Thursday, June 2, 2011

festival express

Festival Express Rock 'n' Rolls One More Time
The Georgia Straight
July 29, 2004
By Kevin Howes

Decked out in a flaming-red mini, a groovy belt, and heels, Sylvia Tyson purred out a funky down-home version of "See See Rider", backed by Ian Tyson, Great Speckled Bird, and members of the Grateful Dead and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Speaking with the Georgia Straight from Toronto, Canadian music icon Tyson laughed when reminded of her hot getup at the final stop on the Festival Express concert tour in the summer of 1970. "I still have the belt and the shoes, but I'll never wear that dress size again."
If you take the sonic assault of Monterey Pop, the hedonistic spirit of Woodstock, and the grit of Altamont, and add a westbound train carrying a gaggle of the era's most notorious musicians across the Canadian countryside, you're on your way to understanding director Bob Smeaton's Festival Express tour documentary. The film brings together long-lost 16mm footage shot for an abandoned feature, masterfully restored audio courtesy of Jimi Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer, and contemporary interviews that tell a forgotten tale of rock 'n' roll history.
Festival Express was a unique three-city tour that hit Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary. Promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton rented a private CN Rail passenger train complete with musical equipment, a 24-hour dining car, and sleeping quarters. Along for the trip was a talented roster of performers, including the Band, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Ian & Sylvia, and blues great Buddy Guy.
The concerts were besieged with financial problems from the start. "It was clear that Walker and Eaton were going to take a bath on it," Tyson recalled. Protesters calling themselves the May Fourth Movement picketed the Toronto date, balking at the $14 two-day ticket price and proclaiming that the music should be free. A clash with police resulted in an impromptu show outside the gates to defuse the situation.
Aware they would be losing money, the promoters still pushed ahead. With no expenses spared and "egos checked at the station", according to Tyson, the musicians were offered the opportunity to enjoy the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll lifestyle of the times while the seemingly unobtrusive cameras rolled on.
"There was constant jamming on the train's lounge cars," said Tyson, who is seen singing harmony with the Dead's Jerry Garcia. "One was for blues, one rock, and the other folk and country, but there was a constant exchange going back and forth."
Candid footage captures the performers with their guards down, clearly enjoying their newfound friends, wailing away, and indulging as only rock stars can. Surprisingly, alcohol was the drug of choice. "A very Canadian experience," Tyson added.
Asked about reliving Festival Express when it premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, Tyson said she was blown away. "People behave as if they were there. They're laughing, crying, singing along, and they're cheering. Janis was just becoming the great singer she would have been, and it was great to see the Band that young, that good, and that joyful in the music."
The film opens in Vancouver on Friday (July 30). Just don't expect that protesting the ticket price will get you a free show.


  1. "see see rider" vid.

  2. ken walker is the best!!!
    so tough...

  3. he even put a bullet in his head. true!

  4. didn't he punch the mayor of calgary or some shit???

  5. peep dis story!!! from the globe & mail...

  6. whoa! that dude is HARD. AS. FUCK.