1970: The Saga of the Festival Express

It was on June 27, 1970, that the Transcontinental Pop Festival began its journey in Toronto, Canada. This festival was part of a series of concerts in Canada that became known as The Festival Express which is also the title of a documentary that was filmed at the time of the tour. 

The main concept of the tour was that instead of the artists flying between show, they would all travel by a chartered Canadian National Railways train, in a total of 14 cars. The chartered train consisted of 14 cars, equipped with lounges and sleeping compartments, with electricity sockets so that musical instruments could be plugged in. 

The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin (with her Full-Tilt Boogie Band), The Band, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Buddy Guy Blues Band all jammed, drank, slept and rode the train in between playing shows in Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Calgary. 

 

 The journey between cities ultimately became a combination of non-stop jam sessions and partying, fueled by alcohol. One highlight of the documentary is a drunken jam session featuring The Band’s Rick Danko, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. 

 

 

Unsurprisingly the passengers drank the bar dry and, as is shown in the documentary, the musicians passed around a hat to collect funds to purchase more hooch.  The train made an unscheduled stop to find a liquor store for much-needed supplies. Much to the bemusement of the store owner, they bought most of the contents of the store. Once they got back on the train, a raucous drunken jam featuring Rick Danko of The Band, Joplin and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead was the order of the day.  As Weir recounted decades after the fact, 'Most of us had done LSD. This was our introduction to alcohol. This was a new experience for most of us and it worked just fine.' After someone added jell caps of LSD into an oversized bottle of Canadian Club, Weir said, 'we achieved lift off.'"

At some point during the jams, a gentle folk jam featuring Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead and Sylvia Tyson seemed to wind things down on a good note.

 

 

At this time in their music evolution, The Grateful Dead were in the process of transforming their sound from dense, jammed psychedelia to the country/folk harmonies of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. 

 

 

 

Jerry Garcia was on stage for several hours. He played pedal steel guitar with The New Riders of The Purple Sage, played acoustic numbers with his band members and sang lead vocals and guitar in a danceable and musically probing electric set.

 

The Band’s performance showed them at the pinnacle of their powers.

 

 

Janis Joplin, The Festival Express would turn out to feature some of her last performances, as she would die two months later due to a heroin overdose. 

 

The tour had an original budget of about $900,000 but, largely due to less than predicted turnout, it ultimately lost between $350,00 and $500,000 for the promoters. Part of the reason for this was The May 4th Movement (inspired by the killing of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University), who demanded free music and an end to “The Rip-Off Express” decrying ticket prices; over 2,500 protestors gathered outside the first show in Toronto.

 

At the festival’s first date in Toronto, while the Dead play a less-than-inspired set to a somewhat straggly paying audience, split-screen action reveals that just outside, literal gate crashers are mixing it up with mounted police. Catastrophe is averted when Jerry and company agree to a free set in a park nearby—a show that finds the band perkier and the mood much more mellow—but the damage has been done. Rabble rousers and bad PR follow the tour as it chugs across the country, ticket sales flag and, with a few notable exceptions—including The Band’s suspiciously up-tempo version of “The Weight”—the next stop in Winnipeg is a largely half-hearted affair played to a half-empty stadium. The real action, it soon becomes clear, is on the train. 

 

 

It was a psychotropic June evening half a century ago. The superb British band Traffic led by Stevie Winwood played Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good.’ The sound of Chris Wood’s flute mingled with a marijuana haze as thousands sat or danced entranced on what was usually the Toronto Argonauts’s home field at CNE Stadium in Toronto. Activists centered around Rochdale, Toronto’s alternative experimental cooperative college, targeted the music industry demanding that the shows go on for free. They didn’t know what they were getting into in their confrontation with Ken Walker. The scion of a Toronto jewelry concern, Walker was a genius music promoter and a hard case. He had arranged for John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Eric Clapton to play together at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. Walker did not take the Festival Express protests lightly. He shoved one Toronto protester down a flight of stairs and punched Calgary Mayor Rod Sykes in the face when Sykes demanded that the kids of Calgary get into the show there for free.

The show in Toronto, which was held at the CNE Grandstand, had about 2500 protestors who objected to what they viewed as exploitation by price-gouging promoters. They attempted to crash the gates and scale the barbed wire fence and clashed with police, resulting in several injuries.

 

To help calm the crowd, Metro Police tried to get the promoter, Ken Walker, to lower ticket prices, but he refused. Subsequently, Jerry Garcia, was instrumental in calming the unruly crowd by arranging a spontaneous free "rehearsal" concert in nearby Coronation Park upon a flatbed truck, while the scheduled show continued at the stadium. Once the free concert was announced, most of the ticketless fans dispersed to Coronation Park, with an initial attendance of about 6,000, thereby resolving the protest. Once the show at the CNE Grandstand ended at 12:30am, another 6,000 fans went to the park for the remainder of the free concert, which lasted until about 4:00am on June 28. 

 

Playing at Coronation Park were The Grateful Dead, Ian & Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, James and the Good Brothers, the New Riders of the Purple Sage (all from the original scheduled concert). Other local Toronto bands also played. Some of the bands taking place in this wondrous tour were: Ten Years After, Traffic, THE BAND, Janis Joplin, Eddie Kramer, Tom Rush, Buddy Guy, Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead and Delaney & Bonnie. I would have loved to just be on the train! The artists for this "Poster From The Past" are Ken Walker and John H. Lown. 

The Winnipeg show had only a modest turnout of 4,600, partly due to fears about crowd violence based on the events in Toronto and partly due to the Manitoba Centennial appearance by Prime Minister Trudeau. 

