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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

George Harrison: The Concert For Bangla Desh


1) Introduction; 2) Bangla Dhun; 3) Wah-Wah; 4) My Sweet Lord; 5) Awaiting On You All; 6) That's The Way God Planned It; 7) It Don't Come Easy; 8) Beware Of Darkness; 9) Band Introduction; 10) While My Guitar Gently Weeps; 11) Jumpin' Jack Flash / Young Blood; 12) Here Comes The Sun; 13) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; 14) It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry; 15) Blowin' In The Wind; 16) Mr. Tambourine Man; 17) Just Like A Woman; 18) Something; 19) Bangla Desh.

General verdict: The roughest, crudest, and most heartbreakingly sincere benefit concert ever given.

Benefit concerts these days are a dime a dozen, and while their goals generally remain noble and their efficiency may have significantly increased since the early days, their general setting and atmosphere are usually a snooze — it is not often that «music royalty» guests, invited to perform a short selection of their best-known hits, are able to convince the discerning listener that the event really matters to them. They are usually fairly pragmatic affairs: you donate, you come, you play or you listen, you make peace with your conscience, you go home.

But at the dawn of the Age of The Benefit Concert, things could be a bit different, and, arguably, there was no time when they were more different than August 1, 1971, at the Madison Square Garden. That night, two shows were played by a large bunch of people who somehow managed to get together, for a good reason that few of them probably understood too well, despite the fact that none of them really wanted to be there all that much, and, against all odds, succeeding in generating emotional magic out of general chaos and turbulence. The Concert For Bangla Desh stands out as one of the roughest, shoddiest, most spontaneous events in the history of collective pop gatherings — so much so that it transcends mere historical value and becomes its very own, very special brand of cool; not to everybody's liking, perhaps, but I have always held a soft spot in my heart for it (since I first had it taped for me on a poor-quality cassette back in 1989, with the chewed tape and glitchy-hiccupy scratched LP pleasantly adding to the shoddiness).

Of course, we should not exaggerate in the manner of the average YouTube commentator («look how wasted they all were», «coke city!», «that's what the power of smack does to you», etc.), but it has been documented pretty well that, putting it mildly, this was not the happiest bunch of people that George succeeded in putting together for the event. The ex-Beatles were still recupe­rating from the post-Beatle shock (so that Paul rejected the offer altogether, and John refused at the last moment); Eric Clapton was in deep depression over having fallen in love with his best friend's wife; Bob Dylan was in even deeper depression over... well, whatever it is Bob Dylan can get depressed about (only Bob Dylan knows for sure); Badfinger were already having publicity and financial issues with their labels; and I'm certain Billy Preston and Leon Russell must have had their share of hard times, too, because, heck, who didn't in 1971?

And yet, get together they did, and made the magic happen. The huge amount of musicians on the stage was, in a large part, due to all the extra publicity — one thing George did succeed in was turning Bangla Desh into a household name for a few months. Yet it also fell very much in line with the studio atmosphere of All Things Must Pass, so that the four songs selected from that album could be played with comparable bombast; and although issues of syncronizing, mixing, and simply staying in tune were unavoidable (not to mention that all the rehearsing process took about four days, with many members of the onstage band checking in at the last moment), that brotherly spirit somehow managed to make it to the performance and save the day.

Arguably the single best track to illustrate the spirit in question is the band's somewhat «non-canon» rendition of ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ — with no piano intro (Billy Preston plays organ instead) and a radically different Clapton tone. If you watch Eric doing his solos live, he will strike you as being particularly mummified: almost no body movement, a blank expression on his face, fingers making tiny, subtle-as-hell flips against the huge Gibson that he almost seems to have difficulty holding up — and the solos themselves are completely different from whatever he played on the original studio version. At some point in the outro, George «dances up» to him and challenges him to a guitar duel, playing a louder, higher, shriekier part, almost as if he is begging Eric to come out of that shell. But if you listen closely — and you should, because Clap­ton's tone is almost unusually thin and quiet — the phrasing is every bit as suicidally tragic as it used to be, with a newly improvised, but almost equally beautiful weeping melody. Clumsy in some ways, this variation on the original made the song live, grow, and evolve, and the thin quiet tones took away its «cosmic lament» coating and gave it a much more intimate, personalized flavor — two tormented souls crying their hearts out in beautiful non-unison.

That rugged atmosphere completely dominates the album, aside from, perhaps, the first section, given over to Ravi Shankar: for many people, ʽBangla Dhunʼ was (and, perhaps, still will be) their first exposition to «serious» Indian music (as opposed to Bollywood soundtracks), and I am sheepishly proud to say that I always thought it kicked serious ass, despite occasionally still skipping it because of the length (a sixteen-minute raga can get on your nerves, no matter how technically or spiritually awesome it is). Rumor has it that the actual concert performance was about 45 minutes, in which case I am grateful that the expanded deluxe anniversary edition has been so late in arriving — which is not to take away the admiration for the amazingly disciplined interplay between Ravi and Ali Akbar Khan, putting to technical shame all the ensuing Western performers. No boos in the audience, either, which is a relief considering Ravi's hilarious retort to the clappers after the first two minutes ("thank you! if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more").

