George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton: The Concert for Bangladesh
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August 5, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 31
The Event wound up as a Love Feast
By Don Heckman
You could see it was going to be an Event almost immediately from the fact that the first 10 rows or so of Madison Square Garden had more than their usual quota of Italian suits and plastic suntans. No record business "heavy" in his right mind would have missed the mind-boggling coming-together of George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, and -- most incredible of all -- BOB DYLAN.
Pop music Events, however, have a way of not living up to expectations. Woodstock, as I recall, started out in a low key, as a relatively simple outdoors pop festival whose initial audience estimates were well under 100,000. It was only afterwards, when every promoter in sight tried to duplicate what had been a largely spontaneous, idea-whose-time-had-come sort of happening, that things went awry. And the Fillmore closing, too, was another Event that never quite lived up to expectations. But somehow, incredibly, George Harrison's hastily organized benefit show for the starving and dying millions in East Pakistan did meet expectations. It began as an Event, and hit every point anyone could have asked for.
Harrison was a gracious, low-keyed host, and he tried his damndest -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out -- to set the proper tone for the opening by Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and Alla Rakha. Since Shankar is a Bengali, and since his appearance in performance with Khan is an event almost as unique as the mix of Dylan and Harrison, one would have hoped for a respectful reception from this presumably knowledgable audience. No such luck. Knowledgability extended to the point of knowing Shankar's name (principally, no doubt, through his association with Harrison) and, at one point, to a smattering of applause after Shankar and Khan tuned their sitar and sarod. Shankar, smiling sardonically, said, "I hope you like the music as much as you liked the tuning." But that was asking too much. Even though the two Indian masters got into some passionately rhythmic exchanges in the middle of the last piece, the audience attitude was more one of toleration than interest. Too bad, also, that Rakha's drums were never properly miked, and the important interplay between soloists and percussion couldn't be heard.
Some harrowing color films of refugee camps, starving children, and rotting corpses were shown while the stage was being set for the next group. It was a disturbing reminder of what the concert was really about, but again I had the feeling that the audience was there for Superstar Stimulation rather than visible evidence of why Harrison was playing in the first place. After all, hadn't they paid their 10 or 25 bucks to help alleviate the situation? (How glorious -- to be able to launder one's conscience by laying out a few tax-deductible dollars to hear the biggies.)
Anyhow, after the film was over, the lights came back up, and Harrison reappeared, resplendent in a beautifully cut white suit, countered by Ringo Starr at the drums, equally resplendent in black. Leon Russell was at the piano, Eric Clapton on guitar, Badfinger on acoustic guitars, and stretched across the perimeter of the stage were many of Russell's now-familiar back-up singers and horn players.
What can I say about the music? Obviously, a hastily assembled band is going to make mistakes; obviously cues will be missed, and soloists will occasionally play some bad chords. But in the context of an Event, do such things really matter? Of course not. And especially not when one is hearing George Harrison sing, for the first time in "live" concert, songs like "Waiting on You All" and "Something" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "My Sweet Lord." Billy Preston did "That's The Way God Planned It," Leon Russell sang -- would you believe -- "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and Ringo Starr did "It Don't Come Easy." And more -- titles forgotten in the whirl of emotions that accompanied virtually everything happening on stage. One thing in particular I remember: George Harrison singing "Here Comes the Sun," with only acoustical guitar accompaniment, and suddenly, half-way through the tune, the chorus joined him, very softly, and for a weird split-second in time it was as if all the Beatles were there, alive and loving with music.
The real cortex-snapping moment, however, came when Harrison almost casually announced, "Here's Bob Dylan." And there he was, relaxed and easy, looking almost as though he had just stepped off the cover of his "Freewheelin'" album -- yes, that young and innocent. He did "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Just LIke a Woman" (with vocal harmonies by Harrison and Russell) and was backed by Harrison on guitar, Russell on bass, and Ringo Starr on tambourine. For anyone who gre up listening to Dylan and the Beatles, it was simply a moment that never will be forgotten. I kept turning to my lady and telling her that I really couldn't quite believe we were actually seeing what we were seeing. But we were, oh yes, we were, and I'm not going to forget it, because it surely ain't going to happen again. (A recording of the concert, by the way, is in the works and should be available within a month. Again, profits will go to East Pakistan -- Bengla Desh).
Harrison closed with "Bengla Desh," his new single and a song which expresses far better than words what kind of man Harrison is. I have no quarrel with John Lennon's endless clattering around inside his psyche, or Paul McCartney's search for sweetness and light, but at the moment I have to have stronger feelings about George Harrison's active efforts to do something about the misery in the world around him. How surprising that the most introspective of the Beatles should be the one who, in the long run, takes the most effective actions.
An Event -- I started out to say. But something more than that, mainly because of the dignity of Shankar, Khan, and Rahka, because of Harrison's understated charisma. Dylan's still-powerful vibrations, and a feeling from the audience -- despite its occasional lapses of taste -- that it wanted to understand and respect the music and the motives of the performers on stage. At the end, there was a genuine outpouring of applause. Not the usual New York rock-crowd demand for "More, More" (with an implied "Or Else, Or Else"), but an honest thank you for having been present at a remarkable program. What had started out as an Event wound up as a Love Feast. Let's hope it represents the beginning of more practical feasts for the people of Bengla Desh.
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