The Concert for Bangla Desh is rock reaching for its manhood. Under the leadership of George Harrison, a group of rock musicians recognized, in a deliberate, self-conscious, and professional way, that they have responsibilities, and went about dealing with them seriously:
My friend came to me,
With sadness in his eyes,
He told me that he wanted help,
Before his country died,
Although I couldn’t feel the pain,
I knew I’d have to try,
Now I’m asking all of you,
To help us save some lives
Heard at the end of the album, during the concert’s single greatest performance by all concerned, the simplicity of the lyrics takes on a new and powerful force. For by then they are no longer an expression of intent but of an accomplished mission — help has been given, people have been reached, an effort has been made and results will be felt.
With such names as Eric Clapton, Ringo Star, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and finally, Bob Dylan, involved, the concert would have been an enormous success no matter how it was planned or run. But part of the record’s beauty is that Harrison staged a concert worthy of his purpose in every respect. With such an array of talent on hand, he created a program that miraculously avoided comparisons with any previous super-shows by staging it not as a collection of individual performances or fixed sets, but as a revue. His presence throughout undermined from the beginning the super-star quality of the evening and put the emphasis on the concert as a fraternal gathering of musicians devoted to a single charitable purpose. Seen in that light, his introduction of Ravi Shankar at the beginning of the concert is particularly moving, as is the inclusion of a full side of Ravi’s music.
George’s personal intentions resonate when he begins his own performance with “Wah-Wah,” a simple statement by a musician who knows who he is and what he wants to play. “My Sweet Lord” and “Awaiting on You All” have a rough quality to them characteristic of most of George’s performances on the albums. His efforts, with the exception of “Here Comes the Sun,” are production numbers that required the participation of all the musicians. It is no wonder that on one number the chorus is noticeably off-key, or that on another the guitars occasionally clash with each other. More important than any technical imperfections that remain in the performance was George’s decision not to tamper with the original tapes. By the end of the performances on side two we feel fully in the middle of a true musical experience. George’s songs had already been heard once in perfect productions — either on Beatle albums or on All Things Must Pass. I don’t mind it all being a little rough around the edges when the quality of the music runs this deep. On “Awaiting On You All” it is exhilarating to hear his voice clearly singing the song for the first time, likewise the excellent guitar. And it is great to have a version of “My Sweet Lord” in which the emphasis is on the voice, words, and guitar, instead of on the sound as a whole.
Acutely aware of the need for pacing, if he was to remain on stage for the entire rock program. George introduces two individual performers. Billy Preston’s turn on “That’s The Way God Planned It” is sheer delight. The song is beautiful and while some of its musical force is lost at the end, when Preston was too busy playing with the song visually to sustain his vocal, it nonetheless remains one of the true highpoints of the album. Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy,” on the other hand, is great just because it is Ringo being totally real. It is thoroughly to his credit that he did not overdub a new vocal on this track. He sings the song off-key, awkwardly, but with tremendous good-nature and humor and his performance contributes immeasurably to creating the mood of the evening. It is, like almost everything on the album, honest.
“Beware of Darkness” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” features George with two other talents, Leon Russell and Eric Clapton respectively. The vocal duet on the former comes as a terrific surprise, one of the concert’s best-balanced moments musically, a performance of almost stately proportions. Eric Clapton receives the largest applause of anyone when George introduces the line-up and he then duets on guitar with George on a driving version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The song remains possibly the best that George has written. Eric’s performance on guitar only reminds us how inactive he has been lately and how much so many of his admirers would like to see him contributing again. His last album, Layla, was surely his best and one can only hope that he will pick up where he left off soon.
To me, Leon Russell’s performance represents the one incongruous note in the program. Part of the brilliance of the concert is, first, hearing so many people who we are not used to hearing live at all, and, secondly, hearing musicians we have always admired playing with each other on a stage for the first time. With the exception of Russell, nobody did a piece from their live sets in most instances because the artist doesn’t do regular live performances. It was all something fresh, original, and unexpected. While Leon’s music here is as dazzling as ever, during his set the concert suddenly became the Leon Russell show and I have heard that before. Good as his actual performance is, his conception of his role was too commonplace for an event as special as this.
George’s capacity for pacing and timing is nowhere better illustrated than in his next move. Following the highs of Russell’s rock performance, he had the stage completely cleared so that when he introduced the next guest there would be no need for further delay. He then went into an acoustic performance of an enormous Beatle hit, thereby accomplishing two things: he brought the level of the music down from full-scale rock to a quiet, acoustic sound and he did it without losing his audience for a second due to his brilliant choice of song, “Here Comes the Sun,” to which he gives a superb performance, with the assistance of that excellent Apple band, Bad-finger.
All of which led perfectly into Bob Dylan’s performance. The 17 minutes of music he offers us here is certainly the best he has released in recent years. While conceived of as a special sort of greatest hits performance, the selection of tunes was merely a vehicle for Dylan to exhibit another new vocal style a style so rich and perfectly suited to him I can’t help wondering why he immediately changed it again when he recorded the new material for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. The performances are all great but “Just Like a Woman” sung with a sort of fierce, personal, but musical, determination is surely the best of it, one of the two or three great moments on the set as a whole.
And of course, how does one come back out after a set by Dylan that literally takes the roof off of the Garden, but with another enormous Beatle hit: And so George offers up a superb version of “Something” and then he is gone and back with what is again, for me, the album’s most meaningful moment, the group performance of “Bangla Desh.”
Besides everything else, Bangla Desh was a great show, brilliantly put together by an artist who not only knew how to assemble a lot of great musicians but had an instinctive feeling for how best to present them and their music with honesty, dignity, and maturity. The total effect was that the event did justice to everyone connected with it. The idea of an enjoyable rock show as a vehicle for aiding starving refugees never becomes incongruous precisely because both musicians and audience conduct themselves with such self-respect.
In particular, George Harrison emerges, from the introductory remarks to Ravi Shankar’s set to the closing of “Bangla Desh,” as a man with a sense of his own worth, his own role in the place of things, and as a man prepared to face reality openly and with a judgment and maturity with few parallels among his peers. As much as the music contained within the package, the spirit he creates through his own demeanor is inspirational. From the personal point of view, Concert for Bangla Desh was George’s moment. He put it together; and he pulled it off, and for that he deserves the admiration of all of us.