Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, September 16, 2004


My good friend Jake spammed all his music freak friends, urging us to see the new documentary of a festival tour trainride across Canada in 1970 with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, the Band, and a bunch of other acts. Jake usually just spams to remind people to vote and to go to his shows, so I knew to take this seriously.

Am I glad I did. Saw it last night, went by myself after the toddling dude went to bed.

Jerry Garcia -- not particularly handsome, not especially expressive, but damn he was charismatic. Exuding cultural power, not just from his wide-ranging and generous musicianship, but also from his poise and confidence. Which inventing an archetype requires -- one of his speeches shows him to be the original uptight judgmental hippie dude who filters the hassle of other people through his Mellow mask. I used to know a ton of his disciples in college.

I never understood why the Grateful Dead had two drummers, and while I enjoyed their bits in the film, I still don’t.

The Band. Man, they were smokin’. Just 5 or 6 years before the Last Waltz, but 15 years younger in enthusiasm, and much more intense & rippin’. The wild gang vocals on Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and a Slidin’”; Richard Manuel’s unearthly gorgeous lead vocal on Dylan’s cryptic death hymn, “I Shall Be Released”; some standard-issue-wonderful Garth Hudson wild carnival organ; and Rick Danko’s brilliantly swoop-funk-rockin’ bass playing and awkwardly winning enthusiastic charm (which hadn’t dissipated by Last Waltz).

Buddy Guy -- fronting a great funky wild band ripping through the early Motown classic “Money (That’s What I Want)” with his coyote blues caterwauling vocals and decorum-shredding guitar.

And lots of great scenes of jam sessions on the train as they lurched across Canada from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary. Lots of testimony from the musicians as to how it was the time of their lives. A beautiful, amazing scene of an utterly ripped drunk Rick Danko singing the old folk song “Ain’t No More Cain” with Jerry Garcia & Janis Joplin, with Jerry & Bob Weir on guitar and Danko sometimes too. At a limit of coherence -- any more drunk & it would just fall apart, and yet’s it’s beautiful, and Danko’s throwing it out there with all his delighted might, and it looks like they’re all having the best time ever.

And most of all Janis. I’ve always been a fan; love “Cheap Thrills” to pieces; love a lot of her stuff -- but seeing the footage, wow. A force of nature. A whirlwind. And, and, and -- one of the most complex musicians ever, alternating between high-intensity drama and improvised comic existential monologues in the middle of the songs, and dropping back and forth between comedy & intensity with utter grace and rightness. It made me think of Mozart’s overture to “Don Giovanni,” that comic opera that ends with the hero being dragged terrorized & painful to Hell. The overture skips along in a light, energetic ambience until WHAM a dramatic bit drops in like thunder from a clear blue sky. Joplin’s comic monologues zip along until WHAM she’s right back at the height of gorgeous virtuoso frenzy. Brought tears to my eyes. I was awed.

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