The Concert for George: A review

On the occasion today of what would have been George Harrison’s 68th birthday, I’m posting the original text of my review of The Concert for George, the 2002 all-star tribute show that I was lucky enough to attend, which was first posted on the old Thoughtcat blog on 3 December 2003. (No, I can’t believe it’s been almost ten years since he died either, and even less somehow that I’ve been blogging nearly as long…)


I’m delighted to see that The Concert for George, the magnificent memorial gig for George Harrison at London’s Royal Albert Hall almost exactly a year ago, has now been released on CD and DVD. Thoughtcat was lucky enough to be in attendance at this star-studded one-off tribute to the late Quiet One, although it was kind of a miracle that we even got there at all. First of all it involved a trial of telethonic proportions to get through and buy the tickets, although this was only to be expected: Albert Hall was selling seats exclusively over the phone and only from 9am on a certain day a few weeks before the concert, and even though I was all set at ten to nine with the number and my credit card to hand, despite about 600 attempts I couldn’t get through for over an hour. All I can say is thank heavens for the redial button, or else I might have given up with cramp after about ten minutes. By the time I did get through, the only tickets they had left were standing room only in the top gallery, at a whopping £50 each. Having bought six for myself and some friends and family, Albert advised that the tickets wouldn’t be sent through the post but would instead be issued at the venue from 5pm on the night of the concert. This was a bit early (the gig was due to start at 7.30) but we were advised we could get a meal at the Albert Hall restaurants from 5.30, which was good news because most of us had been working all day and none of us were particularly looking forward to standing up all night not having had anything to eat. In the event though the box office was open but there was a queue anyway, and after queuing for ten minutes I was told to wait in a separate queue for the standing tickets. This second queue went round the side of the building and not only wasn’t moving but didn’t go anywhere for an hour, a situation worsened by some building work being done adjacent and the proximity of the artists’ door, where paparazzi and autograph-hunters were crowding. The whole queue was moaning in true British style about being given confusing information, about being given no information, about having to queue at all, and of course about how it was all Tony Blair’s fault. Inside there was a great scrum of people collecting their tickets, although when we eventually got to the counter they weren’t tickets but wristbands which we each had to be personally “fitted” with. As we waited, Mark Ellen, the famous Old Grey Whistle Test and Q Magazine journalist and sometime Blair bandmate turned up, and was trying to get in as haplessly as the rest of us. I said to him, “If they’re making you wait, we’re all in trouble!” He nodded gravely. “It doesn’t look good,” he concurred. When we were finally all wristbanded, the beleaguered ticket guy said that if we wanted our actual tickets as a memento, we had to queue again for them after the show! It was extraordinary.

By the time they let us in it was 7pm. The air inside Albert was literally hazy with incense, and staff were standing around in white long-sleeve teeshirts with purple chakra designs handing out free programs, which were very nicely bound in rich purple with tasteful black & white photos of George and some comments from him about life, music and his Material World charity which the gig was in aid of (‘in aid of which the gig was’?). We felt a bit better but by now it was too late to get a meal, so we grabbed some glasses of red wine and headed up to the gallery. None of us had ever been up there before and the view was fantastic. It was unreserved but there was a space at the balcony directly opposite the centre of the stage, so we grabbed it. The whole hall was lit in warm orange and yellow hues. A banner in red and orange with the “Arpan” symbol from Harrison’s records was hanging above the hall. The semi-circular stage was perimetered with Indian instruments, and in the centre there was a raised platform with an Indian rug and an electric guitar. Hanging behind the stage was a vast black and white photo of George looking fabulously handsome and moody in an early-70s pose with long hair and moustache. (He really was one of the few men who could wear a moustache and not look like a member of the Village People.) From where we were though we couldn’t see the whole picture because the rack of lights was in the way – in fact from where we stood, two large, round, black lights were hanging in front of his eyes, making him look like a giant fly. We stood around for a while, and just when we’d got settled in and forgotten all the previous inconveniences, a steward in a red Butlins-type jacket told us off for bringing glasses up to the gallery, even though we’d been told we were allowed to by the bartender. We could however use plastic glasses, she said, so we swigged our drinks and one of us went down to the bar and brought up another round in plastic glasses. We’d got about half way through those when a second steward appeared and said we were in fact only allowed plastic bottles with lids on, “in case anything was spilled”. It took a third steward in a black jacket to arbitrate between the first two stewards and us before we could enjoy our drinks against the sort of peaceful background appropriate to the occasion the Albert Hall was pretending to provide. George himself was probably rocking and rolling in his grave.

