The film Festival Express documented five days in 1970 during which nine bands — including heavies Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and the Band — toured Canada by chartered train. The tour is depicted as one endless party, with the ever-filthier musicians periodically, begrudgingly disembarking to play a few songs for increasingly hostile crowds demanding more music for less money.
The kickoff of the Railroad Revival tour, which took place last Thursday at West Oakland's 38-acre Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, was leaner and cleaner in almost every way. There are only a third as many bands riding the rails — British headliner Mumford and Sons, LA's dozen-strong Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass favorites Old Crow Medicine Show — and, compared with Janis, Jerry, and co., these musicians seemed remarkably fresh-faced and just plain happy to be there. Then again, Middle Harbor was only the first date of a five-city, seven-day tour.
The park itself is rather pristine, as it's criminally underused — a vast expanse of running and biking trails, picnic tables and barbecue spots, and more achingly beautiful views of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, and the bay than you can throw a fishing line at. Imagine the surprise of several thousand music fans when they ended their winding walk, bike trip or cab ride from West Oakland BART here, herded by ubiquitous festival staff into a parkland easily rivaling Treasure Island.
With no train in sight.
The vintage 13-car, 1,500-foot highballer that the bands, support staff, and general entourage were to occupy for the next week was nowhere to be seen — not without some extensive wandering. Rumored to have a recording studio and solarium, the California Zephyr allowed only the most major of networks to board her, and only at the very beginning of the event. Fans and media hoping for a look-see had to settle for Kinetic Steamworks' stand-alone train engine—one of several art car-type contraptions dotting the park landscape — frequently blowing its whistle between bands, leading many to believe it was the festival train wailing a wet, throaty "hello."
There was plenty else to be happy about, though. Nashville's Old Crow hit the stage right on time — 6:05 p.m. — clad in suits, hats, and general good cheer. Between Sunset Limited and Cannonball Express references, Old Crow rode old-timey tracks between the good (a sweet version of their Byrdsy "I Hear Them All" and a stellar take on blues classic "See See Rider," juicy with harmonies, reproach, and longing), the bad ("Hey Good Lookin' Country Gal," a nod to Hank Williams that actually clangs and clatters all over the great man's grave), and the hit parade (the bands' big number "Wagon Wheel"). And throughout the set, those hallmarks of the indie folk-rock festival circuit: Ironic hippie dancing begetting real hippie dancing begetting country-fried slam-dancing.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes came on around 7:20 p.m., as the light was turning perfect. Yes, lord, some of these train riders were legitimately scruffy, though the girls were pretty clean. (The one from the TV show Greek — accordionist and keyboard player Nora Fitzpatrick — looked especially hygienic.) Should any of the band's members fall victim to the train's assumed party charms, ESMZ should be OK: With two fiddlers, a piano, two keyboardists, two guitarists, and two drummers, they've got a spare of nearly everything.
The event's most transcendent moment came early in the second band's set: Singer Alex Ebert — in dreadlocks, bare feet, and threadbare whitish tunic — stepped one foot over the crowd barrier, intoning "This is getting serious now" as the sun began its colorful slip into the bay. The crowd clapped along to the intro to "40 Day Dream" and Ebert led the masses in some ooh-ooh-ah-ahs as the Bay Bridge bounced gold and pink off its flanks. Later on, it seemed the entire sold-out crowd sang along to "Home," perhaps because it's been in NFL commercials and a movie about snowboarding, or perhaps because it's a truly great song: June Carter and Johnny Cash gone exalting, indie-pop viral.
It was almost completely dark when the four-piece Mumford and Sons began with a sparse, reverent "Sigh No More," four-part harmonies setting off screams — largely female — from the crowd. If the Railroad Revival lineup is a folk-rock sandwich, Old Crow is the earnest bottom bread, ESMZ is the messy, crunchy insides, and Mumford and Sons is the fluffy top slice: They sent sweet, heartfelt renditions of "Awake My Soul," "Tinshel," and "The Cave" up to the crane-lit skies of West O.
As it had begun, so did the music end almost right on time — just around 10 p.m. No disgruntled fans setting fires or jumping barricades, no deadly crush in the narrow, well-monitored entry pathways and beer garden exits. But as all three bands stepped onstage for a grand encore of Woody Guthrie's "This Train Is Bound for Glory," one rule did get broken: Thanks to a freelance videographer working for one of the big networks who'd left some equipment on the train earlier, one freelance journo for one little weekly paper got herself onboard.
Though it has some slick, deco-silver cars circa 1948, inside the train felt hella Amtrak — vintage in the way that clothing from the 1980s is now. And while part of "Bound for Glory" goes This train don't carry no gamblers/Liars, thieves, nor big shot ramblers, I can tell you what this train did carry: three little kids in PJs; a polite man in a black bowtie and vest straightening up the proceedings; narrow hallways with band members' names on compartment doors; and a lounge car containing two ladies and one bearded man, all friendly, the latter playing a xylophone — rather happily so, when we found my new pal's equipment.
It's a shinier, happier, 21st-century train after all.