Festival Express

Poster for Festival Express

Winter 2005 Main series

Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 4:00pm
Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 7:00pm
Monday, January 10, 2005 at 7:00pm

Acadia Cinema's Al Whittle Theatre
450 Main Street, Wolfville, NS

Directed by


Rated NR · 1h 30m

“Never had such a good time in my life before / I’d like to have it one time more / One good ride from start to end / I’d like to take that ride again.” – The Grateful Dead, “Might as Well” (1976)

The year after Woodstock, in the summer of 1970, a series of the most unique and ambitious rock concerts ever conceived were held across Canada. After opening in Toronto, some of the top bands of their time along with roadies and a film crew boarded a private train called the Festival Express to finish the tour in Winnipeg and Calgary. The Festival Express was the brainchild of two brash, young promoters named Ken Walker and Thor Eaton. Not satisfied with assembling one of the most incredible travelling concert bills in history – performers included Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Eric Andersen, Buddy Guy, Great Speckled Bird, and many more – Walker and Eaton decided that “packaging” the tour in the form of a CN railcar moving across the vast landscape would make for good times and good music, and they were correct.

At the crest of the musical and social explosion that was the sixties, this contrast between the greatest musicians of their day (and, some would say, any day) and a leisurely mode of travel made for a combustible bell jar that vibrated with artistic camaraderie. They rocked, they rolled, they jammed – all part of a crew that chugged its way across the Canadian Shield and all documented on film. The performers were confronted at every concert stop by protesters angry about the $14 ticket price (“Free the music – the music should be free!”) but this did not prevent them giving their all for the thousands who flocked to see them. This never-before-seen footage (in which Willem Poolman, father of producer Gavin Poolman, captured performances both on stage and on board the Express) reminds us of the sheer electricity performers like Joplin were capable of creating. The footage was lost in legal proceedings for three decades, but ninety hours of raw negative and forty hours of uncut sound recording were fortuitously found at the National Archives of Canada. With music mixed by Eddie Kramer (producer of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Santana), Bob Smeaton’s documentary immortalizes performances that – in comparison to those found in the controlled set-ups of most concert films – are unmistakably raw and immediate. A Special Presentation at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was received with thunderous applause, Festival Express is more than the sum of its extraordinary parts; it captures a uniquely Canadian experience, and the spirit of an age and sheer explosive entertainment.