Gunfight at Carnegie Hall

Phil Ochs

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Gunfight at Carnegie Hall Review

by William Ruhlmann

On the cover of Greatest Hits, Phil Ochs had appeared in a gold lamé suit like the one Elvis Presley wore on the cover of the 1959 album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong: Elvis' Gold Records, Vol. 2. On the back cover was the legend, "50 Phil Ochs fans can't be wrong!" The suit and the Greatest Hits title were part of a concept Ochs, who had recently seen Presley perform in Las Vegas, was pursuing at the time. Always a student of popular culture, he harked back to the rebellious tone of 1950s rock & roll and wedded it to the revolutionary fervor of the late '60s -- or at least that was the idea for Gunfight at Carnegie Hall. Beginning a tour the month that Greatest Hits was released, he wore the suit onstage and for the first time used a backing band, mixing his own new and old songs with medleys of songs associated with Presley and Buddy Holly, as well as a version of "Mona Lisa," and even Merle Haggard's recent anti-hippie anthem "Okie From Muskogee." His two Carnegie Hall shows on the nights of March 27th and 28th, 1970, were marred by various incidents recounted on the back cover of the album. Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, containing 46-and-a-half minutes of the reported three-hour second show, focuses on the singer's attempt to explain his concept to a skeptical audience, which he does with a certain cockeyed wit, if without complete success, at least in front of these listeners. Ochs lobbied long for A&M to release an album drawn from the embattled show, which the label belatedly did, but only briefly and in Canada. Gunfight at Carnegie Hall was eventually reissued as part of a Collector's Choice two-fer, paired with Rehearsals for Retirement.

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