“It’s kind of like the quest for the Holy Grail. Well who gives a s*** what the Holy Grail is, it’s the quest [that’s] important.” –conservationist, Yvon Chouniard.
The documentary “Big Easy Express” is the chronicling of a monumental train tour across the United States traveling to a fictitious end point.
And yet, as described in the above quote, it’s also the journey of three bands, those involved and the people it inspires that is most important. In the narrating voice that opens this film, it’s about going “back into the magic.”
WKNH radio sponsored the documentary “Big Easy Express” in the Mabel Brown Room on the night of Sunday, Sept. 30.
The film captures three musical groups’ eight-day journey touring by train as part of the Railroad Revival Tour of 2011 from San Francisco, Calif. to New Orleans, La. Following the film, WKNH held a Q&A session with the film’s director, Emmett Malloy, via Skype.
General Manager of WKNH radio, junior Tim Gagnon, said he wanted to bring the film to Keene after first hearing about it through social media on the band Mumford and Sons’ Facebook page.
The band’s familiarity among college students was a big part in his decision to bring the film here. Gagnon said he then got in touch with the film’s director about having a showing at Keene.
After that, WKNH paid $300 for the licensing and the filmmakers sent them two copies of the film. A crowd of about 40 viewers was treated to a film filled with antique images of railroadiana and the vast landscapes of the American west.
Keene State College student Ray Menier said the use of the train was cool, “especially given that it’s not particularly modern. It makes it a little more interesting and a little more fun.”
To go along with all the fixings of a well-put together documentary, viewers were treated to some memorable musical performances. The headliner of this film was Mumford and Sons, the English-based quartet whose popularity has exploded in the states in the past few years.
Their propensity for taking a simple, choppy acoustic guitar rhythm and weaving in rolling banjo, upright bass, keyboard, horns, and slowly building these sounds until they have transformed the original sound into a massive soundscape was in full display.
During a performance in Texas, the band invited the Austin High School marching band on stage with them to perform their hit “The Cave,” creating one of the more captivating and feel-good moments in this film.
The group Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros also joined the ride. Their lead man, Alex Ebert, seemed to be as much a part of powering the train as the coal that burned inside its furnace.
The splinter-like figure provided an infectious energy on stage and during other moments throughout the trip. His quirky on-stage dance moves got the largest rise out of the audience. The last group introduced on this journey is the Tennessee string band, Old Crow Medicine Show.
Malloy said during the Skype conversation that followed the film that although the band was probably the least popular of the three, their presence was essential to the movie.
It was clear from the opening sequence the director was framing the importance of Old Crow Medicine Show in this film.
As a cameraperson walked from the subdued feeling of the Mumford and Sons rail-car into the Old Crow Medicine Show guys’ rail-car, the first image is of a professional-looking bartender mixing drinks.
In the background, the band engages in an energetic harmonica-driven jam, leaving no doubt who brought the party.
“Old Crow, until seeing that, I knew them, I thought they were okay but [they] definitely set the tone for them because they were really cool,” Gagnon said. One viewer asked Malloy what bands he would choose if he were to do this again, he questioned to himself “Who’s going to replace Old Crow?”
The movie ends with a culminating performance of the traditional Gospel tune “This train is bound for glory” that features members from all three bands. It ends up turning into a ruckus party as members from all bands and seemingly whoever wanted to be on stage joined in this celebration.
This signaled the first time the bands performed together on stage but the film is full of impromptu jams as the train move along.
WKNH Music Director Joe Warren said he was surprised about how little focus the movie put on who the performers were, and instead focused on the trip itself and these kind of communal experiences.
In fact, it is this kind of involvement that Gagnon tries to foster with the radio station and the events they put together. Gagnon said the “Play what you want and enjoy it” attitude he saw in the film is one he has tried to bring to WKNH since he started.
“When I took over being general manager a year ago that’s what I wanted to instill. I felt like a lot of people hadn’t heard of the radio station and they were like ‘What can you play?’” Gagnon said, “Anything really is what I wanted to say when I came into that office. I don’t think we could picked a better documentary to bring here for that.”
Jake Williams can be contacted at