Manitoba Music Museum

The Manitoba Music Museum is a website dedicated to the Musicians of Manitoba.

FESTIVAL EXPRESS

Dave Firby 

My Uncle Hugh MacGregor (since passed) was one of the original promoters out of Toronto of the Festival Express. He had lived in Winnipeg for a long time before moving to Toronto. He Worked for the Industrial Trade show division of Mclean Hunter at the time. Some how with all of the protesting and logistics this festival train lost a ton of money but he didn't lose his job. He said to me "they got so caught up in the loss of the money that they forgot to fire me!" I was too young to attend the event but my oldest brother and sister did and it was an eye opening event for them. People making love in large cardboard boxes in the middle of the field. Lots of "sixties stuff" going on around them. I was so excited when the movie came out as I have always had a personal family connection to the festival express. Yes the promoters lost a ton of money but the performers loved the train. It is history with some very solid Winnipeg connections.
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
                                                                           
    • John Einarson 
      Loved the festival but it was looooong. My girlfriend and I got there at 8:00 am to wait in line to get a decent spot on the field. The show ran late. I'm pretty sure it was well after 1:00 AM when Joplin finally hit the stage. I was pretty wiped by then. She was worth it, though (Joplin, not my girlfriend). I remember the Grateful Dead being rather "testy" to say the least. When someone in the crowd shouted something to them I'll never forget Phil Lesh stepping to the mike and replying, "Suck my cock, hard rock!" Yikes. Where's that San Francisco hippie peace and love fellas?? Buddy Guy had a huge, massive, roadie with a guitar cable that must have been 300 feet long and as Buddy came out into the crowd to play he'd let out more and more cable. Bachman's appearance was bizarre and shortlived although he later returned to jam with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. Loved The Band and the Great Speckled Bird. Jerry Garcia from the Dead stood onstage and watched the GSB's steel player Buddy Cage through their whle set. Eric Andersen and Tom Rush had a tough time holding the crowd's attention. Mashmakan were cool and "As The Years Go By" went down a storm. Robert Charlebois was bizarre. Leslie West was red hot with Mountain.

 

On Tuesday, June 30, 1970 the infamous Festival Express train pulled into Union Station (now Via Rail) on Main Street south. The 14-coach private CNR train was a sort of rolling thunder revue crossing Canada with stops for concerts at several key cities. Onboard was the cream of the rock ‘n’ roll scene at that point including Janis Joplin, The Band, Grateful Dead, Delaney & Bonnie, Mountain, Ian & Sylvia and more. As Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart later explained, “Woodstock was a treat for the audience but the train was a treat for the performers.” Indeed, it was.

Dubbed the Million Dollar Bash, the tour was the brainchild of promoter Ken Walker and partner Thor Eaton of the wealthy department store family. Costs were pegged at roughly $500,000 with tickets priced around $10. In the end, the tour lost big money, partly due to poor attendance at the Winnipeg concert as well as cost overruns keeping the performers well lubricated on the journey (the train had to make 2 unscheduled stops on the trip to restock the bar). 

“One lounge car was for blues and rock and the other was country and folk,” recalls Sylvia Tyson. “There were jam sessions nonstop. The Grateful Dead ran out of other substances around Winnipeg and started drinking and it was not a pretty sight,” she laughs. According to Ian Tyson’s recollections, “I recall getting into a drinking contest with Janis Joplin and I was seriously outmatched. She drank me under the table. I remember me and Jerry Garcia crawling onto the roof of one of these train cars and howling like coyotes.”

Initially conceived with concerts held in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and concluding in Vancouver, the opening and closing dates were ultimately scuttled due to scheduling problems. Some 37,000 attended the inaugural Toronto event, expanded to 2 days with buses chartered to bring in Montreal ticket-holders, buoying hopes for a financially successful tour. However protests outside the CNE Grandstand by a group calling itself The May 4th Movement (after the Kent State massacre) disrupted festivities forcing an increased police presence and reports of violence. The protesters urged those who could not afford the high prices to storm the gates outside the concert to try to get in for free. Fears of similar violence kept many from attending in Winnipeg as protesters outside the Manisphere (Red River Exhibition) site decried the excessive ticket price. Only 4600 tickets were sold here (20,000 tickets needed to be sold for our show to break even).

