Wednesday, September 15, 2010

'Festival Express' recreates era



You may have heard of "Festival Express."

The name refers to a train tour across Canada by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band and others in 1970 for a series of shows.

"Festival Express" captivated young music fans and broadened the sense of community among musicians.

The trip and resulting concerts were filmed, but went unreleased at the time.

In 2003, the production returned to public consciousness as a movie "rockumentary," complete with new interviews from many of the original participants.

This summer a talented coterie of musicians gave "Festival Express" another life as a stage show on Mackinac Island.

I wasn't lucky enough to attend any of those long-ago shows as much as I may have wanted to see some of the greatest acts in rock 'n' roll.

But I was thoroughly fascinated by the home video release when it emerged a few years ago.

So, when we heard "Festival Express" was going to recreated in concert right here in the Upper Peninsula, my wife Sue and I made plans to go.

The concert and film pay tribute to a unique trio of shows that have become as legendary in Canada as Woodstock is in the United States.

Unlike Woodstock which was held in one upstate New York location, "Festival Express" was staged in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary over a five day period.

The musicians traveled to each city on a Canadian National Railways train chartered by promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton. The train allowed the acts to jam with one another and party between stops.

In fact, the partiers drank the train dry and had to make a pit-stop for more booze. They passed a hat, collected $800 and bought-out a track-side liquor store.

While the train rolled along, however, protesters gathered claiming the shows should be free, despite the modest $14 admission fee.

Still, San Francisco's Grateful Dead, The Band (all but Levon Helm born in Canada) and the legendary Janis Joplin put on unforgettable performances.

Some of the most memorable tunes included "Don't Ease Me In," Grateful Dead; "Cry Baby," Janis Joplin; and "I Shall be Released," The Band.

Fans also heard the Buddy Guy Blues Band, Flying Burrito Brothers, Sha Na Na and Ian & Sylvia. Ten Years After and Traffic appeared in Toronto only

Despite being an artistic success, "Festival Express" lost money. The planned movie was shelved after a lawsuit and the unedited film disappeared.

By 1999 the movie project was ressurected when some of the missing reels were found in the Canadian National Film Archives.

The motion picture was produced by Gavin Poolman and John Trapman and directed by Bob Smeaton.

"Festival Express" debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2003 and was distributed on DVD by New Line Home Entertainment the following year.

Critics hailed the documentary, one writer calling it "a momentous achievement in rock film archeology."

I couldn't have agreed more after I reviewed my copy the day before we headed out to Mackinac Island to see a live version of "Festival Express."

The event was staged at the historic Mission Point Theater on the island's southeast end, about a mile from our room at the Chippewa Waterfront Hotel.

Island musician Mary McGuire recruited dozens of musicians to stage "Festival Express" as part of the annual Mackinac Island Music Festival.

Last year festival musicians recreated "The Last Waltz," the Band's final performance from 1976 which featured Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and other stars.

Among those performing in this year's tribute show were Michigan musicians the Forbes Brothers, Barbara Payton, DC Malone, Jill Jack, Billy Brandt, Richard Hulett, George Friend, Donny Sorensen, Pam Finkel, Chris Brantley and Charlie Springer.

The concert also featured Michelle Chenard, Audra Kubat, Sarana VerLin, Jack Barnwell, Matt Myers, Nino Dmytryszyn, Gary Rasmussen, Charlie "Wong" Teeny and Chordiology.

Sue and I traveled by horse-drawn taxi to the theater for the Aug. 19 event, the only time the concert was to be performed.

Although we had tickets 001 and 002, the seats weren't reserved, yet we were able to sit in the front row.

A four-piece vocal group, Chordiology started the "Festival Express" show with Sha Na Na's "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay."

The music didn't stop until the Band's signature song "The Weight" was performed as the grand finale.

The two songs were bookends in a concert filled with dynamic performances.

Billy Brandt and his band took on a number of Grateful Dead songs, while Mary McGuire performed the music of Traffic and the Forbes Brothers revived tunes originally done by The Band.

Jill Jack interpreted songs from Janis Joplin as the audience cheered and DC Malone did his best to replicate classic blues numbers in Buddy Guy's style.

At three and one-half hours in length, the concert had too many highlights to name.

All the while a psychedelic light show played on the theater's walls.

It was not a surprise that the musicians, obviously having fun, earned a standing ovation from the crowd which obviously had fun, too.

After the show Sue and I headed to the Pink Pony bar where a number of the entertainers continued performing.

Looking back on the reenactment, I realize it wasn't the same as attending "Festival Express" in 1970, but it gave me a nostalgic feeling nevertheless.

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