Bill Waiser

Festival Express stops in Saskatoon … for booze

There’s probably never been a “booze run” like it in Saskatoon history.

On July 2, 1970, when the Festival Express train pulled into the CN station, two men were hustled away in a waiting car to the nearest liquor store. They had collected $800 on the train and were determined to spend it all in a mad buying spree for the next leg to Calgary.

Only a few people in the city knew the brief stopover had even happened, let alone the identity of the passengers wandering the platform.

Saskatoon was not supposed to be a stop on the cross-Canada musical tour. Nor was CN expected to be so accommodating. But the impromptu raid on Saskatoon’s booze supply was all part of a transcontinental train trip that rocked to its own beat.

The 14-coach passenger train, with “Festival Express 1970” emblazoned in large letters on the side, left Toronto’s Union Station in late June 1970 to take performers to a series of outdoor concerts in Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver.

There was every expectation that the transcontinental tour would gain momentum — and fan support — as the train sped west.

And why not? The artists were some of the top acts of the day: Janis Joplin and her Full Tilt Boogie Band, Gerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Rick Danko of The Band, Delaney and Bonnie, Ian and Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, the Buddy Guy Blues Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Mashmakhan.

They boarded a special CN train the morning after their Toronto concert and headed into the rugged Canadian Shield northwest of the Great Lakes.

It was not long before boredom set in. There were no personal entertainment devices at the time — not even cellphones — and the constant panorama of rock and tree interspersed by tree and rock began to wear thin.

They also found themselves trapped in their small compartments and the feeling of confinement only compounded the boredom.  Vancouver seemed like an eternity away.

Many sought refuge in the dining and lounge cars. After a few drinks, drums were set up and guitars plugged into amps on top of chairs. The music flowed with a spontaneity and the voices with a genuineness that transformed the train into a magical sound studio.

The music was non-stop — it’s claimed some never slept — while artists joined with others for a mixing of sounds and the sharing of favourite or new songs. Joplin was apparently at her best, displaying a range of vocal talent, all the while swaying to the movement of the train with drink in hand and trademark feathers in her hair.

It was all fueled with alcohol — and that’s why the train had to make the unscheduled stop in Saskatoon. They were worried they would run out of booze before the train reached Calgary.

Every spare dollar was collected from the passengers and arrangements made with CN staff to stop the Festival Express in Saskatoon. What happened next was recounted in a 2003 documentary film of the same name.

Kenny Walker, one of the tour’s promoters, explained in an on-camera interview how he and John Byrne Cooke, Joplin’s road manager, were chauffeured to a nearby liquor store. They put their money on the counter and started filling boxes of booze. They took whatever was available.

At one point, Walker spied a Texas mickey of Canadian Club on a shelf above the cashier. When told that it was just for display and not for sale, Walker insisted on buying it.

The pair returned to the waiting train like conquering heroes with a trunk full of booty. And then they were on their way again — only this time, with the super-sized bottle of Canadian Club occupying a place of honour in one of the lounge cars.

The artists played Calgary on July 3, 1970, but the final concert in Vancouver was cancelled because the festival was bleeding money. The promoters would eventually lose at least a third of a million dollars.

Artists spoke longingly of the trip — how they wished it could go on forever. But the booze-infused creative atmosphere would never be captured again.

Janis Joplin would be dead just three months later — from a drug overdose.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Janis Joplin was among the performers riding the Festival Express train across western Canada

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers