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Lost 1970 Amchitka Concert Featuring Joni Mitchell and James Taylor Surfaces   Print

by Steven  Kurutz
Wall Street Journal
November 22, 2009



In an era of re-mastered albums and box sets so loaded with from-the-vaults material they should come with their own archivist, there isn't much from rock's golden era that hasn't been released. But earlier this month, recordings from a little-known benefit concert headlined by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor have surfaced for the first time - - 39 years after the fact.

Known as the Amchitka Concert, the performance took place on October 16^th 1970 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and its story typifies the earnestness and hey-let's-put-on-a-show looseness of the period. The organizer, Irving Stowe, a lawyer and founding member of the environmental organization Greenpeace, wanted to raise money to send a protest boat to Amchitka Island in the Aleutians, where the U.S. government was conducting nuclear tests. Stowe knew nothing about concert promotion, but his previous fundraising strategy, selling buttons on the streets of Vancouver, had earned predictably meager returns. "It seemed an insane, outlandish idea," Stowe's daughter, Barbara Stowe, said of her late father's plan. "We had no money. No ties with big-name musicians. But he was a stubborn man."

Stowe contacted the era's go-to musical conscience, Joan Baez; the singer's schedule didn't permit an appearance but Baez sent Stowe a letter enclosed with a $1,000 donation and the phone number of Joni Mitchell, who agreed to perform. Phil Ochs and Chilliwack came on board, as did, at Mitchell's request, her then-boyfriend, James Taylor, whose album "Sweet Baby James" was starting to break big.

A recording of the show, held at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum, was made, and the Stowe family kept the tapes. (Click here to listen to a sample.) "We would haul them out and play them for friends from time to time," Barbara Stowe said, citing as a favorite track a duet between Taylor and Mitchell on "Mr. Tambourine Man." Stowe hoped the concert would one day find release but had no idea how to secure the rights. That changed when John Timmins, whose siblings form the band Cowboy Junkies, joined Greenpeace three years ago as a foundation officer. Told about the tapes, Timmins visited Barbara Stowe in Vancouver to hear them and was "totally overtaken emotionally by the music," he said.

Timmins reached out to representatives for Mitchell and Taylor, and after much back-and-forth secured the rights to release the concert. A two-disc CD, along with a booklet containing photos from the show, has been released by Greenpeace through the organization's Web site. Timmins said he is still struck by what he calls the "pristine simplicity" of the concert. "It's one player, sitting in front of 10,000 people, with two microphones," he said. "They played in a more intimate way then in an arena than people play today in cafes."

 

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