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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005
Tripping to a far-out festival and future frequencies
There are already plenty of films documenting the hippie-rock festivals of the late 1960s and early '70s, ranging from the well-known "Woodstock" and "The Monterey Pop Festival" to the more obscure artifacts such as "Rainbow Bridge" and "Isle of Wight." And yet one thing none of these films has is The Grateful Dead, surprising when you consider that they were probably the longest running '60s band that never ended up doing Lexus commercials.
"Festival Express," a late addition to the hippie oeuvre, has a built-in audience given that it has loads of footage of the then-young, relevant and in-tune Dead, both onstage and off, complete with an awkward moment when a wasted Jerry Garcia confesses his love for Janis Joplin who, equally wasted, lets it fly right by. But while Dead-heads will be in retro-heaven, it's less clear whether the film is a crucial addition to the history of the era.
"Woodstock" and "Monterey" both used concert films to cement their place in musical and cultural history, but they certainly had the line-ups and performances to back it all up. "Festival Express," which follows a tour by train across Canada in the summer of 1970, has its moments, but not nearly enough. There's good footage here of The Dead (in cowboy hats!) doing "Friend of the Devil" and "Don't Ease me In," a great version of "The Weight" by The Band, and the Buddy Guy Blues Band tearing its way through a cover of "Money." Less essential, however, is the bottom side of the bill: The Flying Burrito Brothers and Mashmakhan are dimly remembered at best, while the mutant greaser-hippie doo-wop of Sha Na Na is best forgotten.
If the film has any reason to exist, though, it's Janis Joplin. We hear her before we see her, and from the first freaking note -- a long, tortuous wail of the "cry" in "Cry Baby" -- she just hits an entirely different level. Janis on record is fine, but nothing beats seeing her rip those notes out of her body live.
Those who worship at the altar of the '60s will enjoy the offstage sections here, where the cameras document the 24-hour partying and impromptu jam sessions that took place on the train as it traveled between gigs. Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir recalls how someone "doctored" the Canadian Club whiskey, while bassist Phil Lesh describes "a train full of insane people," and there's plenty of evidence to back that up. A jam session featuring The Band's Rick Danko, Janis and Jerry is almost embarrassingly incoherent, though, like a bonenkai karaoke session after too many beers.
In many respects, "Festival Express" is more interesting as a sociological document. Despite the media stereotype of love beads and flowers-in-the-hair acid-eyed hippies, it's interesting to note the freaky diversity of the concertgoers -- a guy in an Oxford shirt smoking a pipe is glimpsed along with a guy in a full Dracula cape. Mostly it seems to be shirtless guys in filthy jeans, not all that different from the psy-trance parties of today.
Ironies abound, the greatest of which is to hear those arch-hippies of The Dead defending the cops. The entire tour seems to have been plagued by "revolutionary" hippies who -- following the example of Woodstock -- felt entitled to storm the gates, decrying the "capitalist pigs" who dared to charge admission. Riots resulted, with both cops and protesters getting injured, and The Dead -- who famously refused to take the stage at Woodstock until they were paid up front -- came down on the side of "the Man." It's a keen reminder that the banner of "free music" was raised well before MP3s and CDRs, and it wasn't appreciated much then either. Concert promoter Ken Walker sums it up with an appropriately sour note: "The lesson I learned is I gave the public too much . . . and they didn't deserve it!"
An arguably more important chapter of modern musical history is addressed in "Moog," director Hans Fjellestad's documentary on Robert Moog, the pioneering inventor who first brought synthesizers to the masses. Literally every synth out there today can trace its conceptual roots to the Moog design. Along with the electric guitar (and possibly the sampler), the Moog synthesizer was easily one of the most revolutionary instruments of the 20th century. Even today the Moog synths are renowned for the warm tones and rich textures they can produce, a far cry from the cheap, tinny sounds of recent Roland or soft-synth products.
The fact that the Moog wound up being a keyboard, as we learn in the film, was almost an afterthought. Robert Moog, still alive and well at age 70, explains how the original design -- just a rack of knobs and cables to manipulate the circuit-driven sounds -- might have been the better idea. The first people to employ synths were experimental musicians, who used them to produce sounds -- musical or otherwise -- that were then assembled into a structure on tape. The keyboard, Moog feared, would lead people to use synthesizers in a more traditional, melodic fashion.
He was right, and the film -- seemingly blissfully unaware of the irony -- cuts right into a performance by Keith Emerson (of ELP), who pretty much uses the Moog as a souped-up piano for some full-on muso solos. There's Rich Wakeman of Yes as well, praising Bob Moog for giving keyboardists a weapon that could rival lead guitarists for pure pyrotechnic flash. Wakeman's interview is pretty hilarious, actually, in a "Spinal Tap" sort of way, and it's even more incongruous that the king of prog-rock 20-minute solos is in conversation with Bernie Worrel of P-Funk, the king of dirty grooves.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from a lack of artists who have really explored and established the Moog synthesizer's potential. We get Money Mark with a mike in his mouth doing cheap vocoder tricks on it, and the opposite extreme of the aforementioned excess of Wakeman and Emerson -- but where are the innovators like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Pete Townshend, Brian Eno, Stevie Wonder or, for that matter, Walter/Wendy Carlos (of "Switched on Bach" fame)? Too many of the talking heads seem to be there because they were available. The most egregious example is DJ Spooky, who knows about as much about Moog synthesizers as my cat does, but that doesn't stop him from spouting off on unrelated topics.
A better researched film would have been nice, but this one is nevertheless saved by the presence of Bob Moog himself, an endearing and humble character. It's somehow reassuring to hear one of the pioneers of electronic music creation espousing the hands-on joys of live performance and organic gardening.