January 24, 2010

Going Back To Amchitka: The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace (Review)

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 preemptively 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.

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.