There and Now: Live In Vancouver 1968 by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

There and Now: Live In Vancouver 1968 was the last Phil Ochs album that I purchased and will probably be my final one unless some rare material is unearthed.

The album was recorded March 13, 1969 and not 1968 as the album title states. It presents just Ochs and his acoustic guitar except for one track. The concert occurred after his personal trauma over attending the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, but before his depression and addictions began to erode his skills. As such it provides an excellent retrospective of his career and is in a way the greatest hits album that he never issued during his lifetime.

I think that Live In Vancouver is the best live document that he left behind. Just about every important song in his catalogue is included and when they are performed one after the other, his passion and talent shine brightly.

The album begins with a graceful rendition of “There But For Fortune.” It is quickly evident that his voice is in fine form. His persona and the type of songs that he sang and wrote often covered up the fact that he possessed one of the better voices in folk music history.

The second song is a stripped down version of “Outside Of a Small Circle of Friends.” Without the production and arrangements that provided a counterpoint to the vocals when it was originally issued on Pleasures Of The Harbor, it takes on a whole new meaning.

His musical adaptation of the Alfred Noyes poem, “The Highwayman,” is presented in all its seven minute glory. This epic song of love and death remains one of the classic folk songs of its era. It was preceded by another of his forays into literature with his musical interpretation of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “The Bells.”

At this point in his life Ochs was still unrelenting in concert. “I Kill Therefore I Am,” “The World Began In Eden and Ended In Los Angeles,” “The Doll House,” and “Where Were You In Chicago” find his personal agenda intact. This is no more apparent than the angry and painful eight minute presentation of “Crucifixion.”

“The concert ends with his “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” which was not intended as a retirement or final statement when it was released but serves that purpose here.

Phil Ochs has been dead for 33 years now and There and Now: Live In Vancouver 1968 is a fitting and haunting last will and testament from one of the masters of sixties folk movement.

Greatest Hits by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

Greatest Hits was a last gasp from Phil Ochs. Recorded is late 1969 and released in early 1970, it would be his final studio album. Depression, prescription drugs, alcohol, and a lack of faith would lead Ochs to commit suicide on April 9, 1976. His final hurrah would be an appearance at a concert in New York’s Central Park celebrating the end of the Vietnam War on May 11, 1975. Performing before a crowd of about 100,000 people he would sing a duet with Joan Baez on “There But For Fortune” before closing with his own song, “War Is Over.”

Phil Ochs would have an influential career but there would be no hit songs. Greatest Hits would be an album of new material. The cover would show Ochs dressed in a gold suit playing the star like Elvis Presley. Inside he would refer to 50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong, which again was a parody of the album Elvis’ Gold Records Volume 2: 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.

The backing musicians would read like a Who’s Who. Gene Parsons, Clarence White, Ry Cooder, Tom Scott, James Burton, Laurindo Almeida and many others would all contribute to this album. Old Brian Wilson cohort, Van Dyke Parks, would produce the affair. It all added up to a far different Phil Ochs release as he moved away from his folk roots and toward a country and rock sound.

Only one protest song is contained on the album. “Ten Cents A Coup” is a comedic skewering of Nixon and Agnew by way of praise and comparison.

“Jim Dean Of Indiana” was a tribute to James Dean but might as well have been a beautiful look into his own childhood which was a much simpler time both for him and the country. “Boy In Ohio” would follow the same lyrical path.

“Chords Of Fame” and “My Kingdom For A Car” would take his music in a country direction. Had he lived this may have been an interesting road for him to travel.

The final track was titled “No More Songs” and was like a door slamming on his career.

Phil Ochs legacy remains that of an uncompromising critic of the American establishment. Unlike Bob Dylan, he was never able to separate himself from his political agenda which would ultimately cost him his life. What is left behind is an often under appreciated catalogue of work that remains an important document of the mid to late sixties.

Open Your Heart by Petula Clark

May 29, 2009

Petula Clark was a woman in her mid-thirties when she had such hits as “Downtown,” “I Know A Place,” “My Love,” and “Don’t Sleep In The Subway,” as part of the British musical invasion of the United States in the 1960s. She had been a child star in England during the 1940s and had had a number of hits in Europe prior to becoming popular in America but her sharing the charts with the likes of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones was unique in both sound and appearance.

The major hits may have dried up in the 1970s but she has continued to record material down to the present day. Open Your Heart is her new 2009 CD release. It is a 21 track collection of love songs and ballads that have been gathered from the 1970s to the 1990s and combined with some previously unreleased material. While none of her recognizable up-tempo hits are included, it is still an excellent compilation and sure to please new and old fans alike.

This release was well thought out. While the material is all love songs; the tempos and styles vary which keeps it interesting. In addition five of Clark’s own compositions are included. Many of the older tracks have been cleaned as the sound is crystal clear.

