Crazy train 

Railroad Rockumentary rolls into Rainbow

What: Reel Alternatives — Festival Express

Where: Rainbow Theatre

When: Wednesday, Oct. 20

Tickets: $9

In the summer of 1970 Canadian concert promoters Ken Wallace and Thor Eaton staged an ambitious rolling rock-stravaganza.

A Woodstock-worthy lineup of musicians was rounded up for a series of festival performances across our vast nation. The unique factor in the equation: they would start in Toronto and proceed westward from venue to venue via train.

The rockin’ railcars were christened the Festival Express (likely with a 26 oz. bottle of Canadian Club whiskey, copious amounts of which disappeared down the performers’ hard-partying hatches during the course of the journey).

Who were these rock ’n’ roll rail riders? These guitar-slinging knights of the parallel steel?

Let’s start with the headliners: The Band, The Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin – a casualty of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle just two months later, but still at the top of her raspy-voiced game on the Festival Express.

Add to the mix Buddy Guy, Delaney and Bonnie, Ian and Sylvia, and a host of supporting players such as the Flying Burrito Brothers, New Riders of the Purple Sage and Sha Na Na.

Put party icons Janis, Jerry and The Band’s bass player Rick Danko on a train together and of course you’re going to want to have some sort of record of the encounter. Naturally, the Festival Express included an onboard film crew for an intended rockumentary.

There proved to be no shortage of camera-worthy moments.

Grateful Dead drummer Phil Lesh’s take on things was "a train of insane people careening across the Canadian countryside, making music night and day and then occasionally we’d get off the train to go play a concert."

Rather than sequester themselves in private quarters the energetic performers turned the train into a non-stop, goodtime, whiskey-fueled jam session, much of which revolved around head Deadhead Jerry Garcia, "his beard still black and his eyes still focused," New York Times reviewer David Kehr quips.

It’s these raw collaborations of some of rock’s most colourful characters that lie at the heart of the film. As Kehr goes on to say: "to watch the biggest stars of their time in casual conversation, trading riffs and passing bottles... without benefit of publicists, handlers, and security goons is to relive an innocent anarchic time in the entertainment business when music, not marketing, was at the center of the enterprise."

But as legendary as the lineup and the freewheelin’ spirit is considered by today’s cult-of-the-dead-rockstar-worshipping standards, the true legend of Festival Express is how the film itself came to be.

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