To our enormous relief, the first part of the concert started, albeit half an hour later than billed. Eric Clapton came on in a grey short-sleeved shirt and introduced the concert in a very low, peaceful voice. Rarely the most confident of speakers, he nervously referred to “George’s wife Dhani” before correcting himself (Dhani is George’s son – his wife’s name is Olivia). There was a faint ripple of laughter at this but it seemed soon forgotten. EC introduced Ravi Shankar, who came on looking very frail. He didn’t play but introduced his daughter Anoushka and a 16-strong Indian orchestra. Olivia came on then and lit some candles. The house lights stayed on, and although this was probably only because they needed the light to film the concert, it lent a great deal of warmth, optimism and calm to the concert. The Indian music, which lasted about half an hour, was beautiful, peaceful and colourful, and Anoushka was also beautiful and clearly highly skilled, although you could sense that a lot of people were aching for the main part of the concert to start. Jeff Lynne, of ELO and Traveling Wilburys fame, joined them at the end for The Inner Light, and then EC came back on, picked up a Spanish guitar and “jammed” with the orchestra on a delightful acoustic instrumental piece. There was an intermission then, interrupted only by a steward who told us we weren’t allowed to hang our coats over the balcony.

Thankfully the main set started without further ado. The atmosphere was electric, or at least acoustic. To everyone’s delight the show began with a little comedy section. Four guys dressed as posh French restaurant waiters with ankle-length aprons and crisp dishcloths over their wrists trouped on and did a silly song which I couldn’t hear hardly any of the words of, but it was obviously something Pythonesque, as the programme mentioned that various Pythons would be participating. Later I found the song was Sit On My Face And Tell Me That You Love Me. When they’d finished singing, they turned round and trouped off again, revealing that they were wearing no trousers or pants under their aprons. Then, a guy whose face I couldn’t see very well (we couldn’t really see any facial details from that distance) but who turned out to be Michael Palin bounded down the stairs onto the stage wearing a bright white jacket with gold lame lapels and did a silly introduction: “This evening is so big, so ginormously huge, so simply magnificently, er, large, that it makes one feel just wretchedly inadequate, really…” Palin then ripped off his jacket to reveal a lumberjack shirt, and a troupe of “mounties” came on for the Pythons’ brilliant Lumberjack song, complete with the pretty, dippy girl with blonde pigtails and big blue dress. It was fantastic, and although you couldn’t hear all the words, it hardly mattered. We had no idea at the time, but apparently Tom Hanks turned in a cameo as one of the mounties.

This bunch all went off, and then the main band came on – EC, Gary Brooker and Chris Stainton on keyboards, Jim Keltner on drums, Ray Cooper on percussion, Andy Fairweather Low and Albert Lee among the backup guitarists, EC’s backing singers Tessa Niles and Katie Kissoon, a sax and trumpet player, and even, on bass, Klaus Voormann, who designed the Beatles’ Revolver album cover and had played with Lennon on the Imagine album and here, there and everywhere else. George’s son Dhani was also on stage, wearing a long white smock-type shirt and playing a big brown acoustic guitar. I didn’t know it was him for quite a while (he wasn’t mentioned on the program and not introduced until the end) but there was something very Georgian about his… well, his hair, really. The band began with a resounding I Want to Tell You from Revolver, and continued the Beatles stuff with If I Needed Someone, both of which EC sang. Gary Brooker sang the vocal on Old Brown Shoe, while Jeff Lynne sang on Give Me Love. EC came back up to the front to sing on Beware of Darkness, a sublime track from All Things Must Pass, and he played the solo note-for-note from the record. God, the number of evenings I’ve sat up and played that song, disappearing with the aid of a few glasses of wine into its echoey depths… it couldn’t have been a better choice.

The main band then went off for a while as old “cockerney” rock hero Joe Brown and his band took the stage to do a perfectly-judged acoustic Here Comes the Sun. He then took out a mandolin and played a song I hadn’t heard before called That’s the Way it Goes from Gone Troppo, which was also lovely. The main band came back on with Jools Holland and Sam Brown for Horse to the Water, the last song Harrison recorded (for Jools’ Small World, Big Band ensemble album from the previous year, crediting it to the “RIP 2001” publishing company, only to die a few months later). This number was storming, Sam Brown’s voice taking the Albert’s famously domed roof off. The band then did Isn’t It a Pity, another All Things classic, on which EC played some magnificent extended solos. The whole thing was getting better and better.

