All this concert disc managed to do for Judge Joel Pearce is trigger a series of flashbacks to the time when he, Pigpen, and Bob Weir were hanging out at a commune in Oregon, just jammin'...
Our review of Festival Express (Blu-ray), published February 12th, 2014, is also available.
The longest party in rock-n-roll history.
The marketing campaign for Festival Express approached it as if it were the Holy Grail of rock concert films. After all, it has live footage of The Grateful Dead, The Band and Janis Joplin, all of which has been sitting in the vault for nearly 35 years. Although the film doesn't accomplish anything that hasn't been done better before, the DVD is a great package that will find a welcome home in many a concert DVD collection.
Facts of the Case
In late June of 1970, after the success of Woodstock and some of the era's other great rock festivals, someone had the idea to take a music festival across Canada by train, rather than setting it up in one place. They got a bunch of the hot bands of the time, loaded them all into a train full of drugs and booze, and let them party day and night. Since this festival was during that post-Woodstock push by rock fans to have all music be free, the festival wasn't a financial success, but the musicians had the time of their lives traveling from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary.
One of the things that I like the most about Festival Express is its continuous focus on the music. So many music documentaries seem to forget that the music ought to be at the center, breaking up songs with interviews and other footage. This film plays almost like a concert DVD, with some breaks between the songs to describe the journey of the train. The concert footage is quite well filmed—not necessarily the flashiest footage from the era, but it features impressive day and night segments. It has a fair mix of the bands, with a bit of extra attention given to The Grateful Dead, The Band, and Janis Joplin.
Although I like the attention given to the concert footage, the performances are a bit of a disappointment. Janis Joplin is the only artist at the top of her game; most of the other groups give lackluster and bland performances of their songs. This could have something to do with the fact that they were all up day and night for days getting wasted on the train between each of the stops. The footage of The Band is downright dull, and the songs from The Grateful Dead aren't much better. Sha Na Na puts in a truly pathetic performance. The real highlight is Buddy Guy, who runs around on (and off) stage with his guitar during the Winnipeg show.
The interview footage, on the other hand, is uniformly excellent. A number of the people in charge of the festival were interviewed recently, and they also obtained quite a bit of new footage from the surviving members of the bands. These segments of the movies are short, get right to the point, and tell the story of this rock festival on wheels. The tight editing keeps the film moving, and as a result there are none of the lulls that are often associated with documentaries. The downside of the snappy editing is that the festival never seems to be given the same feeling of importance as some of the other major events of the time.
Far more impressive than the film is this DVD package. The picture is as good as can be expected for a film shot on low-grade stock and put in a vault for over thirty years. There is quite a bit of grain at times, but the colors have been accurately transferred, and the whole image looks as well-restored as possible. The sound quality is, of course, much more important on a concert DVD, and this disc sounds great. While most of the footage on the train is trapped in the center channel, as soon as the concert footage appears the soundstage opens up really wide. The music tracks have been impressively restored, especially in the DTS mix.
In addition to the feature, the first disc houses a number of special features. The first of these is a selection of ten additional songs from the festival, also presented in anamorphic widescreen with surround sound. The picture quality is a bit weaker here, but it holds up surprisingly well. I have often wished for these kinds of additional tracks on concert DVDs, and this one has finally delivered. There is also the option to play these tracks with some interview footage between. The other option on the first disc is to select the music tracks directly from the film. This is a nice feature, since fans are more likely to come back for the music than for the film.
The extras continue on a solid second disc. The first of these are some extended interview segments, once again recorded in crisp anamorphic widescreen, and running nearly twenty minutes long. They are full of interesting content, which fans of the film will want to explore. Next up is a production featurette, explaining how this film was finally released 35 years after it was made. There is also a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer.
More than anything else, Festival Express captures the awkward time in the early '70s when music had begun to develop into a commercial industry, but hadn't yet found an audience that was willing to pay for it. This festival doesn't have the gravity of The Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, or the Isle of Wight, but it is another entertaining look at the period. Fans of the music will want to give it a watch, and many will find it a valuable addition to their rock concert collections.
Although the film isn't the holy grail of rock, it's still a good concert DVD with a great array of extra features. Not guilty.
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