DVD review: Big Easy Express – a musical indie rock journey
Three bands, 6 cities, 130 people, one train. The movie “Big Easy Express” follows indie rockers Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show across the U.S. You will see cheering, jamming, clapping hands – a feel-good movie for indie, folk and country fans.
It all starts with singer Jade Castrinos, who steps out of a train compartment and bumps into a jamming session of British folk rockers Mumford & Sons. She sits down for a bit, and then keeps walking to the next train car, where Nashville string band Old Crow Medicine Show are playing. She starts dancing, but does not stop there. Only when Jade reaches the end of the train, she stays and starts singing: it’s her own band, Edwards Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
Who belongs to which band, and does it matter?
The rest of the film is pretty much like that. 130 people on a vintage train: musicians of the band, spouses and partners, kids, photographers, caterers, and a camera team. They travel from California to New Orleans and stop in six cities for concerts on the way (shot in April 2011). That is not quite right though: the train ride is a long, never ending jam session and concert (full list of songs below). Unlike in the beginning of the film, which introduces the three bands separately, there is lots of mingling and exchange. At some point it is not clear anymore who belongs to which band. And it does not matter – that’s the whole point.
Eight-day long jamming and concert session
The concert film does not so much provide interviews or reflections on the indie rock/folk/country music scene. That’s why I wouldn’t call it a road movie or documentary. While I sometimes wished to get to know the band members a bit better and hear about their thoughts, I appreciate at the same time that the live songs were not annoyingly interrupted by interviews, as happens so often in musical documentaries.
Rather, the film keeps going from music tune to tune, against the beautiful background of American landscape. In between the many jamming sessions (which fans will love) are many highlights: several complete songs performed live on outdoor stages, one of which includes a high school marching band, and one where all bands sing together on a very, very crowded stage.
Smiles and claps – no tensions?
The bands all seem to get along well, even on such confined space. “We are all the same, all three bands,” Old Crow Medicine Show singer Willie Watson says. “Even the Mumfords are pretty grimy. They’ve got grease and mustard stains on their pants just like us.” After each concert, the musicians get back on the train and keep jamming through the night. Night after night.
This makes you wonder if there really was never any tensions on that train, fights born out of exhaustion or because of being locked up for eight days and nights on a 14-car train? I sure know that if I and Science Boy were on a train for so long we’d get into a row. But the film shows none of that. Either editor Matt Murphy and director of photography Giles Dunning did not feel this would fit into the feel-good movie, or it really didn’t happen (I secretly wish for the latter). And anyways, my old journalism-me sometimes still keeps searching for conflict where there might be none.
Austin High Marching Band
A highlight was when Mumford & Sons performed “The Cave” together with Austin High Marching Band. I’m not sure how long rehearsals took, but judging from the many trophies shelved in the background they must have gotten into the song pretty easily. It is an absolute joy to watch them perform together, and they are having a blast as well (video below).
Bound for Glory
Another part of the film that stands out is when all bands perform Woody Guthrie’s “This Train is Bound for Glory” together on stage towards the end of the film. They laugh, roll around on the floor, jump like crazy and draw you into the song if you want or not. That (long) last performance shows the craziness that evolves when you put three bands on a train for eight days.
Mumford & Sons and the Marching Band
The crazy, 8 minutes long, train song live in San Pedro
List of songs featured in the film
Banjolin Song (performed by Mumford & Sons)
John Henry (Old Crow Medicine Show)
If you Wanna (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros)
This Train is Bound for Glory (performed by all)
Train on the Island (Old Crow)
Up from Below (Edward Sharpe)
All Washed Out (Edward Sharpe song, performed by various band members)
Meet me Tomorrow (Mumford)
Jim Jones on Botany Bay (Old Crow)
Sigh no more (Mumford)
Old Molly Hare (Old Crow)
Little Lion Man (Mumford)
Cantaloupe Island (performed by all)
K.C. Moan (Willie Watson)
Wagon Wheel (Old Crow)
Home (Edward Sharpe)
The Cave (Mumford and Austin High Marching Band)
Get on Board, Little Children (Old Crow)
Train in the Sky (various)