1970 Greenpeace concert still resonates

It may be one of the most compelling live albums ever made – yet chances are, you haven’t heard it.

Featuring Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs all at the height of their powers, Amchitka, the 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace is an extraordinary document of an inspired moment.

Mitchell was at that point a bona-fide superstar; James Taylor was an up-and comer with a couple of recognizable hits that are now household melodies. And Phil Ochs was still the impassioned performer and writer who stirred the consciences of a generation.

In Vancouver in 1970, at the urging of American ex-patriot activist Irving Stowe, the three legendary artists played a concert of critical intent. They were raising funds to send a ship to Amchitka Island, to protest proposed American nuclear testing there. That concert launched not just a ship, but a movement: Greenpeace.

That this performance of legendary artists launching a seminal new organization was preserved via reel-to-reel tape, never bootlegged, and released as an album 40 years later is incredible.

What’s miraculous, though, is how good an album it is.

The imperfections of mics and recording technology under the circumstances only enhance the energy of three brilliant artists all at their best. The spirit of the times resonates in the recording, just as it glows in the astonishing booklet of recently discovered Amchitka concert photos that accompanies the CD.

Joni Mitchell is as sweet as she is melodic, merrily making her way through a mashup of “Carey” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”, joking with the crowd about being misquoted in the press, and waxing nostalgic about growing up in Saskatchewan.

James Taylor‘s star is on the rise; his youthful voice delivering the gorgeous melodies that would come to define the singer-songwriter genre through the decade that followed. Affable and eager, he joins Mitchell for harmonies and delivers songs like “Carolina in My Mind” and “Fire And Rain” with a sound as fresh as beaujolais nouveau.

The real treasure of the recording, though, may be folk troubadour Phil Ochs, whose impassioned anthems have not endured in mass media as Mitchell and Taylor’s hits have. Ochs may surprise the contemporary listener with the charming timbre of his voice, and the classic strummed guitar sound of  lyrical, listenable tunes like the much-loved “Changes” and the timely “I Ain’t A-Marching Anymore”.

Musically rich, the Amchitka album is also culturally poignant, capturing both the fear and the hope that defined its era. “Greenpeace is beautiful! YOU are beautiful!” shouts Irving Stowe in welcoming the crowd, while Ochs notes that he’s never done a concert in a police state before. If anyone doubts the tenor of those times — the Cold War, the FLQ crisis, the rising fears of ecological catastrophe — this CD puts it all on record.

Available only via Greenpeace, Amchitka is a powerful and important, but also thoroughly enjoyable concert recording that deserves a wider audience than it has had. Thankfully, it’s beginning to get that attention.

Tomorrow night at Hugh’s Room in Toronto, the Amchitka concert that launched a movement will be celebrated by Dan HillMary Margaret O’HaraRoyal WoodElizabeth ShepherdLaura RepoLori Cullen, Simone Schmidt with Will Kidman, The Saturday SaintsCharlotte Cornfield and emcee Arlene Bishop, with special guest Jesse Cook.


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