Friday, January 8, 2010

Amchitka - The 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace

This 2 CD set completely came out of left field. A show that was largely unknown to collectors that signified an event (the birth of Greenpeace) that has also not been given the historical gravitas it deserves. The artists represented (Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs) also run the gamut from more famous than they’ve ever been (Taylor) to not given their correct historical due (Mitchell) to largely forgotten (Ochs). The resulting musical experience ranges from interesting and poignant (Ochs) to thoroughly enjoyable (Taylor) to sublime (Mitchell). Ochs’ set, while politically bracing and well-played sounds like the voice of a man whose time had come and gone. And that, unfortunately is exactly what it was. Ochs always toiled in the shadow of Bob Dylan, and as the 70’s dawned his political righteousness seemed hidden beneath the blanket of Watergate and the close of the Viet Nam debacle. As the realities of American life crumbled around this modern day Paul Revere, the general reaction of the public seemed to be “yeah, tell me something I don’t know.” James Taylor, on the other hand is the consummate workman. What his shows lack in spark and inspiration are compensated for with always-to-be-counted-on guitar playing, his consistently pleasing voice and a grip of better-than-average songs. He performances rarely rise to a boiling point - he is terminally mellow, but he never fails to offer a pleasant evening of music. The sweet 7 song set he offers up is heavy on the “Sweet Baby James” material, so how bad could it be?

The real main event here is Joni Mitchell’s mind-blowing performance. Her voice is one of the real gifts of Rock and Roll and her easy manner with the audience is charming throughout. Her 10 song set is full of great songs and big surprises. The first surprise comes during her first song (“Big Yellow Taxi”) when it magically, almost accidentally, drops into “Bony Moronie.” Mitchell claims it as a song she remembers from teenage dances in her hometown of Saskatoon. It is a charming and totally unexpected moment. She follows with a great selection of tunes from her best albums performed with superb guitar and dulcimer accompaniment. There is a previously unreleased song “The Hunter” (an outtake from “Blue”) and then toward the end she busts out another revelatory surprise when she takes her song “Carey” directly into Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” again as if by accident. She then slows it down and invites Taylor onstage to duet with her. They sing it with different phrasing and step on each other a little bit, but the overall effect is pure magic. One can’t help but be amazed that this great performance has sat on a shelf all these years.

The package also contains a lovely booklet with great photos of the event, and the profits from this release help fund Greenpeace (one of the few vestiges of the hippie era that still carries some serious political and moral resonance), so one can feel extra good about this purchase. Do yourself a big favor and pick this one up.
Paul Epstein

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