There were a number of performances that stood out for me. I remembered her version of “The Wedding Song” from 1972. This song has probably been recorded hundreds of times yet this version remains one of the best. Her cover of the Queen song, “These Are The Days Of Our Lives,” is a poignant look back at love and life. Recorded when she had just turned seventy it becomes a personal statement. “C’est Ca, Ma Chanson” is performed in both French and English and is sung in a sultry lower register. “Walking On Air” has a little bite as her vocal runs counterpoint to the brass backing.

Perhaps the most unique track was her own 1975 composition, “Super Loving Lady.” It contains brass, guitars and an almost New Orleans sound. It reminds me of Dusty Springfield and is about as rocking as Petula Clark gets.

Open Your Heart all adds up to a fine addition to Petula Clark’s extensive catalogue of music. It shows that she produced a lot of superior material after her sixties run of hits ended. If you are partial to this type of pop music, then this album is recommended as a definite buy.

Portrait Of Petula Clark (DVD) by Petula Clark

May 29, 2009

Petula Clark was one of the more unique artists of the British Invasion of The United States in the sixties. She was a solo performer, she was female, and she was in her mid-thirties when she had such hits as “Downtown”, “I Know A Place,” “My Love,” “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love,” and many more. While the hits slowed down in the seventies and stopped in the eighties, she continued to perform in movies, on stage, and as a Vegas and theater act. Now in her late 70s she continues to tour and perform.

The Infinity Entertainment Group has issued a DVD of her 1969 NBC Special. The show is dated but serves as an interesting look into network television of the late sixties. Artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and hundreds more cutting edge rock groups were churning out some of the most creative music in history, but it was typical of the networks to turn to artists like Clark for television specials.

Portrait Of Petula Clark will probably appeal to her fans but not convert many new ones. In some ways it tries to change her from a pop singer to a song and dance entertainer. Her forays into show tunes and easy listening songs play away from her strengths. Just by the fact that Andy Williams is one of the guest stars should provide a hint as to the content.

The show is divided into segments representing the cities of Paris, London, Geneva, New York, and Los Angeles. She dances in a Paris saloon with French singer Sacha Distel, goes on a picnic with Andy Williams, performs with British actor of the day Ron Moody, and sings to her children which actually was the most entertaining segment. She performs such songs as “This Girl’s In Love With You,” “My Funny Valentine,” “When I Was A Child,” and “You and I” from her starring role in the movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Her duet with Andy Williams on the Roger Miller tune “You Can’t Rollerskate In A Buffalo Heard” is one for the ages. Clark has an excellent voice and deserved better material.

After 55 minutes of traveling from city to city and watching one production after another, the special ended with Clark just simply singing three songs. I would have preferred a full 65 minutes of this type of performance. “I Know A Place” and “My Love” being sung by Petula Clark is the way I like to remember her. Sandwiched in the middle was another performance from Goodbye, Mr. Chips which was equally excellent.

I don’t know how many times I will revisit a Portrait Of Petula Clark but it was a nice look into a simpler time of television.

Symphonic Live by Yes

May 29, 2009

Yes has returned with a new two-disc CD offering titled Symphonic Live. The music was previously released in 2002 as part of a DVD set of the same name. The group had decided to tour in support of their latest album release at the time, Magnification.

They brought in the European Festival Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Keitel, to back them in concert. The resulting sound retains the original structure and intent of their material, but the songs are enhanced with new textures and layers.

This version of Yes contains four fifths of their classic line-up. On board are vocalist and guitarist Jon Anderson, lead guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Alan White. Keyboardist Tom Brislin fills in for Rick Wakeman, and he is missed.

I must say that I had lost track of Yes over the last 18 years or so. They were a staple on my turntable during the 70s and 80s, but their 1991 Union album was the last release I had purchased by the group, so it was nice to catch up. Also, since I do not own the music in DVD form, this album had to stand on its own without the visual presence of the group or orchestra.

I found Symphonic Live to be an interesting, creative, and a technically adept album. They wisely chose to mix in their hits and older tracks with some songs from their newest release and it all combined for a superior listening experience.

I had not heard the music from Magnification, so tracks such as “Don’t Go,” “In The Presence Of,” and the title song were all new to me. They contain all the elements of a classic Yes sound and seemed to fit the orchestral backing a little better than the older material.

They reach way back into their past for several songs. “I’ve Seen All The Good People” from 1971’s The Yes Album finds their harmonies in good shape. “Starship Trooper” from the same album receives a nice workout. “Long Distance Runaround” from Fragile is an excellent reminder of the guitar virtuosity of Steve Howe.