EC and the others then went off yet again, this time to be replaced by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who did Taxman (Petty sneering the wicked vocal in Artful Dodger pose), I Need You, complete with the distinctive volume-pedal guitar part, and Handle With Care from the first Wilburys record, which was fantastic, another storming version. There was much hope in the air that Bob Dylan would come on to do more Wilburys songs, but he didn’t. I can’t imagine he wasn’t asked to join in but I think it might have been difficult politically for him to have been involved, with the emphasis on the British aspect and the fact that it was ultimately a Beatles thing more than anything else, plus there were so many legends there already that his turning up might have caused a mass mutual orgasm from which none of us might ever have recovered.

The main band returned then and EC introduced Ringo. The crowd gave him a fantastic reception – pretty much a standing ovation in fact. He had a beautiful red velvet jacket and a pair of round sunglasses. “I loved George, and George loved me,” he said laconically, conveying fifty years of unique companionship and the whole Beatles story in one quintessential Ringunderstatement. He sang Photograph, a great song which he co-wrote with George, and Honey Don’t, an old Carl Perkins song that Harrison loved, which featured a howling solo from a guitarist with wild grey hair who was either Albert Einstein or Albert Lee.

Ringo then retired to the drums, so now there were three drummers and about 14 guitarists and 3 keyboard players on stage. When EC then introduced “Sir” Paul McCartney, the place just became unspeakable. Macca started with For You Blue, the nice but inessential Harrison blues from Let It Be, and then, referring to Eric’s mistake earlier about “George’s wife Dhani”, which got a laugh, picked up a ukulele and explained that whenever you went round George’s house, after dinner “the ukuleles would come out” and you’d inevitably find yourself singing “all these old numbers”. He then strummed (plucked? uked?) a solo version of Something – it was so simple and beautiful, and all the more heartbreaking because you were thinking maybe George’s best-known (and surely best Beatles-era) song wasn’t going to be given the full-band treatment. However, when it came to the solo, McCartney stopped plucking, wandered over to the piano, and the whole band seamlessly picked up the thread of the song, with one of the other guitarists playing the famous solo (George’s best, for my money) note-for-note. EC then took over the lead vocal from Macca, which must have been bizarre given that George wrote the song for his first wife Patti, whom Clapton of course later went on to steal from George (as well-documented in EC’s own classic Layla and just about everywhere else).

The next Paul-vocalised song was a pleasant surprise – All Things Must Pass itself. By now McCartney was back on acoustic guitar, and he and EC were up the front of the stage standing side by side with their guitar necks facing each other, looking uncannily Beatle-esque. The next song took a few moments to get started, but the band played a few notes to tune up and I had a strong feeling it was going to be While My Guitar Gently Weeps… and it was. Macca played the echoey keyboard intro exactly the same as on the record, while EC sang the lead vocal and played a note-for-note solo, complete with the famous extra “wobbly” vibrato. All this guitar heroicism was almost too much for poor old Thoughtcat. It was magnificent, the whole moment setting in stone before my ears.

The concert ended with My Sweet Lord, which Billy Preston sang in a sub-gospel style, and Wah-Wah, a very heavy song off All Things Must Pass, which was so loud it was actually painful. As the Guardian review of the gig explained later, Wah-Wah was an interesting choice because Harrison reputedly wrote the song as a stab at McCartney after a particularly sour late-era Beatles rehearsal, yet here was Macca himself playing piano on the track. For this last song the people in the front stalls got out of their seats and crowded up near the front of the stage like a bunch of middle-aged teenagers. As the show ended McCartney took the mike and said, “Olivia just said that with Dhani up on stage tonight it looks like George stayed young and we all got old.” Then for an encore Joe Brown came on with his ukulele (saying “This ain’t too loud for ya, is it?”) and did the gentle old jazz number I’ll See You in My Dreams as red rose petals tumbled down from the roof onto the audience and Olivia came on to hug Dhani. It was enough, as they say, to make a grown man cry. Afterwards Dhani came up to the front and said, “Hi, I just want to thank everyone for performing… I’m Dhani by the way, George’s wife.”

Altogether, I need hardly say it was the best rock concert I’ve ever been to. It was really more than I could have hoped for. And the good news is that you too can now share in the magnificence of this unique gig in the comfort of your own front room, and all without having to spend an hour on the phone for tickets, queue around the block or be told off by people in red jackets (unless that’s your thing, of course). Amazon as ever is doing some excellent offers on the DVD and CD, so if this whole thing turns you on please do click on the appropriate link below, turn up the volume and listen to the music of a master played by a handful of legends. Even better, all profits from the DVD are to go to Harrison’s Material World Charitable Foundation. The Foundation doesn’t appear to have a website but according to this page on Norwegian site it was established in 1973 to “sponsor diverse forms of artistic expression and to encourage the exploration of alternative life views and philosophies”, as well as support “established charitable organizations with consideration to those with special needs”.

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