On November 29th, 2002, exactly a year after his death, George Harrison was honored at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Concert for George, in theaters now and available in November on DVD, documents the performances of Harrison’s songs by his closest friends, including Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar, Ringo Starr, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Paul McCartney. Harrison’s twenty-five-year-old son, Dhani, plays acoustic guitar through most of the performance.
“It was [Clapton’s] idea,” says Harrison’s widow, Olivia. “He phoned me not long after George died and said, ‘I’d like to do something.’ Eric was a very deep friend of George’s, so I felt confident and relieved that it was Eric coming to me.”
“Olivia had given me this job of being musical director,” says Clapton, “to single out people for certain songs, and I found that really hard. We were all quite protective of our relationships with George.”
Over the years, the two guitarists shared a unique bond — always brotherly, even after Clapton married Harrison’s first wife, Patti Boyd. “A lot of times during our relationship, I found it very difficult to communicate my feelings toward George — my love for him as a musician and a brother and a friend — because we skated around stuff,” says Clapton. “I was probably dealing with that, too, making amends.”
For weeks, Harrison’s friends rehearsed at London’s Asylum Studios. Clapton was impressed with McCartney’s demeanor: “Those guys’ inability to express love for one another was classic,” he says of the Beatles. “The exception is Ringo, who says [in the film], ‘I love George, and George loved me.’ That wouldn’t have been so easy for Paul.”
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McCartney shines, playing ukulele and duetting with Clapton on “Something,” and singing lead on “All Things Must Pass.” In rehearsals, says Clapton, “Paul had to admit that he didn’t know ‘All Things Must Pass,’ and that was an awful thing to confront. It was huge humble-pie stuff for Paul to be among these people who he may have thought had a better relationship with George than he did. But I believe Paul missed George as much as — if not more than — anybody.”
The concert’s most poignant moment came when Billy Preston sang Harrison’s 1970 song “Isn’t It a Pity,” with Dhani on guitar and vocal harmonies. “That was the most excruciating song,” says Olivia. “It was obviously very emotional for me to see him up there paying tribute to his dad. And listening to George’s words — ‘Beware of sadness/It can hit you, it can hurt you, make you sore/And what is more, that is not what you are here for’ — feeling so incredibly sad and trying not to be sad — taking George’s advice.”