Festival Express and the Canadian Rock Music Scene

Rock music festival-goers in Canada and the United States are today familiar with events such as Edgefest, Osheaga, and Lollapalooza. These events draw crowds of thousands who are willing to empty their wallets for a chance to experience a shared appreciation for artistry and music in an unconventional atmosphere. It is this same experience that was first fostered five decades ago, in what was hailed at the time as the definitive nexus for a large cultural and generational movement. But the music festival of the late 1960s and early 70s garnered a vastly different social response than most are accustomed to today. Counterculture was the order of the time, and music festivals became definitely representative of social lore. In today’s post we take a brief look at a unique Canadian foray into this world, famously known as the Festival Express.

The Festival Express was the brainchild of Ken Walker and Thor Eaton, the former a then-22-year-old business student and the latter of the Canadian retailing giant Eatons. Both conceived the idea in hopes to bring music to the people, featuring an eclectic array of North American rock acts westward across Canada from Toronto to Winnipeg and Calgary in a line of rail cars specifically designed by Canadian National Railway with gig gear, tour beds and enough stimulants to maintain what turned out to be ongoing rail party with stops in between.

The tour was made into a documentary in 2003. The film Festival Express features an array of instrumental and vocal solos, ranging from the electrifying riffs of Robbie Robertson (The Band) and the extended slick licks of Buddy Guy to the percussion rhythms of lead drummers such as Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart to the emotionally charged and endearing vocals of blues legend Janis Joplin. The performance footage is excellent in both picture and sound, and viewers of the film are also treated to an intimate look of musical artistry in motion and change. Riding along as the tour crosses Canada, performers were documented in a living atmosphere that was even unique to their individual and collective rock lifestyle.

The Festival Express was plagued by trouble from the onset, as idealistic young crowds stormed the Toronto gates in protest of what they considered to be an outrageous $14 ticket price. This may sound like an extremely small fee by today’s standards, but festival-goers of the time had grown accustomed to the spirit of free music, so much so that it had become the expected norm. Major festivals south of the North American border in the United States such as Monterey Pop (1967) were free, and many thought that Festival Express should have been a Canadian extension of a similar unabated musical liberty. It’s worth noting that at Woodstock (1969), perhaps the most well-known festival of the era, tickets were not free and costs ranged from $18 in advance to $24 at the gate (equivalent to roughly $120 and $150 in 2014).

Performers in Toronto did their bit in an attempt to help control riots and settle the crowd. Jerry Garcia, lead guitar and vocalist for the Grateful Dead, grabbed a microphone on main stage and tried to calm the crowd by calling for “coolness” and a “good time”. Others even agreed to play a make-shift stage set up on the exterior of the main venue. It was a quick fix that helped quell what was an increasingly volatile situation, but most of the damage had already been done. Police officers, protestors, and innocent concert-goers were injured in a series of events that cast a dark shadow on what was an otherwise poplar event.

Social unrest followed the Festival Express throughout the tour, resulting in continuous protest and financial ruin for both the tour organizers and performers. As Toronto protests made national headlines, the tour arrived at its next stop in Winnipeg to low ticket sales and anxious crowds looking to protest further. Speaking to these circumstances in the 2003 documentary, tour organizer Ken Walker bitterly claimed that the “audiences weren’t worth the effort … I gave the public too much and they didn’t deserve it.” Yet for the next five days talent jammed, drank and partied their way cross-country, interrupting rail service just long enough to turn in some of most well-known sets in Canadian music festival history.  

Having run dry of alcohol, the tour made an unscheduled stop at Saskatoon to replenish the party stock on route to the final destination, Calgary. Marijuana, LSD and other psychedelics were also freely used on board by performers without recourse or penalty of law. Upon arrival, the mayor of Calgary approached the festival manager and demanded a free concert. Hoping to win the appeal of young Calgarians, the mayor instead received a sore jaw from the tour organizers and fans were left to pay for entrance just as they had elsewhere. The Calgary show went forward nonetheless, featuring a combination of acts that had not been witnessed elsewhere. Having travelled by rail across much of Canada, all performers jammed together and many of the bands found unique compilations that came to fruition on Calgary’s main stage. Witnessing the likes of The Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Buddy Guy Blues Band, Ian and Sylvia, and others sometimes performing together.  

Festival Express also featured such acts as Great Speckled Bird, Mashmakhan, Sha Na Na, and Eric Andersen. The trip was in fact the final major tour in the music career of Janis Joplin who, after headlining the show at all three stops, died later that year of drug overdose at the age of 27. Footage of her two-hour Calgary set included a performance of the song “Tell Mama,” which was turned into an MTV video in the early 1980s.

It goes without saying but this rail tour was certainly the largest and most attended event of its kind at the time in Canadian history. A young generation lived through a uniquely once in a lifetime experience that has since been remembered as much for its social unrest as it has for its musical ingenuity. Today we continue to see the rise of music festivals both in North America and abroad. These festivals range in size and are certainly not confined to a rock context, and the general attitude which compels so many to attend has remained. Today festival-goers are willing to travel and pay in excess for a nostalgic experience that rings tones of an earlier era - an era that which we should not forget has distinct Canadian roots.