Without comment George followed “Awaiting on You All,” very professionally, everybody holding together on the changes and breaking cleanly.
“We’d like to continue … with a song from a member of the band,” said George, and introduced Billy Preston, who proceeded with a fantastic version of his “That’s the Way God Planned It.” George chorded guitar and left the lead work, which was splendid, to Eric and Jesse.
Billy sang two verses, then went into a slow duet between his cathedral organ and Eric’s guitar that literally rocked a couple of people out of their seats. The horns came in with a stairstep progression behind the next chorus, the whole thing speeded up, and then Billy, dressed in all leather topped with a purple knit cap, shot out from behind the organ and danced wildly across the stage in front of George. Nearly everybody was up and cheering by the last note.
Before anybody could catch a breath, the spots went to the drums and there was Ringo, smiling in his natty beard and a parson-like black suit. His lapel sported a bright yellow backstage security button, so folks would know he belonged there. He sang “It Don’t Come Easy” happily, slamming out the beat and never quite missing a note or a beat, either. George picked out the big Crosley notes at the end. The ovation was tremendous.
George pulled things together a notch with “Beware of Darkness.” Just as the tension began to ease, he turned his back and the second verse emerged from Leon Russell in the fashion of his last album. More cheers of astonishment at the sheer resources of this band; he had been obscured from sight behind Eric Clapton and it was like being locked in battle aboard a man-o’-war and suddenly remembering that you had an extra deck of cannon.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with its implicit invocation of the Beatles, brought things still higher. The audience sat in respectful silence while it built, George and Jesse trading guitar lines with Eric, who did the solo as he had on the Beatles’ white album. By the end the guitars and horns, were playing intricate interwoven lines, with George’s spare evocative guitar emerging at intervals.
Like Ringo’s solo before, it had been another song — despite the panoply of musicians, the growing madness of Madison Square Garden concerts, despite time itself — that in the hearing, so brought back the image and memory of the Beatles that you knew somewhere in the audience there were people crying.
Leon Russell put his everpresent cigarette down on the piano, pushed his long hair back from his eyes, and pounded out the opening of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with such force that half the audience was clapping time before anyone else played a note. Leon sandwiched the Coasters’ classic “Young Blood” in the middle of “Flash.” And George took a turn, a little hesitantly, stepping to the mike to intone, “Yo’ th’ one.” (His hesitation may have been prompted by the mike itself, which kept giving him electrical shocks.)
It was one of the big rockers of the night, and when it was done, the musicians left the stage, leaving George and Pete Ham of Badfinger to do an acoustic guitar version of “Here Comes the Sun.” Those two boys can play guitar. They picked the tune standing in a single spotlight on the dark stage and the “Sun, sun, sun” refrain near the end emerged as if by magic from the nine-voice invisible choir. George sang more easily and creatively than on the record, and the song took on an astonishing beauty and sadness.
The lights went down for a minute. Leon Russell suddenly appeared and plugged in his bass. George picked up an electric guitar and slipped a steel slide around his finger. Ringo appeared from the side with tambourine in hand. The stage remained dark.
A short man with fuzzy hair and a denim jacket hovered near the amps to the right of the stage. George stepped to the microphone and said, “I’d like to bring on a friend of us all, Mr. Bob Dylan.”
So there he was, in baggy brown pants, a Levi jacket and green T-shirt, toting a D-size Martin, the old harmonica-holder around his neck. He stood smiling slightly during the prolonged ovation, licked his lips, began strumming, stepped to the mike and sang: “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” He sounded better than he ever has, his voice lean, cutting and under perfect control. He stood almost bowlegged, unwinding each line then leaning back from the mike and ducking behind the harmonica without blowing a note.
He didn’t actually play the harp until the middle of his next song, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” His harmonica playing ran along the old edges of sadness, dischord and suspense. George played a light, quiet bottleneck guitar, and altogether it amounted to probably the finest version ever of a splendid song.
Without a word, Dylan went into “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was becoming clear that this was to be a session of greatest hits. Deja vu: What year was this anyway? With his beard trimmed below the jawline, his hair medium short but wiry, he looked as if he’d stepped off the cover of Freewheelin’. His voice now had a beautiful fullness to it, but it was closer to The Times They Are a Changin’ than to Nashville Skyline. In the dressing room with George before the concert Bob had done some new songs, but onstage he ventured nothing more recent than 1966, and so people were offered another Dylan puzzle to contemplate.