Recorded on the first anniversary of George Harrison’s death, Concert For George is exactly the way every tribute should go. It isn’t the usual hodge-podge of artists picked because they were influenced by the musician, trying to draw in listeners or viewers. It is, instead, a selection of musicians who were friends and confidants of the former Beatle, playing the music of the man they dearly missed.
The collection marks the first full release of the concert, as the Monty Python and Sam Brown tracks were omitted from the original compact disc version in 2003. The Python tracks are important, really, because they offer up two things: 1) The Pythons were very much supported by Harrison during their golden age, when the musician put up £3 million in order for their second film, Life of Brian, to be made; 2) It provides a much-needed moment of levity after the rather serious introduction and first few tracks.
Those first few tracks fill the entirety of the first LP, and they could easily be a solo release. After a traditional prayer by Ravi Shankar, concert organizer Eric Clapton introduces the show by saying, “This is a blessed occasion, because I can share my love with George for you.” Shankar echoes this, saying: “I strongly feel that George is here tonight. I mean, how could he not be here, when all of us who loved him so much have assembled together to sing and play music for him. I’m sure he’s here.”
This is the point where I start crying off and on for the next two hours or so. We all have our favorite Beatle, but Harrison always seems to be the one who gets shunted aside. Concert For George is the definitive love letter to the musician and his wonderful, loving art.
Shankar’s daughter, Anoushka, performs her father’s “Your Eyes,” followed by the Harrison-penned Beatles raga, “The Inner Light,” with Harrison’s friend and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne. The entirety of the second side is devoted to a new Shankar composition, titled “Arpan,” which is beautiful right from its opening, and the title — taken from Sanskrit and meaning “to give” — fills your ears with pure, unadulterated joy at Harrison’s legacy.
But, yes: it’s heady. The Pythons doing “Sit on My Face” and “The Lumberjack Song” bring the joy back from tears to laughter, while the segue into the concert proper with a series of Beatles songs — “I Want to Tell You,” “If I Needed Someone,” and “Old Brown Shoe” — performed by Lynne, Clapton, and Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker on lead vocals, respectively, really gets things going.
The material is just fantastic. Concert For George is both a greatest hits of sort for Harrison, as well as perhaps one of the finest selections of musicians one could ever hope for. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kick out “Taxman,” there’s a version of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” by Petty, Lynne, and Harrison’s son, Dani, and the ukulele intro to Paul McCartney’s rendition of “Something” turns it into a Tin Pan Alley version which just slays.
I cried here, as well. Especially on “Handle With Care.” The open, honest way in which all of the musicians gather and speak of their love and respect for George Harrison is something which I keep pointing out, but it’s not like it’s a belabored thing. It’s pure and true, and so many of the lyrics from Harrison’s songs are sung in a way which point back to the songwriter himself, reflecting how all of these people feel about himm, and how much they wish he could be here with them.
Ringo Starr’s take on his hit single “Photograph,” which he co-wrote with Harrison, is impressive, but the fact that he follows it up with one of the few songs on the show not written by Harrison — a rousing take on Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” from the Beatles’ Hamburg days — really calls back to not just the quality music that Harrison composed, but the music that he himself would’ve wanted to hear. The same goes for the ukulele performance by Joe Brown on the closing song, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” which is as perfect a conclusion as one could possibly hope for.
The audio quality is stellar. It’s as if the concert is taking place within your stereo speakers. It’s kept a little on the quiet side, but considering the quiet aspects of the songs which dominate Harrison’s oeuvre, kicking it up a little would’ve resulted in the rare spike of horns or the guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” blowing everything into the red. If nothing else, you can crank this, close your eyes, and go back in time to imagine yourself in Royal Albert Hall, singing along with everyone.
The box set has a wonderful collection of thoughts from Paul Theroux to introduce the booklet included, which features notes about all of the performers, as well as thoughts from a few of those who participated. Each LP comes in its own sleeve, with a mandala adorning the cover of each, and a different picture of Harrison on the reverse. The inner sleeves feature the same mandala, which is complimented by the design continuing onto the center labels via die-cut hole on both sides. It’s fully featured on the album’s eighth side, with the mandala etched into the vinyl. Plus, they managed to line up the center label with the mandala to make it look perfect. It’s one of the subtlest, yet most perfect demonstrations of attention to detail I’ve ever seen on a record’s packaging and design, and I feel like I should shake the hand of whomever made it happen.