This Day in Music, June 27: Riding The Rails To Glory

By , Contributor

I wish I had a time-machine, like Marty McFly in Back To The Future. I would climb inside Doc Brown's DeLorean DMC-12 and set the controls to 27 June 1970 and join Janis, Robbie, Levon, and Jerry on the Trans-Continental Express, as they grooved their way across Canada by train.

The Trans-Continental Pop Festival (better known as the Festival Express) set off on this day in 1970. The now legendary tour was unique in that rather than flying to each city, most of the acts traveled on a chartered train. The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin (with her Full-Tilt Boogie Band), The Band, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Buddy Guy Blues Band all jammed, drank, slept, and rode the train in between playing shows in Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Calgary.

The chartered Canadian National Railways train consisted of 14 cars, equipped with lounges and sleeping compartments, with electrical outlets so that musical instruments could be plugged in. Allegedly, during the trip, a coke-fuelled Jerry Garcia talked his way into sitting in the driver's seat and was left at the controls, regularly sounding the train's whistle. 

The train journey between cities ultimately became a combination of non-stop jam sessions and partying, fueled by alcohol. One highlight of Festival Express, the 2003 documentary made about the tour, is a drunken jam session featuring The Band's Rick Danko, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin.

Unsurprisingly the passengers drank the bar dry and, as is shown in the film, the musicians passed around a hat and the train made an unscheduled stop to find a liquor store for much needed supplies. I seem to remember that, much to the bemusement of the owner, they bought most of the contents of the store.

The tour had an original budget of about $900,000 but, largely due to less than predicted turnout, it ultimately lost between $350,00 and $500,000 for the promoters. Part of the reason for this was The May 4th Movement (inspired by the killing of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University), who demanded free music and an end to "The RRRRip-Off Express" decrying ticket prices; over 2,500 protesters gathered outside the first show in Toronto.

The tour featured now legendary performances by the Grateful Dead, The Band, and Janis Joplin. The Dead were in the process of transforming their sound from dense, jammed psychedelia to the country/folk harmonies of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, The Band's performance showed them at the pinnacle of the their powers, and for Joplin, it would turn out to be some of her last performances, as she died two months later.

Because the Festival Express tour turned out to be a complete financial disaster, the film project was shelved as the promoters sued the filmmakers, and the footage mysteriously disappeared. Some of the film's reels turned up in the garage of the original producer Willem Poolman, where they had been stored for decades and used at various times as goal posts for ball hockey games played by his son Gavin.

Eventually, in 1999, a plan was hatched to resurrect the film, and many more reels were found in the Canadian National Film Archives vault, where they had been kept in pristine condition. Director Bob Smeaton (The Beatles Anthology) was hired, and eventually the completed film was premiered in 2003, grossing more than $1 million in movie theatres before being released on DVD to much acclaim.

Showing that a good idea is never too good to keep down, in 1978, legendary UK Indie label Stiff records borrowed the idea for the Be Stiff Route 78 Tour, all the acts travelling round the UK by specially chartered train. Wreckless Eric, Lene Lovich, Jona Lewie, Mickey Jupp, and Rachel Sweet were the recipients of the honour this time around, although the tour was a lot longer than the original Canadian week. The Be Stiff Tour lasted from October 10 to November 19, 1978, a full five weeks of riding the rails, with a lot less excess: 16-year-old Rachel Sweet was doing sums rather than lines as the train crisscrossed the country.   

Still, it's the only way to travel...

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A former musician, Neil was in the 80's group The Cheaters who were once signed to EMI's Parlophone label, and released three albums. He was also a radio presenter and is still a regular music pundit on various BBC stations. Neil is the founder of the award winning web site This Day in Music which is…

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