In Calgary, the third and final stop, the police wished to avoid the protests witnessed in Toronto and their presence seemed to subdue the crowds outside the stadium, though there were many complaints about the ticket prices. It was estimated that about 1000 people managed to sneak in on Saturday by climbing fences (a few rushed the gates) early in the day, but security was tightened and on Saturday afternoon and Sunday fewer people had sneaked in for free. However, there was a heated altercation between promoter Ken Walker and Calgary mayor Rod Sykes after Sykes strongly suggested to Walker on Sunday afternoon that he open the gates and let the kids in for free after the show was well underway. Walker, who was livid about the mayor's intrusion and his reference to Walker as "Eastern scum" "trying to skim" the young people of Calgary, claimed to have punched the mayor in the mouth, and boasted that he still had a scar on his hand to prove it. 

 

As the Festival Express rolled on, it became obvious that the tour and the documentary film were both in financial trouble from the start. The Woodstock movie had been released only months before, but it was long enough for the counterculture music fans to form an idea of just how such deals should go down.  As it was at the Woodstock festival, free admission figured largely in the scenario. 

As a result of the Festival Express tour turning out to be a complete financial disaster, the film project was shelved as the promoters sued the film-makers. Mysteriously, all of the documentary footage had disappeared. Some of the film’s reels turned up in the garage of the original producer Willem Poolman, where they had been stored for decades and used at various times as goal posts for ball hockey games played by his son Gavin. 

 

The fact that the Festival Express movie got made at all is actually pretty amazing. By the time the Festival Express train pulled into its terminus, Walker and Eaton were already feuding with the intended producer. As a result, no one was left in charge, and the footage simply walked away with various organizers and crew members. Much of it wound up at the Canadian National Archives, where it languished for decades, becoming an object of lore until documentary filmmaker Garth Douglas, one of the finished product’s eventual producers, tracked it down. 

 

Another near decade of gathering, editing, acquiring rights and contemporary interviews, and the film was finally released in 2003, more than 30 years after the fact. 

 

 

The result is that Festival Express is both an on-the-scene record that reflects the serendipity of the 60’s rock culture.  The film truly captures its view onto the past takes in high points and low lights in equal measure. How fitting, then, that the literal engine of the film is a train, that standby symbol of time and transformation. For the musicians, it was a both a haven from the hassles dogging the tour, and the thing that carried them from the ’60s milieu they themselves helped create, on into their futures. Some wouldn’t survive the ride, but while it was still on track but it should be noted that the Festival Express housed one hell of a bon voyage. 

 

In the film, bassist Kenny Gradney, who performed on the tour with Delaney & Bonnie, commented on the atmosphere during the tour, "It was better than Woodstock, as great as Woodstock was."

Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead also stated that "Woodstock was a treat for the audience, but the train was a treat for the performers.” 

 

‘We achieved liftoff, for sure,’ remembers Bob Weir, and onboard footage of the non-stop love fest jam session is truly something to behold—hilarious, heartwarming, poignant and one-of-a-kind. After witnessing Weir, Garcia, Rick Danko and Joplin, all massively wasted, giggling and howling together like the world’s most talented alley cats, one wonders how they’ll be anything but DOA when they arrive at their next stop.

Yet, the exact opposite holds true, as the festival’s last show beams with a benevolent energy clearly generated by all that togetherness. It comes out most movingly in Joplin. 

 

Her first song of the film, a version of “Cry Baby” delivered in Winnipeg, is good, great even, but it comes underlaid with a weariness of heart. Her final-night performance is another thing altogether. “I don’t know where you’ve been for the last two days,” she crows to the Calgary crowd, “but I’ve been at a party.” And then she launches into an elemental rendition of “Tell Mama” and transforms before our very eyes—from a lonely genius nearly at her journey’s end into a thing of light and beauty and pure happiness. It’s an apt and rapturous conclusion to a film that, by chance, offers the singular sensation of seeing and feeling the full measure of a moment.” 

"In 2003, the saga of this unique concert tour was told with verve in an eponymous documentary film titled Festival Express. Bob Smeaton directed, Gavin Poolman and John Trapman produced the film. I worked on it as story consultant and appear in it. The film came about after Garth Douglas, who was eventually an executive producer on the film, and I were led to a garage in the Rosedale neighborhood of Toronto in 1995 where we discovered dozens of 16 mm work print cans labelled Joplin The Band, TrafficGrateful Dead… We couldn’t believe our eyes, particularly when we started watching the footage on a Steenbeck flatbed editing machine in my Tamarack Productions office. Footage from the concerts produced by Gavin’s father Willem Poolman had gone missing for 25 years after a tortuous saga of litigation and theft. The protests had destroyed the prospect of profit for the concerts and sent out an aura of bad publicity surrounding the whole affair. A film about the 1969 Woodstock Festival was already in the works. The Festival Express film was a casualty in the aftermath of the concerts. But as Garth Douglas and I discovered, the footage was to die for." (James Cullingham, Active History June 2020)

Eventually, in 1999, a plan was hatched to resurrect the film, and many more reels were found in the Canadian National Film Archives vault, where they had been kept in pristine condition. Director Bob Smeaton (The Beatles ‘Anthology) was hired, and the eventual finished show was premiered in 2003, grossing more than $1 million in movie theaters before being released on DVD to much acclaim. 

 

 

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2 comments

  • chilebrown
    chilebrown Rodeo, Ca.
    Thanks for this article. I have watched this DVD many times and it is a great glimpse of rock history.

    Thanks for this article. I have watched this DVD many times and it is a great glimpse of rock history.

  • Mike  Harrigan
    Mike Harrigan
    This was excellent. Well put together and very informative. I am definitely going to support this page.

    This was excellent. Well put together and very informative. I am definitely going to support this page.

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