“It was ridiculous because it was a cheap ticket price for the top acts in music at that point,” states Sylvia. “The presenters in each city were terrified there was going to be some kind of riot from this May 4th Movement. That had such an adverse affect on the whole thing. The mayor of Calgary got in on the act declaring, ‘Let the children of Calgary in for free’ and Ken Walker said ‘Screw you’ and punching him. Then the manager of the stadium said, ‘I have a solution. We’ll let them in for free but they have to pay to get out!’”

Nonetheless, the Winnipeg stopover proved memorable for performers and attendees. Having spent two days partying non-stop on the two lounge cars commandeered for jam sessions, several performers went in search of some local colour. The Grateful Dead and their crew headed to the Pan Am Pool on Grant Avenue where Jerry Garcia organized a relay race between various stoned musicians. 

Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett chose to disembark and take a room at the downtown Sheraton Carlton Hotel. Front desk man Brian Levin and fellow Expedition To Earth bandmate Dan Norton took the two performers on a tour of the city. “We spent the day driving around showing them highlights of our Winnipeg,” recalls Dan. “We stopped at the A&W Drive Inn on Portage Avenue across from Polo Park and confused the patrons as we got out and walked around, had our burgers and fries and continued on back to the train to check out what was doing. One of the reasons they were at the Sheraton was Bonnie wanted to protect Delaney from Janis Joplin. Delaney and Bonnie were two of the nicest, most down to earth people that you could ever hope to meet. No pretensions.” 

Joplin herself determined to take in the sights. “A few of us got a cab and said, ‘Take us where the freaks are,’” she told Winnipeg Free Press reporter Ken Ingle. “We went to this park and there was an entire beautiful crew of people just lying around and playin’ the guitar.” The carefree ambiance surprised the hard-living singer. “There’s hippies in the fountain and nobody’s bustin’ them. I mean, if you walked into a fountain in New York City, you’d be in jail in five minutes. But there’s forty hippies floundering around in the fountain and standing under the spray.” Festooned in feathers, scarves, garish costume jewelry, and pink sunglasses, Joplin waded into the warm waters under the watchful gaze of the Golden Boy. Few hippies took notice of her.

That same casual air was also present on the train. “There was no security, no bodyguards, nothing,” recalls Jerry Dykman. “I just walked through the coaches. Nobody stopped me. I was able to chat with everyone. Janis Joplin was there drunk as a skunk, a bottle of tequila in her hand. It was all peace and love.” Local music journalist Andy Mellen also boarded the train and encountered the queen of the hippies. “I sat down with Janis in this empty coach and she poured me a finger of Southern Comfort. I had my tour program with me and I asked Janis to sign the photo of her in it,” he recalls. “She signed it ‘Love, non-professionally, Janis Joplin’. I have that framed on my wall. I was this 20 year old kid and here was this legend. She was so courteous to me.” Three months later Joplin would be dead.

Another visitor to the train was Randy Bachman, recently departed from the Guess Who. “I was sitting there with Jerry Garcia and other members of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Delaney & Bonnie and their band, guys from The Band, Leslie West from Mountain. Players would wander in and out, pull up a chair, plug into one of the little amps they had and just pick up on the flow of the ongoing blues jams.” An abstainer, Randy had to deal with the various substances passed around. “I sat by an open window because the smoke was so thick. As the joints were passed around someone would nudge me and offer one. ‘No thanks’ and it would get passed along to the next player. I just wanted to play with anybody.”

