August 1, 2021

Peter Stone Brown Archives

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Revisiting Phil Ochs in the age of wrong Presidents.

Live In Montreal (RockBeat Records) is a two-disc recording of Phil Ochs in concert at Salle Claude Champagne, during what was his most prolific and inspired period of creativity, as he was transitioning away from topical songs and outright protest to songs of a different nature, often written with a cinematic vision. Ochs never really wrote directly personal songs, he was too much the analyzing journalist for that. He wrote from the outside looking in, but partly through his voice, partly through his melodies, and definitely through his words let you know what he was feeling. And while Ochs may have stopped writing overt topical songs, he never left the struggle. If a cause he believed in needed a singer he was there. I remember my brother, one of the students involved in the Columbia University strike of 1968 telling me how Ochs came and sang for the strikers, and a few months later he took part in the Chicago demonstrations at the Democratic Convention. It was in him, it was who he was.

In the excellent liner notes in this set, written after the last presidential election, a few days before Christmas, 2016, music journalist Michael Simmons puts Ochs in the context of now by asking the question, “What would Phil Ochs do if he were here today?”  Included in the set are some of Ochs’ strongest topical songs, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “Is There Anybody Here,” “I’m Gonna Say It Now,” and “Cops Of The World,” a song that resonates even more strongly now than when it was written.

The meat of the album however are what was at the time the newer songs, the songs that would make up the often misunderstood Pleasures Of The Harbor album. Every song from Pleasures Of The Harbor is on this disc, and they remain as far as I’m concerned some of the best songs Ochs wrote. Living in the North Jersey suburbs of New York City, I saw Ochs several times during this period, sometimes in concert at Carnegie Hall and other venues, sometimes in clubs and at Broadside Hoots, and sometimes at demonstrations, marches and rallies. And I saw the live debut of songs such as “Flower Lady.”  Ochs was a regular guest on several radio shows in New York, like Bob Fass’ “Radio Unnameable,” Jerry White’s nightly folk show, and a little later on unbelievably enough Murray The K’s show on WOR FM. And on Murray the K’s show, while he was recording Pleasures Of The Harbor, he would explain that he was trying to combine his music and classical music. The problem was Ochs wasn’t a composer, he was a songwriter, and he was anything but a classical singer. Or as Simmons says in the notes, “Sometimes his ideas outran his technical abilities.”  So the songs on the album were left to arrangers with mixed results. Sometimes like on the title track, they were stunningly beautiful, on some other songs excessive. For an idea of what songs like “Crucifixion” and “Flower Lady” might’ve sounded like if Ochs had gone the folk rock route, check out Jim and Jean’s versions from their album Changes (easily findable on youtube). But on this album, you can hear all those songs the way I first heard them, simply Ochs and his guitar. There are standout versions of “Flower Lady,” “Pleasures Of The Harbor,” and what may well be the greatest and most powerful song he ever wrote, “Crucifixion.”

On a strictly musical level, Ochs was far from a perfect performer. He’d change rhythms and tempos mid-song, sometimes to emphasize a particular line or word and sometimes simply because it was the way he played. He had a habit, probably out of nervousness of playing the song he just played just as he finished it, while the audience is applauding. That said, after half a century, I still count Ochs among the most moving performers I’ve seen. He was engaging, he was warm, he’d draw you in with a smile and he could be wickedly funny. I always left an Ochs concert inspired.

Also included are two songs that would appear on even later albums, “Joe Hill” and “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore,” and two songs that weren’t on any of Ochs’ studio albums, “Song Of My Returning,” and a truly great song making its first appearance on any Ochs album, “Chaplain Of The War,” that was recorded at another Montreal venue earlier in the year.

For those who’ve been Phil Ochs fans all along, this album is a welcome addition to his catalogue, and for those who came later, this album will give you a really good idea of who he was. Considering what’s going on this country, this release is right on time and as real as it gets.

(This article was originally published in Muddy Water Magazine.)