The album concludes with two of their best-known songs. “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and “Roundabout” both benefit from reduced orchestration as they present the basic group at its best.

Symphonic Live brings Yes into the 21st century and it updates their classic material in a unique way. It proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Rehearsals For Retirement by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago marked the beginning of Phil Ochs personal deterioration. Despite his biting songs of protest and scathing attacks on the establishment, he always considered himself a patriot and retained hope that a better America would eventually emerge. That hope began to evaporate in the aftermath of the convention.

His musical reaction would be to release a bitter, dark, and deeply personal album. Rehearsals For Retirement also moved him ever closer to a rock ‘n’ roll sound and while he never completely crosses over it helps to salvage the mostly depressing nature of this release.

Given his future, the album cover is chilling. It portrays a tombstone with his name on it and while it was not meant to be about his own death, the connection is obvious. He only produced one more album of original material and would be dead within seven years. “My life has been a death to me” are lyrics from the song “My Life,” which is the last track on side one of the original vinyl release and they are like a door closing which can never be re-opened.

“Pretty Smart On My Part,” which leads off the album show the musical direction that Ochs was traveling and is the highlight of the release. His creative juices remain intact as he sings from the point of view of a right-wing activist who plans to kill the president among other things. The lyrics would become a part of his ongoing FBI file. The song would have a rockish feel in spite of the sparse arrangement. The bluntness of “I Kill Therefore I Am” is also made palatable by the fusion of folk lyrics and rock music.

Things begin to deteriorate on the second side of the album. “The World Began In Eden and Ended In Los Angeles” and “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore?” are a combined nine minutes of heartbreak, despair, lack of hope, and depression. Except for “Where Were You In Chicago?” the famous Ochs humor is mostly lacking and it is sorely missed as it made his unyielding message accessible and palatable both to his listeners and to himself.

Rehearsals For Retirement find Ochs poetry and ability to present a message intact. It was his loss of faith that makes the album a difficult listen. It remains an interesting re-action by Ochs as he rants against the society and events beyond his control in the late sixties. It is an album not for the weak at heart.

Tape From California by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

Phil Ochs returned in July of 1968 with his fifth album, Tape From California. It would be the last time that a totally healthy Ochs would enter the studio. The album would continue his turning away from a strict folk sound and find him experimenting with some classical influences and even a little rock ‘n’ roll. It would be the best and most consistent of his releases for the A&M Label.

The lyrics and their accompanying vocals continued his passionate approach. His writing is beautifully poetic in many places yet remained insightful, intelligent and straight forward. He continued to be the conscience of American society and a herald of its decay.

The track that draws immediate attention is the thirteen minute opus “When In Rome.” Here he re-writes and in many ways re-creates the history of The United States while comparing it to the decadence of The Roman Empire. He sings much of the song in the first person. It is a composition ambitious in its scope and dominates one side of the original vinyl release. While it may not be a song that you will want to listen too very often it is unforgettable and ultimately brilliant.

His most well known song from the album was “The War Is Over.” It was an unusual and oddly beautiful creation that criticized the Vietnam War from a unique perspective. It would become another favorite of the protest movement and would keep Ochs in the forefront of that movement which continued to grow as the war expanded.

The title song, “Tape From California,” would find him experimenting successfully with a rock sound. Later in his career he would begin to include more rock ‘n’ roll into his live performances. A counterpoint would be the gentle and in many ways autobiographical folk song, “Joe Hill.” Joan Baez would cut a famous version of this song but I prefer the purity of his original version. Of special note was the guitar playing by folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on this track.

“The Harder They Fall” is one of the few songs by Phil Ochs that is a failure. He over reaches and his use of puns is just too cute.

Tape From California would find Phil Ochs successfully treading the middle ground between his first three folk albums and the over produced Pleasures Of The Harbor. It is probably the best representation of his musical vision during the middle period of his career.

Pleasures Of The Harbor by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

In March of 1966 Phil Ochs released his In Concert album. It has become a classic folk and protest recording. At the time it made him a leading voice of the anti-establishment movement in the United States. It was also his most commercially successful release as it reached the Billboard National charts at number 150. All of this added up to the Electra label dropping him from their roster of artists.

He quickly signed with A&M and in late October of 1967 released Pleasures Of The Harbor. This was a different sounding Phil Ochs as he strayed from a traditional folk presentation by adding strings and piano while incorporating elements of jazz and classical music. It was not the commercial breakout that he hoped for at the time but it was as an interesting fusion of musical styles on his part and today remains one of his most listenable efforts.

“Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends” would become one of his signature songs. Apathy, murder, and parody are all present but they are combined with a musical styling that runs counterpoint to the message. “The Party” has a similar intent as it criticizes the upper class but the song is played as if in a lounge and Ochs vocal is dead on.

