Monday, February 8, 2010

Both Sides Then - Mitchell, Taylor and Ochs at the 1970 Amchitka Benefit Concert

I have been listening recently to the Amchitka concert CD ( that got its long overdue release late last year. This live double disc documents the historic October 16 1970 show that launched Greenpeace. Money raised from this Vancouver, British Columbia benefit concert was used to buy a boat (later named the Greenpeace) that served to successfully protest U.S. nuclear bomb tests by the Amchitka Islands off the coast of Alaska.

The concert, consequently, has obvious importance on the historical and political fronts, but it is also quite fascinating for its musical content. The three performers featured on these 2 discs are all significant singer-songwriters: Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs. This late 1970 show captures the threesome at a critical crossroads in each of their respective careers.

Mitchell (who has a disc devoted to herself) and Taylor were both artists on the rise. Mitchell had won a Grammy in March of ‘70 for Clouds and released her classic Ladies of the Canyon later that Spring. 1970 was a big year too for Taylor, who put out his breakout album, Sweet Baby James in February although he not yet graced the cover of Time Magazine.

Ochs, on the other hand, was entering the twilight of his career. Around the same time as Taylor released Sweet Baby James, Ochs offered up the (perhaps) ironically entitled Greatest Hits, his last studio album, and within 6 years of this concert appearance he had killed himself by suicide.

This CD release can be seen as representing the change from ‘60s folkies to ‘70s singer-songwriters, with the politically charged Ochs giving way – on several levels – to the more introspective lyricists of Taylor, Mitchell and the “Seventies sensitive singer-songwriters” – the shift from the Civil Right Generation to the Me Generation.

Philosophizing aside, this CD, happily, also holds a trio of notable performances. Ochs had been playing more electric set around this time (his infamous electric Carnegie Hall shows from March of 1970 were later released as the live album, Gunfight At Carnegie Hall) but here he is in classic guitar-strumming troubadour mode. His set favors political tunes (“Joe Hill,” “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Rhythms of Revolutions” and “I’m Going To Say It Now”) but also contains several dark, autobiographically-based tunes (“Chords of Fame” and “No More Songs”). It’s interesting to contrast the “Chord of Fame” with Mitchell’s “For Free.” Both songs are about the trappings of being a successful singer although Och’s tone is much more sour than Mitchell’s.

While Ochs’ performance is quite strong, he also seems, in contrast to Mitchell and Taylor, a bit stiffer on stage despite his years of experience. His banter is mostly half-swallowed asides and even when he announces that “it’s not every day you get to play in a police state” it is not said in a galvanizing way but more of a tossed off remark. Perhaps it is just the perspective of hindsight, but there seems to be a bittersweet quality to his performance.

James Taylor also comes off rather shy and nervous, but this is more understandable considering he was still at the beginning of his now-lengthy career. Just accompanying himself on the guitar, he performs several memorable songs - like “Fire And Rain” “Carolina On My Mind” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” - from his Warner Brothers’ debut and his earlier Apple album. In introducing “Sweet Baby James,” he explains that the song is really about his young nephew James. It’s a real joy to listen to play here as he’s on the cusp of stardom; you can hear easy warmth that has been a hallmark of his laidback, folksy musical style.

The same type of joy can heard in Mitchell’s set. Even though she was a rather established artist by the time of this show – she was the benefit’s headliner – she reveals a relaxed, unguarded quality in her performance as if she was still singing in coffeehouses. Playing solo on a guitar, dulcimer or piano, she does several of her well-known tunes – such as “Woodstock,” “A Case Of You” and “Big Yellow Taxi” - in a simple, stripped down way that is always enchanting. Her voice is at her classic best - all lilting, gossamer glory.

It’s a treat to hear Mitchell display her sense of humor throughout this less-than-perfect set. She asks her the audience’s indulgence while she “putters around” trying to find her way back into “For Free” (the disc contains the occasional, yet charming flub and overall less than pristine sound, with the too-early-fade out on Mitchell and Taylor doing “Circle Game” to close out the disc). She apologizes too for a press quote about her calling Vancouver a hick town. It’s also fun to hear her weave in an old schoolgirl favorite “Bony Maronie” into “Big Yellow Taxi” or when she pulls Taylor out to join her in a seemingly unrehearsed rendition of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that she slides into the end of “Carey.”

It’s a lightheartedness that you don’t always associate with Mitchell, which helps to make this recording something special. More than just an exercise in nostalgia or an archival curio, Amchitka stands as a marvelous snapshot of three talented singer-songwriters performing strong sets at a significant (for varying reasons) moment in their careers.

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