Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Phil Ochs
If the spirit of the '60s came to a thudding end on Dec. 6, 1969 at Altamont -- as the conventional wisdom goes -- it may have been reborn in new form on Oct. 16, 1970 at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum. That's where what we now know as the environmental organization Greenpeace was launched to public attention. That benefit event was headlined by Canada's own Joni Mitchell, right as she crossed the cusp from folkie naïf to being a genre unto herself, a second voice-of-the-new-generation in James Taylor and a voice-of-the-past-generation in Phil Ochs.
Obviously, the advent of the organization represented a transitioning to a new belief-into-action era and approach. Spurred by Vancouver attorney Irving Stowe and then known as the Don't Make A Wave Committee, it was holding the concert to help raise money to send 11 peace activists on a boat named Greenpeace to challenge (unsuccessfully) U.S. nuclear bomb tests at the Aleutian island Amchitka. Similarly, the burgeoning prominence of Mitchell and Taylor marked a shift to fully personal narrative among singer-songwriter leadership, coming in the wake of the inevitable burnout from the potent protest-psychedelia of the preceding era. There's a new sense of optimism throughout the music of that night, captured on a two-CD set released now for the first time as a benefit for Greenpeace Canada. Even Ochs, who had seemed lost in the shuffle of the second-half of the '60s, sounds buoyed and freshly relevant.
The key moment documented here, though, is not a political statement nor is it one of the stars' soon-to-be iconic songs. It comes when Mitchell segues from her bubbly environmental ditty "Big Yellow Taxi" to the utter frivolousness of Larry Williams' '50s classic "Bony Maronie." This, Mitchell says interrupting the song, takes her back to the dances of her youth in Saskatoon, a giddy, girly laugh illustrating the nostalgic digression.
Incongruous? No. Rather it seems downright necessary, a reconnection with the spirit of innocence that fueled the original '60s belief in changing the world, a carefree dance to shake off the dark shadows that shrouded the just-passed decade. It was a signal for a do-over, perhaps.
Ochs sounds here like he was up for that. He was notoriously feeling discarded and discouraged at this point in time, something easy to read in his choices of the cynical "Chords of Fame," "I Ain't Marching Anymore" and "No More Songs" in this short set. But there's a tone to his performances that gives the sense he's reconsidering in light of this new movement and his take on the organizing potboiler "Joe Hill," which in particular sports some fresh fire.
Taylor at this moment was riding the surging if gentle wave of his recent Sweet Baby James album having made him the mooned-over pop poet of the times. Accordingly, he steps forward as a sparkling, confident yet modest performer. He offers a nice balance of delight and sheepishness with "Fire and Rain," which had become the anthem for sensitive souls, adds some live color to "Carolina in My Mind" and teases with two songs previewing his next album, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.
But it's Mitchell's show. Her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, was just six months old, having established her firmly as an artist of original vision. And Blue (still to many her high water mark) was just seven months away. The latter gets an early showcase with three songs that fully elevate this to special-performance status. Mitchell starts on guitar for a few songs, switches to piano for several including a terrific reading of "For Free" and earnest yet not innocent "Woodstock," then to Appalachian dulcimer (which she identifies as a "new instrument," presumably meaning new to her or the audience and not to the generations of Appalachian players).
After a few strums on the latter, she launches into "Carey" from the upcoming Blue, which shows her again maturing without losing any youthful spirit. And then she transitions unexpectedly into Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Soon she turns all Pete Seeger-y leading a sing-along, and then brings out Taylor to lend his voice and guitar on nearly another complete run of the song. As on "Bony Maronie," with this song choice Mitchell once more again evokes a crucial time, a moment when everything seemed possible, when a new world was being born. Just as one was that night. And just as we need on a regular basis. Like, maybe, now.
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