The Concert for Bangladesh is rightly enshrined in rock history as the model for Band Aid, Live Aid, Live 8 and every other superstar benefit concert of the last three decades. George Harrison organized it when his friend and teacher, Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, told him about a massive humanitarian crisis taking place in East Pakistan and asked if the former Beatle could do anything to help. Harrison called on Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston and a host of other luminaries to perform two shows at New York's Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1971. The concerts raised $250,000 — a significant amount at the time — and the subsequent album and film (which has just been released on DVD) added far more to the total. In emphasizing the concert's idealism, however, it's easy to overlook what a musical gem this two-disc set is. The musicians are inspired not only by a lofty sense of purpose but also by the thrill of playing alongside two Beatles. This was the first time any of the Fab Four had performed since the group broke up the year before — not to mention the first time that Harrison had led a band live. When you hear the opening roar of "Wah-Wah," you know that not one of the many musicians onstage was willing to let him fail. High points? Take your pick. Shankar movingly evokes a world of suffering swept up into transcendence in a spectacular seventeen-minute duet with sarod virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan. When keyboardist Russell, who had not been introduced, drawls a verse of Harrison's "Beware of Darkness," you can still feel the thrill of recognition shoot through the crowd. Harrison's and Clapton's guitar lines wrap around each other like lovers on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And Russell's rollicking medley of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the Coasters' "Youngblood" is sly, sexy and fun. And then there's Dylan, who had performed only rarely since his 1966 motorcycle accident. Up until the moment of his introduction, Harrison wasn't sure his friend would even show up. Did he ever. Backed by Harrison on guitar, Russell on bass and Starr on tambourine, Dylan's acoustic renditions of songs such as "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Just Like a Woman" (a previously unreleased version of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is also here) are splendid — filled with the beauty and conviction that have become the legacy of that righteous day.
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