In the summer of 1970, several of rock’s biggest names—The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band—set out on a tour across Canada aboard a train dubbed the Festival Express. It was a somewhat eccentric mode of transportation, even for the time, since most performers traveled by bus or plane, but somehow an apropos choice for this merry collection of jam bands, folk rock groups, and blues musicians.
The festival was doomed from the start. Their first scheduled stop in Montreal was cancelled just weeks before the event because city officials feared violent uprisings—a concern that turned out to be more than just administrative paranoia. Days later, as the first performance finally got underway in Toronto, the festival was met with riots over the outrageous $14 ticket price. News of the fiasco would follow them for the rest of the concert tour, spreading from city to city, and it became apparent that the Festival Express was going to be one big money sinkhole.
After that, the train ride was forgotten for nearly 30 years. But now a new generation of artists is out to re-create the Festival Express experience. There was the Railroad Revival Tour in 2011 and the Full Flex Express in 2012. And this September the most ambitious revival yet will debut from artist Doug Aitken: a three-week-long train trek and series of performances called Station to Station that will unfold across 10 U.S. cities.
So if the Festival Express tour was plagued with problems, what are these artists and musicians trying to recapture?
On the train, the performers were having the time of their lives. Reveling in the high-frequency creative energy that comes from being in close quarters with some of the best musicians of the time, compounded by copious amounts of free drugs and booze, the ride turned into a weeklong jam session of epic proportions.
“It was a train full of insane people, careening across the Canadian countryside, making music night and day, and then occasionally we’d get off the train and go play a concert,” recalled the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh in the 2003 documentary chronicling the historic tour.
The film, which was shelved for decades following the festival’s financial ruin, captures everything from iconic live performances to the endless guitar noodling and off-key drunken howls that took place aboard the train late at night. It serves as a love letter to the music of the '60s and '70s, to the creative craft, and, somewhat oddly since its events take place in Canada, to Americana.
The mythology of the Festival Express spread through the creative community, and that’s what led to the reincarnation of the doomed festival in a variety of modern forms. Several folk, country, and bluegrass rock acts, including Mumford & Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, traveled the American Southwest in vintage train cars as part of the Railroad Revival Tour. Skrillex, along with electronic music heavyweights Diplo, Grimes, and Pretty Lights, staged a pretty literal reinterpretation of the Festival Express with the Full Flex Express tour, making stops at six Canadian cities. Even Rihanna’s recent 777 press junket tour seems to have drawn inspiration from the Festival Express.
Each of these tours seems to have inherited the same financial burden as the original. Though both the Railroad Revival and Full Flex Express initially announced a second tour, complete with all-star line-up, both were cancelled before they could even begin, citing financial difficulties. Apparently train travel is obscenely expensive.
Aitken is best known for his large-scale video projections, installations, and experimental films, on which he frequently collaborates with musicians like Andre 3000, No Age, and Cat Power. Station to Station will be his magnum opus to the marriage of the moving image and sound, and from what we’ve heard so far, it’s shaping up to be something like a Coachella on wheels crossed with a museum exhibition on steroids. It’s shaping up to be the most ambitious spectacle the American railroad system has seen yet.
In addition to concert performances, Station to Station will feature a curated film program and will commission short films from several leading filmmakers. By partnering with cultural institutions and curators in each city, the event will be tapping into the local cultural communities, which will be represented in pop-up tents at each stop housing local craft food and design purveyors. And, in what may be the most opulent gesture of the whole campaign, Aitken is transforming the 10-car charter train itself into a massive LED light installation.
So how is he going to pull all this off when everyone else has failed? Apart from leveraging his A-list connections, Aitken has learned from his predecessors and realized that ticket sales alone cannot sustain such extravagance. In search of a different financial model, he’s turned the whole thing into a branded campaign and sold it to Levi’s, a partner that fits with the Americana iconography Station to Station celebrates. The brand partnership will not only finance Station to Station, it will allow Aitken to donate proceeds towards funding a multimuseum arts program throughout 2014.
Can Station to Station shake the ghost of Festival Express and bypass the financial ruin that plagued its predecessors? While it’s certainly gearing up to be a bank-breaking blowout, with corporate patrons behind them, Aitken and his crew may have the best chance yet to create a moving piece of musical art without getting derailed.