Rush and Seatrain, whose only appearance in the film is their drum front during an onstage plea for order from the protesters. None of The Band are interviewed (well, Richard Bell speaks as a member of Janisís band), which perhaps confirms that none of the living members was on the train. Robbie Robertson is prominent among the Ďthanksí in the credits, and as he seems a willing and always articulate raconteur itís surprising that he doesnít join Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Buddy Guy and Sylvia Tyson in the reminiscences.

Contemporary reviewers in 2004 (OK, younger reviewers) have seen it as a Grateful Dead-led tour, while it looks to me as if the Grossman artists actually starred in 1970. It may have been the first real meeting between The Band and The Grateful Dead, after Robbie Robertson had been dismissive of West Coast groups in a 1969 interview. They played together again at Watkins Glen in 1973, and the association was mutually meaningful. Jerry Garcia proved to be fond of covering The Band later, and Rick Danko was to cover Ripple and play at the Deadheads Festival in Japan, followed by Garth Hudsonís performances of Dark Star and Scarlet Begonias, and Burrito DeLuxeís take on We Bid You Goodnight.

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