10 April 2007

"We Achieved Lift Off."


Thanks to Benson Williams for inspiring this post.

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My job here is to get you to go to the library and check out this DVD. Let's see if I can close the deal.

Metaphorically and atmospherically, Festival Express is the perfect middle movement to a Woodstock opening and an Altamont end to the era of the rock festival.

You will find a narrative description of the train ride and gigs at Wikipedia's entry.

Bob Weir, discussing the train ride years later, described the party the night after the artists had drank the train dry, and the promoters demanded an unscheduled stop outside a Saskatoon liquor store. The train restocked, remembering that for most of these cats drinking was something quite new, with Janis and The Band as notable exceptions. Well, the giant display bottle of Canadian Club was doctored with acid capsules and had the train "buzzin' down the tracks. ... We achieved lift off."

Unlike many of the rock festivals of the era, Festival Express is the idea and creation of one promoter, the business savvy Ken Walker. Rolling with the after-Woodstock-before-Altamont spirit of the times, Walker came up with the notion to put the festival on a rented, decked out CN train headed west from Toronto to Calgary. 'No cafeteria car' Walker told CN; he wanted a full service dining car that was soon to become the Festival Express Bar & Grill -- with amps and all the gear and Canadian Club the artists would need to jam down the rails.

Walker was a patron of the arts, not a hippie quasi-businessman. Uniquely, at a dollar per supergroup, there were no free concerts along this trail. More importantly, the train gave Janis, Jerry, Buddy and Levon the chance to, rather than pass each other backstage, ride that train together for a non-stop party in the bar car rolling from the Great Lakes to the Rockies. The musicians and crews got a rare chance to party "like it's 1999" -- and what a party it was.

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I'll never forget the one time a friend dragged me to a Dead tribute band club gig in the late 80's in Baltimore. It was fascinating to me that the girls, decked out in quasi-authentic hippie outfits had no clue how to do the tripping (literally) arms-waving-for-trailers shuffle dance so common at the 1969 rock festivals. Ladies, if you wanna learn how this dance is done, watch the Canadian girls in the crowd footage from Festival Express.

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A good example of the naivete' of hippie logic is the concert-goers in Montreal that thought -- as the Woodstock gospel taught - they had a right to get into the festival free. Well, promoter Walker was ready for the inevitable protests with mounted security forces. The problem did not get out of hand, and took a time-out once the supergroup bar car pulled out of Montreal's station and headed west. West across the great North American prairie.

Ticket sale protest continued All Down the Line. It became apparent to Walker that, even though all investors were too lose money on this adventure, the "ridin' that train, high on cocaine" party for the artists was to continue as planned. Some rare Janis Joplin footage of a bar car rehearsal jam illustrates why. Here we see Janis relaxing, smoking a cigarette with guitar masters on all sides working out the multi-part harmonies for various songs. On the Festival Express, the artists came first.

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What separates Festival Express film from the far better Woodstock and the Maysles Brothers' / Zwerin's Gimme Shelter (which I've written about here and here) is both the more profound / diverse music and also the better work by the film directors. Despite the 'flaws in the fine leather', the director's cut of Woodstock and tragic, foreboding elegance of Gimme Shelter are history right up in your face. Festival Express boils down to a Janis Joplin love letter with The Band -- Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson in particular -- covering her back with a mystical audio shroud. And Buddy Guy startin' down the Delta bluesman highway.

Janis Joplin sings this love letter back to close the film:

I figure if you're a woman
Man, if you're really a woman
You already know what you need, man.
You already know what you're looking for,
Man, I found out out at fourteen years old
And I been lookin' for it every since, too, man.

But, if you happen to be a young cat,
You know like about seventeen years old, just about
If you happen to be a young cat and you ain't figured it out yet,
I'll tell you what you need, baby,
When you got those strange thoughts in your head
You got those strange little weirdenesses happening to you, you don't know what they are
I'll tell ya what you need —

You need a sweet lovin' mama, babe,
Honey, sweet talkin' mama, babe.
You need a sweet lovin' mama, babe.
Honey, sweet talkin' mama, babe.

You need someone to listen to you,
Someone to want you,
Someone to hold you
Someone to need you
Someone to use you
Someone to want you
Someone to need you
Someone to hold you
Someone to want you
Someone to hold you

You need a mama, mama, mama, mama, mama, baby

An' I'll make everything alright, yeah!
Hey! Yeah!!!!

(excepts from Janis' cover of Tell Mama (1966, by C. Carter) live at the Fest. Ex.)

Janis' superlative vocal high-priestess of Texas cool is, as they say: liver than you'll ever be. By the end, I was convinced Janis could indeed make everything alright. Rest in Peace dear Janis. Thanks for sending Lucinda Williams to take the edge off our grief, our loss.

Now turn the ignition of your hiking boots and get down to the library for some time travel on a DVD -- only stop allowed on the way back: Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival Cafe at the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets. You don't need to look for the intersection, man, it'll find you. If it doesn't, call Buddy Guy person-to-person in Chicago for directions.

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