New York — It wasn’t only the glamor of the event that made it memorable, or the brilliance of the music, or even the impossible pantheon gathered on stage. It was more than that: The George Harrison benefit for the starving children of Bangla Desh was a brief, incandescent revival of all that was best about the Sixties.
By now it is a cliche to say that Dylan and the Beatles constructed important myths of the last decade, and more than anyone else helped us toward a common cultural vision. Now the things they sang about — love, peace, and the courage to explore our own minds — so often seem to have passed into suspension.
The Harrison concert marked, even if only briefly, a rediscovery of those old concerns. Dylan sang “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and it seemed the more chilling for the passage of years since he sang it last. George performed his new single, “Bangla Desh” — proceeds from which will also go to the refugees from East Pakistan. In a way, these two men reasserted themselves as leaders in music and regained for it some of its moral stature.
The concert was great. In fact, there were two concerts, on the afternoon and evening of Sunday, August 1st, each before a sellout crowd of over 20,000 in Madison Square Garden. The performances were nearly identical, the evening perhaps slightly more lustrous.
It opened with Ravi Shankar and one of India’s finest sarod players, Ali Akbar Khan, backed by Alla Rakha on tabla. Seated on a richly-colored rug, they performed a beautiful evening raga, moving swiftly to the fast sections as an accommodation to the audience, then improvised an exciting duet based on a folk tune from East Pakistan. With his incense, his yellow flowers to either side of the stage and the beauty of his music, Ravi calmed the audience and then offered a preview of the hard rhythm to come as he and Ali Akbar exchanged and imitated each other’s energetic riffs. Ravi Shankar had conceived of the concert in the first place, and he lent it enormous dignity.
During the intermission between raga and rock at the Garden they screened a disturbing film of the Pakistani refugees: it showed crows picking at carrion, children bloated with malnutrition, the dead and dying victims of cholera.
As the stage was reset in darkness, the anticipation of the audience swelled audibly. A surprisingly young crowd was seated in a huge horseshoe sweeping around the stage set up at the west end of the Garden. All but a little wedge of seats directly behind the stage had been offered for sale, and were completely sold in a few hours in the middle of the night ten days earlier to people who had waited in line as long as 48 hours.
The silhouettes of the musicians entering the stage area blotted out some of the red amplifier lights, the applause began, the first loud notes of George’s “Wah-Wah” came rolling out of the dark, the spotlights switched on, and there was George in a white suit and burnt orange shirt, surrounded by an ocean of musicians.
The band was so strong during “Wah-Wah” that George’s voice barely cut through. No wonder: Eric Clapton, in a Levi shirt, jacket and jeans, stood to George’s left, churning out wah-wahs. Leon Russell was flailing the piano just behind Eric. Ringo Starr — Ringo! — and Jim Keltner of Joe Cocker fame were behind the two sets of drums. Billy Preston sat at the organ to George’s right, where Jesse Davis (formerly with Taj Mahal and now on his own) worked on another guitar and Klaus Voormann, who did the extraordinary bass on George’s and John Lennon’s albums, picked away.
And on one side of the stage, four members of Badfinger whose No Dice album George produced, amiably strummed acoustic guitars that no one could quite hear. Next to them were seven horns under the direction of Jim Horn from California. And on the other side, behind Preston and his Hammond B-3, was a nine-voice choir: Don Nix, Claudia Lennear. Marlon and Jeannie Green, Dolores Hall…. George vamped on his white solid-body guitar and looked anxiously around to see if the whole ship was getting off all right. He seemed nervous — “Just thinking about it makes me shake,” he said beforehand — but everything sounded fine. The biggest, largest rock band — or rock orchestra, better yet — ever put together.
One night only!
Without a pause, they went into “My Sweet Lord.” The opening was engulfed by a classic two-part applause pattern — a swarm of cheers from aficionados picking up on the first couple of notes, then a heavier barrage on the opening words from the folks more into Top 40-radio. George’s voice sounded confident and more relaxed than at the first show; he sang trills around the notes, rocked from foot to foot, and seemed to be enjoying himself. The choral hallelujahs were handled nicely by the consort of rockers extending off into indefinite darkness.