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The first train will be ours, we'll have to roll with it,
This review is from: Festival Express [DVD] (DVD)
Acknowledgements first to Mr. P. Kantner for the kind unauthorized use of his line for the title.
Before I begin on the DVD proper let me just say how welcome it is that all of these films and CDs from the sixties era are now making their way into the public arena. With a remastered Concert for Bangladesh on the horizon and the impending DVD about John Cipollina together with the wonderful remastered Blows Against the Empire, there is more about the time than ever before.
Turning to Festival Express, I originally was going to do a review based on the music alone and, from my vantage point as an oft-deprived of performance expatriat Brit fan of the Grateful Dead, I wanted to say that the rare footage of PigPen which graces this set was worth the price alone. But there was not really that much in the way of performances here that I chose not to and in the end, much later I returned to the movie.
This short rockumentary, ostensibly about the travels of a group of musicians across Canada in 1970 appearing at several festivals along the way, serves an unitended purpose in setting the backdrop to the lives of musicians in that era. Certainly for afficionados of the American music scene of the time, the existance of this film record is an affectionate look at how these drug crazed musicians are actually pretty normal people who work in a particular area and who rarely get the opportunity to share their talents and skills and even exchange views never mind just hang out and party together. The movie shows these people getting along, having a good time but also cross fertilizing the different shades of muiscal genres. Fans may mock Van Morrison's railings about life on the road but ask any salesman about going from town to town for weeks on end and you will gain some understanding. So from a musical point of view, this film about the rolling minstrels, is a little gem, especially as I said, for the all too brief footage of PigPen and the awesome power of janis Joplin. What a great shame that too large a number of that passenger list are no longer with us.
The really interesting thing for me was to re-examine the movie from a point of view that was dominating the news of the period. We all hear of the radicalism of the sixties of the sexual and drug revolutions and the creative maelstrom that was loosened but for a lot of mainstream America the dominance was the anti-war movement and the student radicalism which built upon that base. Hippie idealism was often hijacked by this other radicalism and it is this which is documented here. The anti-capitalist Canadian radicals, sometimes with orthodox political support, set about campaigning for the festivals to be free. One concert was faced with threats to break down the doors because the music belonged to the people. This threat was ameliorated after the Dead agreed to put on a live show on flatbeds outside the arena. It is the gap between the ideals of the radicals and the realities of the musicians which exposes many of the conflicts which existed in the broader American society and which are confronted in the movie. Although the musicians are shown as feted by the fetival promoters we are not left with the view that at the end of the day they got into their Rolls Royces and are driven off home. The travel, the drugs, the making a living for their people back home, are all shown up here and Garcia makes a telling point about how musicians, like fools, and their money, are soon parted. The idealistic radicals too do not face their own demands as discussed with the tale of how a musician tells a protestor that he will come down to the store when the protester works to collect the people's suit.
Similarly the views on authority are also instructive when Bob Weir relates his views about the attacks on the police. The principle he annunciates is of non-violence and his concern is for the cop as a working man not some vague stereotype of an agent of the authoritarian police.
All in all the movie is a very valid piece of social history from the time when the genie was let out of the bottle. never again can their be a summer of love. Tha last train has left and it will not be coming back.