The following afternoon, Canada Day, the performers decamped for the Stadium concert. Ticket-holders began queuing up hours before the 11:00 gate opening then made a dash for a prime spot of the turf to spread out blankets. The concert commenced at 1:00 with local acts Walrus (featuring Joey Gregorash) and Justin Tyme before the headliners took to the stage beginning with Montreal’s Mashmakhan who were enjoying hit status with “As The Years Go By”. Folksingers Tom Rush and Eric Andersen had a tough time soothing the crowd looking to rock. Bluegrass trio James & the Good Brothers had not been together long but managed to earn applause. James was ex-Winnipegger Jim Ackroyd formerly of The Galaxies. Quebecois singer Robert Charlebois tried vainly to stir up the crowd but his set of mainly francophone songs went unappreciated.

Blues guitarist Buddy Guy brought the audience to their feet for a rousing set that included wading into the audience playing his guitar. An enormous roadie in a jumpsuit followed behind letting out what must have been a 100 ft cord. Ian & Sylvia were backed by their recently formed country rock band The Great Speckled Bird featuring guitar virtuosos Amos Garret and Buddy Cage. Throughout their set, Jerry Garcia stood right onstage oblivious to the audience to watch Buddy play his steel guitar. “In Winnipeg some drug-crazed hippie climbed up on the stage and tried to grab N.D. Smart’s drum sticks,” laughs Sylvia. “Big mistake. N.D. put down his sticks, punched him, and went back to playing without missing a beat. By the time we turned around it was all over.”

Mountain, led by massive guitarist Leslie West playing a tiny Gibson Les Paul junior guitar, blew the audience away with their powerhouse sound (and earned an ovation introducing Canadian drummer Corky Laing), ending with “Mississippi Queen”. Between changeovers, Randy Bachman wandered out onstage unannounced armed with an acoustic guitar. “I was so nervous that I ended up spelling ‘American Woman’ wrong,” he recalls.” I was doing the ‘I say A, M, E’ intro and I missed a letter. I was going to do a whole mini set but I got so flustered I walked off halfway through. People thought I must be stoned but I was just out of my element.” He later returned to jam with Delaney & Bonnie whose raucous R ‘n’ B set was punctuated by the singing of Happy Birthday to Delaney.

Some of The Grateful Dead were not in a friendly mood and at one point uttered a profanity-laced invective aimed at an audience member. But as Chris Doole recalls, “When the Dead performed ‘Alligator’ it got into this groove where it started to sound like 25 perfectly synchronized locomotives with Garcia’s tasty little trills on top of it all. Everyone's attention was just nailed to it.” 

It was past midnight by the time The Band and Joplin each mounted the stage and some concert goers had already left. Looking like rustic mountain men, The Band played an exceptional set drawing from their first two albums along with a few old chestnuts including Little Richard’s “Slippin’ & Slidin’”. Garth Hudson’s elongated organ intro to “Chest Fever” drew on several old hymns and was mesmerizing. Backed by The Full Tilt Boogie Band (consisting of mostly Canadians), Joplin rocked hard and won over the weary crowd. “I remember she said, ‘You guys certainly know how to throw a ... train’” recalls Chris Doole. 

A brazen young man managed to amble onstage near the end of her set. “How about a kiss for the boys from Manitoba?” he queried. Smiling, Joplin consented. As he turned to leave, the young man thanked the stagehands. “Why are you thanking them, honey?” sassed Joplin, “They didn’t do nothing for you!”

“Everyone on that train was at their peak,” notes Sylvia Tyson. “The Band was at their best and Janis, too. She was just coming into her own as the singer she really was just before she died.”

The following morning, after another night of partying and jamming, the train slowly pulled out of Union Station bound for Calgary and the final concert. “I knew a girl who was at the Winnipeg concert,” remembers Hilary Chase, “who ran up to the stage at some point, was noticed by guys in Janis Joplin’s band and ended up travelling to Calgary with them on the train.”

“It's amazing,” concludes one local observer ruefully, “that anyone can remember anything about that event by the amount of drugs and alcohol that was digested both by fans and performers.” 
John Einarson /Winnipeg Boomer Magazine August 2012


Join music historian John Einarson for Heartland Travel’s Magical Musical History Tour of local rock ‘n’ roll landmarks. Go to heartlandtravel.ca
 
 

 

 

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