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Music Review: Phil Ochs, James Taylor & Joni Mitchell – Amchitka: The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace

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In the fall of 1970, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was planning (and had already begun low-level trial runs of) nuclear-weapons testing on Alaska's Amchitka Island. Besides its designation as a wildlife preserve, the region was also seismically sensitive and environmentalists and scientists alike feared the intended tests could wreak ecological devastation.

In a grassroots campaign against the experiments—specifically, to generate enough funds to charter a boat (christened the Green Peace) up the Pacific Rim to Amchitka in a nonviolent, vigilant demonstration—activists organized an all-star concert, held at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on October 16, featuring Phil Ochs, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell. Almost 40 years later, the landmark event is now officially available, its proceeds benefiting Greenpeace.

Considering it in the context of a live album, Amchitka is at turns remarkable and creatively foretelling, particularly in the cases of Taylor and Mitchell. On the cusp of what would become known as the singer/songwriter era, two of its principal architects are captured here at the pinnacle of their artistry.

Of the three artists on the bill, Ochs is undoubtedly the one most associated with penning songs of protest and social dissidence. And in rendering the likes of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “I’m Gonna Say It Now,” he reflects as such in his opening set. It’s through the reflective, almost melancholy passages of “Changes,” however, that Ochs makes his most gripping statement.

For his part, Taylor delivers an earnest offering of songs that would gain immeasurable stature over time and, in many ways, lay the foundation for his career to come. Here, though, everything is relatively new and in some cases—like "Riding On The Railroad" and "You Can Close Your Eyes"—yet to be released. "I've got a single out now and I'd like to play it for you," Taylor mentions early on, sheepishly, before delving into "Fire And Rain," effectively preserving the song from its now-nostalgic familiarity.

Yet it's Mitchell, who as if tapping into her most intuitive perceptions right there on the stage, summons the event's standout performance. In singing of the metaphorical muse that inhabits "The Gallery" to the ominous refrains that haunt "Woodstock," she is, quite frankly, mesmerizing. A few months shy of releasing her groundbreaking masterwork, Blue, Mitchell treats this unsuspecting audience to three of its finest selections: “My Old Man,” “A Case of You,” and "Carey." Having segued from the latter into a cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” she then invites Taylor back to trade off on its verses, presaging a grand-finale singalong to "The Circle Game."

In spite of all protests and the specific demonstration funded by this performance, the Amchitka nuclear experiments took place as scheduled. However, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission ceased further testing within the next two years, thanks in no small part to its many voices of opposition. And thanks, as well, to these three influential artists that stood for the cause, underscoring the fundamental values of what would ultimately manifest and endure as Greenpeace.

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Amchitka: The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace is available (as a 2CD set or on MP3) via the release's official website. For more information, please visit Greenpeace online.

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About Donald Gibson

Donald Gibson is the publisher of www.writeonmusic.com and a freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in such publications as No Depression, Spinner, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cinema Sentries, Blinded by Sound, and Blogcritics, where he was the Senior Music Editor (2011-2012) and Assistant Music Editor (2008-2011). He has interviewed and profiled such artists as Tony Bennett, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Boz Scaggs, Charli XCX, Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Susanna Hoffs, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Jonny Lang, Alan Parsons, Bill Frisell, Joan Armatrading, Christina Perri, Don Felder (The Eagles), Jimmy Webb, Katie Melua, and Buddy Guy, among many others.
  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    sounds compelling. will have to check this out

  • njJoniGuy

    As a longtime fan of all 3 of these artists, this is an outstanding part of their musical legacies. Joni at 26 … I’m just blown away everytime I listen to this wonderful 2cd set.
    Sending healing thoughts to her in her struggle with Morgellons.

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    I’ll definitely have to find this album, as I’m a big James Taylor fan in particular. Very well-written, too, Donald!

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Not a big Taylor fan here, but the thought of Joni and Phil Ochs is enough to warrant interest. Nicely done as usual Mr. Gibson…

    -Glen

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