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Review: Phil Ochs, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, Amchitka: The 1970 Concert

Phil Ochs, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell
Amchitka: The 1970 Concert
[Greenpeace (2009)]

In October 1970 Ochs, Taylor and Mitchell did a benefit to raise money to send a boat to Amchitka Island in the Aleutians to stop a nuclear test, literally and figuratively launching Greenpeace. The recording of the show has just been released 39 years later. It is a fascinating document because it captures Oches just before his psychiatric problems worsened drastically, Taylor just after his improvement and before he received a Grammy nomination for the just-released Sweet Baby James, and Mitchell during her rapid transformation from a folk singer to a pop artist steeped in jazz.

The order of the appearance also recreates the evolution of folk music into pop. Ochs’s songs are often earnest, political and simple (“Rhythms of Revolution,” “I’m Not Marching Anymore,” “Joe Hill”, “I’m Gonna Say It Now”), but some, like “Changes,” are very personal and poetic. He says little to the audience beyond announcing the gist of some songs before he begins them, and, by the final song of his set, he seems to rush through it, although he is convinced to come back for an encore, the melancholy, “No More Songs.” The transition to Taylor is jarring, with his honey-drenched voice, laid-back picking style and intensely personal lyrics. When he addresses the audience after his first song he tells them that he’s got a single out that he’d like to play for them, “a little ditty,” he adds ironically, because it is “Fire and Rain.” A burst of applause greets the opening lines, and he interrupts himself to thank the audience. He is much more the self-conscious showman than Ochs. Each of these renditions is subtly different from their album versions—looser and more naturally played, showing both his humanity and his talent.

Mitchell’s relationship with her role as artist is more nervous and exposed, and her playing is well on its way to the distinctive open-tuned weirdness of Blue. You hear “My Old Man,” “Carey” and “A Case of You” a year before they were released. When she moves to the piano for “My Old Man” and throws jazz chords into the intro, you know now that this is where she’s headed, but they didn’t then. Her performance hits bumps that Ochs’ and Taylor’s never got near. “For Free” moves her enough that she apologizes—“This is hard to sing sometimes”—and misses a line. When she forgets the lines to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” she calls Taylor out to help her and we’re rewarded with a remarkably beautiful unplanned duet.

This aural time capsule has preserved a time of intense change in society—the concert raised $18,000 for what is now an international environmental SWAT team—and the performances of three artists at pivotal moments in their careers. [www.amchitka-concert.com]

—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)

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