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Festival Express-Bytowne in Ottawa - Sep. 3 to 9

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Playing at Bytowne Cinema September 3rd to 9th! Hooray!

Festival Express captures innocence

Movie documents unique piece of Canadian history

Katherine Monk

The Ottawa Citizen

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Woodstock was for the fans. The Festival Express was for the musicians.

You hear the statement several times over in the new movie from Bob Smeaton that documents a piece of Canadian history that was almost lost in a wash of financial woes and creative bickering.

In 1970, a train carrying some of the top rock acts in the world -- from the Grateful Dead to Janis Joplin -- travelled from Toronto to Calgary to play a series of concerts. The train was expensive. Fans boycotted shows. The tour lost a fortune. But for every mile of steel ribbon travelled, the Festival Express left a trail of riches.

For Sylvia Tyson, who was on the train with then-husband Ian, it was a voyage of musical discovery and pushing boundaries. "There was something deep about the experience, even though I can only really remember the outlines, and not the details. I think we we all felt we were doing something unique."

Nobody could have known how unique it was at the time, but sharing a five-day train ride across the Canadian landscape with Joplin and Jerry Garcia would prove to be a rare moment indeed, as Joplin died of a drug overdose two months later.

Eddie Kramer says the images we see of Joplin in Festival Express, which opens next week at the ByTowne Cinema, are the "real Janis."

The legendary rock producer wasn't on the train, but given his expertise in music of the era as a result of engineering the Woodstock soundtrack and Jimi Hendrix's studio albums, Kramer was brought on board to clean up, remix and punch up the neglected audio tracks that had been sitting, along with the film negative, in store rooms across the country as well as the National Archives.

"I think what you see is Janis at the very apex of her career. That smiling face is the Janis I knew. She was genuinely happy at that time. She wasn't really doing drugs, but she was still a tragic figure because she was always a lonely person," says Kramer.

"While we were cleaning up the soundtrack, I was struck by the power in her voice. They are classic performances, and they are clearly the focal point of the whole film, but I wouldn't call this the missing link in terms of our understanding of Joplin. It's simply a wonderful record of a great moment in her life, when she was honestly happy."

Tyson says Joplin was just another passenger, and that was the beauty of the ride. "Everyone was a member of the same community. We spoke a common language and that was music. There were jam sessions up and down the train. There was a country-folk car and a blues-rock car. You could sit down and just join in."

"It was so exciting that people didn't want to go to bed in case they missed something," Tyson continued.

Though it would seem like a natural byproduct of music and booze, Tyson says sex was not a part of the journey.

"Those beds were hard enough to sleep in with one person. You would have to be pretty determined. ... It would have taken a lot of effort, and it would have been tough to have privacy. Besides, there weren't a lot of women on the train, but Jackie Burroughs was there and I think she had a great time," says Tyson.

"I was married at the time so it wasn't something I thought about .... Besides, I'm a pretty bookish person," she says.

"The coupling came through the music. There was so much cross-pollination of styles, and people tried different things -- musically. There were no inhibitions and we didn't worry about feeling insecure, even with the cameras rolling all the time. They sort of just became a part of the background."

By the time the train pulled in for its last stop in Calgary, more than 75 hours of 16mm verite-styled footage had been shot. When the camera operators didn't get paid as a result of the huge losses on the tour, they kept the film cans as collateral. The material was dispersed across the country, and it was only as a result of one forward-thinking member of the production that so much footage was salvaged.

Bill O'Farrell gathered all the footage he could find and dropped it off at the National Archives, where it was stored for 25 years in perfect vault conditions, until two rock 'n' roll treasure hunters went looking for the goods.

James Cullingham and Garth Douglas decided to take on arduous work of clearing rights, a process that took more than a decade to complete.

To piece the different bits together in a way that made narrative sense, they hired Smeaton for his expertise in film and music as showcased in his direction of The Beatles Anthology.

It was Smeaton who pulled Kramer into the picture, and together they put the images and music together to create a unique reflection of the era.

"It was like an archeological dig," says Kramer. "The main part of the process was clearing things away and sort of weeding out. Same with the audio, I had to clear away the fog. In a way, it's ironic that we couldn't have made this film in 1970. We didn't have the technology to separate the elements and clean it up. There was a pilot tone (a beep tone used for synchronization) on everything we had, and really, without digital technology, it would have been mush," says Kramer.

"Now you hear the music in Dolby 5.1 and let me tell you, when I watched the premiere in San Francisco, it was a visceral experience -- for everyone."

Because the music was the most important thing about the journey, Kramer says Festival Express was unlike the other megatours and music events of the era. "It wasn't about politics, when just about everything else was. This is about a group of musicians spending time together on a train and discovering each other through music. Despite the alcohol, it was a time of innocence. We've lost that now."

Tyson says part of the unique feel may have been the result of the Canadian factor. "We all knew we were in Canada every time you looked out the window and saw the empty landscape, and though you don't see them in the movie, there were other Canadian acts on the train. Robert Charlebois was there, the Band was there. It had a real Canadian feel. People were so relaxed no one wanted to get off and play the shows -- which is why we were there in the first place," she says.

"We all left our egos on the platform, and so we had a chance to explore each other, and the art. Now, you'd have bodyguards on the train and handlers. None of that was there then. The industry was still interested in developing artists. Until Michael Jackson and Thriller happened, the business wasn't aware of how much money it could make -- but now they do, and now if you don't have a huge album right from the start, you're finished."

Kramer is also disheartened by the downward turn in musical creativity.

"Digital is a blessing and a curse. It made Festival Express the experience that it is, but it's also responsible for this shallow, overly engineered formula that we have now."

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