But let us be honest — with no disrespect to Shankar, this is a George Harrison album, and most of us have landed here for George, or, at best, for some of George's English-speaking friends. The friends do not let him down. Ringo merrily and nonchalantly sings off-key on his first successful solo single, ʽIt Don't Come Easyʼ; Billy Preston lifts spirits up with a powerful, almost shamanis­tic build-up on his gospel anthem ʽThat's The Way God Planned Itʼ; Leon Russell throws in a highly unorthodox medley of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ and ʽYoung Bloodʼ, turning the former into a witchy ritual and the latter into bombastic rock opera; and Dylan plays a surprisingly long (five songs, plus ʽLove Minus Zero/No Limitʼ if you have the bonus-track CD edition) acoustic set that shows him in ragged, but overall good form (for many people back then, any form would have been a blessing, given how few the man's live appearances were in between 1966 and 1975). Of all these mini-sets, Leon's is probably the one that sticks out most — in a show so much oriented at spiritual uplift, his caveman exercises in sexual innuendo feel somewhat out of place; but in the long run, his ten-minute medley still works as an odd «materialistic» counterpoint to everything else, a burlesque-carnivalesque interlude to a generally solemn ceremony that allows you to let your hair down, get your rocks off, and blow some steam in the interim.

As for George, he did not shy away completely from Beatles-era material (ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ is especially adorable, with Badfinger's Pete Ham assisting on second acoustic guitar), but he did use the occurrence as a nice pretext to try out some of the All Things Must Pass stuff. The acute­ly felt onstage sloppiness of the performances is, nevertheless, fully vindicated by the collective energy of all the great musicians — and a particularly nice touch is the addition of Don Nix's "Soul Choir", giving all the religious songs an even more pronounced gospel feel, with good reason (check out in particular the little wailing bits done by Claudia Lennear, one of the hottest backup singers back in the day — and allegedly one of the basic referents behind ʽBrown Sugarʼ, Marsha Hunt being the other one in Mr. Jagger's fervent hunt for African-American beauties). Because of the way things turned out, George goes really heavy on the «anthemic» parts of his magnum opus, but this does not prevent him from turning in an equally inspired rendition of ʽBeware Of Darknessʼ (sharing lead vocals with Russell).

It all comes together in the one song written specially for the event. ʽBangla Deshʼ is far from George's finest hour — an openly manipulative and pragmatic track, though, admittedly, still very heartfelt and sincere; what matters here, though, is not the melody or lyrical context, but the raw energy and camaraderie of all the players onstage, starting out slow but eventually whipping themselves up to barely controlled frenzy, with all the brass players, guitarists, keyboardists, percussionists on stage spirited away to oblivion. In this moment, you really feel like it all mattered: maybe the concert did not save the poor kids of Bangla Desh, but for everybody present, it still fulfilled a soul-cleansing function — it is hard for me to imagine being present at a show like that and not going away home a slightly better person than before. No fanfares, no ego-stro­king (an accusation that could be targeted at quite a few large gatherings — such as The Last Waltz, for instance), just a bunch of somewhat battered-up guys who were able to pool their own personal problems, throw them on top of a large regional problem, and end up with a goofy, glorious mess of cosmic despair and overriding optimism.

If you are looking for sharp sound quality, technical coordination, and ideal balance between all the players onstage, this thing is not for you — any fan of George's with those qualities in mind needs to skip past all the remaining decades of George's own life and go straight to the memorial Concert For George (which, ironically, had many of the same people and many of the same songs performed), which satisfies all those requirements perfectly. But if you are more interested in the vibe, in witnessing how a bunch of good songs can grow and evolve — maybe at the cost of an ugly offshoot here and there — right under your very nose, in imagining yourself in the presence of so many great people, none of whom give a fig about their own greatness, then The Concert For Bangla Desh becomes as much of an endearing travel companion to All Things Must Pass as, say, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! is to Let It Bleed, or Live At Leeds is to Tommy (except that the Stones and the Who, for themselves, were very well aware of their onstage greatness and made 100% use of it).

And yes, if the amount of money raised by a charity event is deemed, after all, secondary next to the amount of cathartic vibes produced at the same event, then I'd presume to say that The Concert For Bangla Desh may have brought far more good to this world — and might still be bringing it in as long as people continue to listen to the record and to watch the movie — than any number of rock'n'roll charity benefits held in the past fourty years or so. At the very least, this is the only recording from a benefit concert that I still listen to on a regular basis — with all due respect to Live Aid, Live 8, Music For Montserrat, and The Queen's Birthday Party.


  1. I bought this album around 1974 and it was the first time I got a record set that came in a box. My favorite tracks were Wah-Wah, Beware of Darkness, Jumpin Jack Flash/Young Blood. As a matter of opinion, I still prefer Beware of Darkness on this Live recording than either George's or Leon's studio versions. Good album.

  2. Hey, George is back! At last, something interesting to read on the internet...

  3. Wah-Wah gets stuck in my head for days. Not that it is a bad thing.