“The Crucifixion” remains one of the most ambitious compositions of his career. It traces assassination from Christ to Kennedy. There is a beauty to the lyrics and music. If you want to hear a stripped down and superior version of the song just check our There and Now: Live In Vancouver where Ochs just accompanies himself on an acoustic guitar.

Several of the other songs are well constructed and contain superior lyrics, but suffer from overproduction. “Pleasures Of The Harbor” is a gentle song of searching by sailors who traveled from port to port. “Flower Lady” is about being invisible to people as they pass by.

Pleasures Of The Harbor is the most modern sounding album that Phil Ochs would produce. It also contains some of his most thoughtful and beautiful lyrics and, in many ways, is more personal than political. It is not the place to introduce yourself to his music but it is a nice stop along his musical journey of life.

In Concert by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

In Concert was the first album by Phil Ochs that I remember purchasing as a teenager. Little did I realize at the time that a number of tracks had been re-created in the studio due to the defective taping of the concerts that were supposed to be used for this release. Just how many tracks were recorded in the studio remains open to question decades later. Nevertheless the album has a live feel to it and his comments between songs are almost worth the price of admission on their own. “John Wayne Plays Lyndon Johnson. And Lyndon Johnson Plays God. I Play Bobby Dylan. A young Bobby Dylan.” And so it goes.

Despite the problems and questions, in many ways In Concert remains his defining album. His passion and commitment to the protest movement are self evident. Combined with his acoustic guitar virtuosity and soaring vocals, it all adds up to one of the best folk albums of the 1960’s.

Bob Dylan’s influence can be felt on some of the tracks. “Ringing Of Revolution” is a call to the faithful and remains an anthem of the protest movement. “(The Marines Have Landed On The Shores Of) Santa Domingo” finds Ochs branching out into the narrative form of song.

Most of the tracks find him doing what he does best. “Bracero” is his criticism of the wages and working conditions of immigrants. It can only be imagined what he would think about this issue today. “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” is another of his amusing but scathing attack songs. “Canons Of Christianity” criticizes the hypocrisy of the church. “There But For Fortune,” which was a hit for Joan Baez, is a song about comparisons and fate.

The oddest and most poignant composition on the album is “Changes,” which is a straight love song and is a rare occasion of Ochs showing a side of him removed from his political agenda. Given his body of work it remains a gentle look into his personal life.

The final track on the original album, “When I’m Gone,” could have been used on his tombstone. It is a call for activism and a chilling look into his personal future.

Given the state of the world today, Phil Ochs In Concert is worth a listen as it deals with topics that are still relevant. It not only remains one of the best statements of protest to emerge from the sixties but shows an artist trying to make a difference while creating some good music along the way which remains a rare combination.

I Ain’t Marching Anymore by Phil Ochs

May 28, 2009

1965 found Phil Ochs releasing his second album, I Ain’t Marching Anymore. Accompanied by only his own acoustic guitar, it showed a new maturity as it dealt with such topics as civil rights, labor struggles, and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Yet there was also a number of tracks that presented his sensitive side, which served as a nice glimpse into his private world of romanticism and sensitivity.

Overall this second album is a stronger release than All The News That’s Fit to Sing. The music is better and the lyrics have more bite. His vocals are also excellent as they have a clarity that was missing on his debut album. He had as well learned the use of phrasing to help put his message across.

Despite growing up in the Sixties and being a fan of Ochs, my favorite song is not one of his masterful protest or topical ones but rather his interpretation of the Alfred Noyes poem, “The Highwayman,” which he set to music. It’s a love song of longing and death, showing his brilliance at fusing his journalistic and musical visions. I mentioned in another review that I wish he could have traveled in this direction more often as it was unique, moving, interesting, and entertaining. The poignancy of this song and similar tracks made for a nice counterpoint to the unyielding nature of his political agenda.

Two of his most enduring political songs would grace this album. “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “Draft Dodger Rag” became anthems of the Sixties anti-war movement. They would forever link Ochs to the radical left and place him outside of the musical mainstream. The first was the tale of a weary soldier, the second an amusing and bitter accusation of pro-war advocates who themselves refused to fight.

His most scathing song was “Here’s To The State Of Mississippi,” which criticized the lack of civil rights and the outright racism of the state. It remains a difficult listen today. Near the end of his life he would rework the song, retitling it “Here’s To The State Of Richard Nixon,” which proved that even during his last and unhealthy years he could still bite when necessary.

There were a couple other songs of note. “The Iron Lady” was an indictment of the death penalty. And “In The Heat Of The Summer” presents him at his passionate best.

I Ain’t Marching Anymore finds a healthy Phil Ochs at the top of his game. It would propel him to the forefront of the protest movement and remains a valuable look into the climate of the mid 1960’s.