Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs – The Vancouver Concert that launched Greenpeace
The 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace
With music by Phil Ochs, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
At the tender age of eight, my life was changed by the Amchitka nuclear tests. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was at my grandparent’s house watching television when a commercial came on warning people that the world as we knew it was in grave danger. Apparently, the American government of Richard Nixon had decided to test some bombs up in Alaska and the fallout was going to kill all of the fish and wild life in Canada and set off a cataclysmic series of events that were going to alter our ecology forever.
Clearly, the people behind the group that eventually became Greenpeace were masters of publicity and propaganda from the outset. My friends and I talked about little else during the weeks before the tests, and we were convinced that if we were going to survive the fallout, it was the members of the ‘Don’t Make a Wave’ collective who were going to save us. What began as a small coterie of Vancouver based hippies and eventually went on to become one of the most successful environmental advocacy organizations in the world, had its start with the Amchitka protest. In order to charter a boat and crew crazy enough to escort a group of protesters to the nuclear test zones off of the Aleutian Island of Amchitka, the fledgling organization needed money, and a benefit concert featuring Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs was quickly organized in Vancouver.
A few days prior to the concert, Mitchell called Irving Stowe, the event’s organizer, on the phone and asked if she could bring her friend, James Taylor to play at the show. Stowe had never heard of Taylor and thought that Mitchell meant James Brown, the soul singer, and quickly agreed thinking that the concert could benefit from a little musical variety. Though it would be hard to find an artist less like James Brown than James Taylor, in retrospect the 22 year old singer fit the bill perfectly, and his reflective acoustic songs were perfect for the event’s laid back post-sixties vibe.
The concert was an unqualified success and raised $18,000 – an amount that was more than enough for eleven activists to charter a converted fishing vessel, The Phyllis Kormack (renamed ‘The Greenpeace’ for this voyage) and sail towards Alaska. Though the group failed to stop the nuclear tests, the Canadian public was galvanized by their actions and Greenpeace was born. The concert that funded it quickly assumed legendary status in the imaginations of Canadian activists and radicals, and would have remained nothing more than a memory if Robert Stowe, the son of one of the event’s original organizers hadn’t found an old reel to reel tape of the concert that he transferred into CD format as a gift for his mother and sister. When they listened to it, the Stowe family immediately realized that they were in possession of an important historical and musical document that should be released and shared with the world.
They were right. For, unlike many recordings of benefit concerts that would have been wonderful to attend, but which lose something when heard at home, this 2 CD set is a delight to listen to from beginning to end. From a strictly musical perspective, Amchitka is worth purchasing for its versions of early classics by James Taylor and Joni Mitchell from a period in their careers that has not been previously documented in live albums.
By the middle of the nineteen seventies, Joni Mitchell’s music had evolved out of the solo acoustic framework of her early albums as she embraced jazz and a more complex musicality. Her mid-seventies live set, Miles of Aisles, features some of the same songs as Amchitka does, but by that time she had rearranged them to suit her new musical interests, so the chance afforded by the release of Amchitka to hear songs from ‘Clouds’, ‘Ladies in the Canyon’ and the soon to be released ‘Blue’ as she originally conceived them is an opportunity that should not be missed. The versions of ‘Carrie’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘The Circle Game’ that she sings here are as good as any fan could ever hope for. Even at this early date, one can hear her reaching for more complex dynamics inside of her already focused guitar style. For collectors, Joni offers a live version of ‘Hunter’, a wry and engaging song that she unfortunately never chose to record for a studio album.
While this concert recording captures Mitchell at the threshold of change, Taylor on the other hand was virtually fully formed as an artist by 1970. Though his guitar playing has improved considerably in the ensuing years, his current set list – as evidenced by the 2007 ‘One man band’ live release – hasn’t changed much since the Amchitka concert nearly four decades earlier. Still, it’s a treat to hear songs like ‘Carolina’, ‘Fire and Rain’ and ‘You can Close your eyes’ when they were fresh and new and sung with absolute commitment.
For some people, Phil Ochs’ highly charged set of political songs will be the highlight of this concert. Though time and fashion has not been kind to Ochs – who took his life in 1976 after a prolonged period of depression and alcoholism – it is hard to be unmoved by the absolute sincerity and driving energy of his performance. Whatever Ochs lacked in musical sophistication, he more than made up for in commitment as he cajoled the audience about topics ranging from playing in a police state (the war measures act had just been declared in Canada the day before in response to FLQ terrorism) and the sad state of American politics. Listening to him snarl his way through numbers like ‘Changes’ and ‘I’m not marching anymore’, it’s obvious that Ochs was the missing link in an unbroken chain of protest music that began with artists like Woody Guthrie and carries on to this day in the songs of Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco.
This newly issued 2 CD set of the music from the October 16 1970 Greenpeace benefit concert is essential for so many different reasons. More than anything, it is a wonderful snapshot of North American society at a moment of change as it takes listeners back to a more innocent time before corporations controlled music and the cultural agenda. Though the music and speeches are less than forty years old, they seem from another era entirely when a small group of people could still eschew cynicism and despair to believe they could make a difference in the world. It’s a sentiment we’re badly in need of today, and the trip back to a more idealistic time that Ochs, Taylor and Mitchell’s songs give us here may be the only wake up call that some of us have been waiting for.
This review originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com – sign up for free updates
This 2 CD set is only available through Greenpeace at http://www.amchitka-concert.com/