How fitting that I am sitting here writing a review for Amchitka, the 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace, as I sit in my city apartment, shivering half to death during what has been dubbed Britain’s ‘Big Freeze’. A country without salt to grit the streets, or energy to heat households, this is the state of the UK only a matter of weeks after the Copenhagen summit. Such events remind us (whether you be believe in Global Warming or not) that the Earth is a fragile entity that ‘deserves a voice’, as the Greenpeace motto attests.
So, where does that peculiar album title come from? Before Greenpeace, the United States Atomic Energy Commission was drilling a hole on the Aleutian island of Amchitka, in order to prepare for a series of nuclear tests. The issue with this was that the Aleutian area was renowned for being tectonically unstable, and so, fear arose that such testing could unleash earthquakes, encompassing the Pacific Rim.
Understandably, educated Joe Public weren’t very happy about this, and soon, protests emerged, columns were written, and gradually the news started to draw in musicians, such as Phil Ochs, Joni Michell, and James Taylor, who all chose to lend their support to the cause. A concert date was set, and quickly sold out — fittingly Sweet Baby James, Taylor’s breakthrough release, had just started to rocket through the charts.
The live concert, captured and reproduced here on this double-disc, begins with the phrase, “It’s not everyday that you get to play in a police state,” by the legendary Phil Ochs, who follows this through with a rendition of “The Bells”, before breaking into an astute version of “Rhythms of the Revolution”. Ochs works his way through his songs with an assured persistence, moving between the politically charged numbers (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, “Joe Hill”) and the indelible and poignant folk classic “Changes”.
This set is followed by James Taylor, who performs “Fire and Rain”, “Carolina in My Mind”, “Sweet Baby James”, and “Something in the Way She Moves”. Any semi-knowledgeable neophyte who is familiar with popular music of this era will recognize these numbers as internationally renowned classics now. But what makes these performances special is that they were performed at a time when James’s star had only just begun to make its ascent. There is something refreshing in hearing Taylor sing these songs live. A simple verve imbues new life into each.
Finally, the selection is rounded off by a series of performances from Joni Mitchell, who at the time was probably the most well known of the bunch. Jumping between piano and guitar, she fervently belts out numbers like “Big Yellow Taxi”, “Woodstock”, and “A Case of You”. These are topped off with an ebullient ten-minute medley of “Carey” and Dylan’s “Tambourine Man”. At times, Mitchell misses her mark, and asks Taylor to join her onstage to lend a helping hand. These moments of frivolity add a zest to songs that many listeners will already be familiar with. Occasionally, songs abruptly end as they are building momentum, which can make this record feel like a bit of a slice and dice job, but in the end, the overarching set lives up to the now historic names of its contributors.
All of the proceeds from this concert release will go to the benefit of Greenpeace — an organization born 40 years ago during a time when idealism was still able to lend itself to revolution.