Back in high school, just before I entered my ‘punk’ phase, I listened to a lot of Grateful Dead and the Band, spurred on by the two entries in the VH1 documentary series Classic Albums covering American Beauty (1971) and The Band (1969). Released at the height of my mania, The Festival Express was perfectly suited to my interests capturing both the Band and the ‘Dead at their summer of 1970 roots-rock peak, touring Canada, no less. The documentary film also had the added benefit of capturing several other relevant acts including Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Though the film itself is fairly interesting, telling the story of the planned and partially executed* Transcontinental Pop Festival, the real meat of the package is the Special Features section that allows all the performances from the film, as well as quite a few bonus performances, to be played individually or as an uninterrupted whole. By far my favourite performance from the entire set is the Band’s rendition of “The Weight” in Toronto. Not only does the live version give the song more spark and life than the album version, but the Band were also at the peak of their powers here: fully formed and confident as a band, not yet touring the darker tracks of Stage Fright; Rick Danko’s voice is more wild and unstable, but not to the line-altering extent of his later performances; and Garth Hudson was still focusing on the more earthy tones of his organ, rather than the spacey vibes that sullied his later work (see, The Last Waltz). This clip also gives a pretty good indication of Levon Helm’s immense talent, as not only does he sing and hold a beat, but he adds fills, adjusts his kit and yells at the roadies while not missing a word or beat. For a period of time, I used to watch this clip every day when I came home from school.
The Band, “The Weight” (Live, 1970)
Though I can wholeheartedly recommend the rest of the Band’s songs included on The Festival Express, I ought to balance the affair by selecting a favourite ‘Dead cut from the film. Though I’ve never gone for a significant period without listening to the Band, I’ve been experiencing a bit of a ‘Dead renaissance lately. Though I’ve started to investigate their earlier work and live albums/bootlegs from 1970 and 1971, I’m still most attracted by their dual roots-rock masterpieces Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (1970 and 1971, respectively). Among the varied personae of the Grateful Dead, “Pigpen” McKernan was always my favourite, and this video (along with “Easy Wind,” below) really showcase his talent and charisma. (Also, his shirt is incredible.) As well, the shots that show both drummers at once from the side really demonstrate their incredible synchronization. The rest of the band fills in all the necessities of some classic blues-rock.
The Grateful Dead, “Hard to Handle” (Live, 1970)
If only because I love these performances so much, the rest of the Band and ‘Dead songs from the film are after the jump, as well as a trailer for the film.
The Band, “Slippin’ and Slidin'” (Live, 1970)
The Band, “Long Black Veil” (Live, 1970)
The Band, “I Shall Be Released” (Live, 1970)
The Band, “Rockin’ Chair” (Live, 1970)
The Grateful Dead, “Easy Wind” (Live, 1970)
The Grateful Dead, “New Speedway Boogie” (Live, 1970)
The Grateful Dead, “Don’t Ease Me In” (Live, 1970)
The Festival Express (2003)
*(The festival was scheduled to stop in Montreal, Toronto, Winnepeg, Calgary and Vancouver over the course of late June and early July, 1970; however, despite the organizers’ best efforts, and the bands’ willingness, the travelling festival was only able to play the middle three locations.)