Graded on a Curve:
Phil Ochs,
Live in Montreal, 10/22/1966

Excelling at protest material before honing an introspective approach that’s been naggingly underappreciated over the years, Phil Ochs stands as one of the essential folksingers of the 1960s. Live in Montreal, 10/22/1966 combines his pointed takedowns of authority and injustice with early solo readings of his less explicitly political songwriting, and the combination illuminates the artist’s range and commitment. The full show is spread across two compact discs, and is available now through RockBeat.

The mixing of music and politics has often inspired snorts of derision from those who feel that art should serve a loftier purpose than didacticism, sloganeering, persuasion, or protest. I’ll confess up front to having occasionally expressed this view, mostly when the music was unsubtle or sanctimonious, but the tenor of the times has surely adjusted my thoughts on the issue.

The putdowns of yours truly used to be targeted at scads of hardcore kids obsessing over Reagan or Bush père and/ or fils, or at rock stars preaching about injustice from the comfort of their gilded mansions, but indeed, current events have taken such a severe turn toward the shitty that I’m unreservedly pining for an onslaught of young upstarts chanting slogans of dissent as they call out the oppressors by name. Furthermore, any wealthy celebs who want to get in on the action, please step right up.

Of course, ranting to the converted regularly achieves little more than bucking up morale, while upper-class activism often breeds alienation and the codification of opposing viewpoints. Listening to Live in Montreal, 10/22/1966, it occurs to me that I’m really hoping for a musician (or a few) who can cut through the ugliness to call out the bullshit with clarity and beauty.

That’s a tall order, to be sure. In this set’s timely liner essay, Michael Simmons mentions Dylan’s oft-repeated slag of Phil Ochs as a singing “journalist,” but sweet Jesus, at this moment, when our news services are under attack and the very idea of truth is being subverted, a singing journalist feels like exactly what’s needed.

In truth, for every recent setback there is an opposing victory of the resistance, and our reporters and scribes and factfinders persist in doing outstanding, at times downright heroic work. The struggle continues, and if the music scene hasn’t produced a galvanizing, unifying figure capable of inspiration and rabblerousing in equal measure, people are doing what they can. Hey, at least we have this newly released Ochs performance to help as a salve during the rough patches.

Per the notes, his archivist David Cohen rates this as the “best live Ochs tape,” and a big part of the reason relates to it sitting directly between his final album for Elektra, Phil Ochs in Concert (released in March of ’66), and his first for A&M, Pleasures of the Harbor (issued in November of ’67). Across a long performance, the earlier politically-focused stuff that made his rep adds spice to the solo versions of his more personal, poetic tunes.

There is so much here that Ochs in Concert lands firmly in the back seat. Partisans of the Elektra studio albums will find much to enjoy, though it takes a little while to get there; the first five songs include “Cross My Heart, a superb “Flower Lady,” and “Miranda,” all from Harbor, plus “Song of My Returning” (which belatedly made Rhino’s comp of mid-’60s stuff A Toast to Those Who Are Gone) and a cool, aside-laced version of his Poe piece “The Bells.”

As Ochs dishes “I’m Going to Say It Now” the protest turn goes down without a hitch, in part due to “Joe Hill” (which didn’t hit wax until ’68’s Tape from California) preceding it, but more so through the sense of social engagement that runs through all the man’s stuff; “Pleasures of the Harbor” sits between “I’m Going to Say It Now” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and Ochs’ two periods, often discussed as distinct and sometimes (wrongly) in opposition, cohere into a vibrant statement of music and ideology.

Sure, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” lacks the jazzy instrumentation that makes the studio version so memorable, but this solo acoustic take, delivered at a slower pace, is still quite worthwhile. It’s followed by “I’ve Had Her,” and in fact every tune from Harbor is represented here; “Crucifixion” and “The Party” help shape up disc two.

And that’s where Ochs hits his stride, “There but for Fortune” rolling into the always scathing “Cops of the World” (just like on Ochs in Concert) and the equally barbed “Is There Anybody Here” giving way to a version of “Changes” that’s in the ballpark of the one found on the earlier live LP. But don’t go thinking Ochs in Concert is superfluous. For one thing, “When I’m Gone” is absent here, but in this set’s favor, it includes a swell “Power and the Glory” in its encore.

Live in Montreal, 10/22/1966 ends with “Chaplain of the War,” a song I’ve read about but not heard. It lives up to the anticipation (and seems to have been taped in front of a smaller audience) as the 2CD’s whole helps to counteract some of the negativity that lingers around the guy’s biography. And hey, it’s nice to know that whenever the foul deeds of our current president, his cronies and enablers seem too much to bear, we can soak up a dose of this recording and get the boost necessary to continue onward with the struggle. No Phil, you didn’t die in vain.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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