Rolling out aptly with the Dead's contemporaneous tune "Casey Jones" ("Driving that train, high on cocaine..."), Festival Express documents the summer-of-1970 touring rock circus which trundled with the Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin, the Buddy Guy Blues Band, and others on a chartered train bound for glory and ignominy in nearly equal measure. Constructed of footage shot then for a planned concert film and nostalgic, modern interview clips, Bob Smeaton's film endearingly revisits the strange momentum of the moment.
Smeaton doesn't unduly romanticize the "Festival Express" tour, noting the unpleasant reality of the tour's economics. One of the organizers, Ken Walker, recalls on camera how the tour hemorrhaged money as crowds of angry "patrons" demanded the shows should be free: "I gave the public too much, and they didn't deserve it." Despite suffering angry, show-stopping protests (leading to ugly clashes of hippies and cops), Walker and fellow promoter Thor Eaton placated fans by organizing a free concert to mirror the festival show.
Of course, Smeaton focuses on the music, and the artists' points of view. The performances here—relayed, at times, with Woodstocky split-screens—are pleasingly imperfect and unpredictable, if not revelatory. Buddy Guy delivers a lively "Money," the Grateful Dead meander happily through "Don't Ease Me In," and The Band lay down a powerful "I Shall Be Released." Aside from the hilariously chaotic histrionics of Sha Na Na, the most mesmerizing performances come courtesy of Joplin, who succumbed to a drug overdose only two months later. With the second-nature gestures of a showwoman and the abandon of someone screaming in a void, Joplin's contradictory stylings give raw power to the howling "Cry Baby" and its spoken-word Oedipal improv, all captured in searingly intimate close-up.
Much of the film's interest derives from the "backstage" antics on the party train. With dry understatement, the Dead's Bob Weir explains that, despite their well-documented drug use, "Drinking was a new experience for us." Alcohol fueled round-the-clock jam sessions: a mid-film train-car performance of "Ain't No More Cane" featuring Joplin, The Band's Rick Danko, and Jerry Garcia precedes Garcia's sincere admission of his love for Joplin. By all accounts, the train was a love-fest all around; as Guy puts it, "Everytime I went to bed, I was afraid I would miss something." No one, apparently, missed out on a now-infamous stop in Saskatoon, where a liquor store conveniently resided right at the station. After emptying the shelves (and buying a not-for-sale, giant display bottle of Canadian Club), the Festival Express headed west once more.