‘Concert for George’ on Aspen screen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – As the formulation had it, John was the smart one, Paul the cute one, Ringo the funny one (even though John was, in fact, wittier), and George the quiet one.
“Concert for George” basically goes along with the categorization of Harrison. Sure, it could be said that George Leland, who directed the film, had no choice. The Concert for George was held on Nov. 29, 2002 – a year to the day after the one-time Beatle died of lung cancer – so Harrison wasn’t around to add his voice to the collection of talent that assembled at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Still, “Concert for George” – which gets a free screening on Saturday, Feb. 19 at the Wheeler Opera House – goes a long way to memorialize Harrison as a sedate figure. The concert, at least as it was captured on film, features no moving footage of Harrison – no clips of him making music or clowning around in his Beatle days; no home movies of him as a family man; no video of him in a poignant moment. In fact, it occurs to me that not once in the two-plus hour movie do we actually hear Harrison’s voice, either speaking or singing. Quiet, indeed. Instead, there is an enormous photo of Harrison, looking still, at peace, even religious, that looms over the stage throughout the concert.
“Concert for George,” which was released in 2003, does cut away from the onstage action to capture backstage remembrances of Harrison. But these just reinforce the standard line. The most colorful reflection is when Eric Clapton mentions that Harrison had a big contrarian side. The rest of the talk is meditative, respectful, focused on Harrison as a musician and music fan, family man and friend, and devotee of Indian culture.
Harrison’s music, conversely, gets grand, expansive and thorough treatment. His catalogue of songs do have to battle it out with Harrison’s good friend and collaborator Eric Clapton for center stage. (The film could well have been titled “Concert for George: Starring Eric Clapton.”) But you could have far worse musicians representing your life’s work, and Clapton is surrounded by other heavyweights: fellow Beatles Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney; Harrison’s Traveling Wilbury mates, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne; Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, representing Harrison’s affection for Indian music; Jim Capaldi from Traffic, and Gary Brooker form Procol Harum. Probably the best musical moment is delivered by the fabulous organist Billy Preston, who gives powerhouse but humble readings of “My Sweet Lord” and the magnificent “Isn’t It a Pity.” McCartney’s take on “Something,” used to spotlight Harrison’s love of the ukulele, is fun; an appearance by the Monty Python troupe, joined for some reason by Tom Hanks, doing “The Lumberjack Song” is weird but welcome.
The songs – the list also includes “Photograph,” sung by Starr; an extended version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; “Handle with Care” and “Here Comes the Sun” – are wrapped in family-style warmth. Despite the scores of musicians and guitar solos, and the size of the Royal Albert Hall, the concert feels like a reasonably intimate gathering of British musicians, just getting together to remember their friend by playing his songs.
This feeling is cemented by the constant presence of Dhani Harrison. George’s son was in his early 20s at the time of the concert, and appears as a modest talent but an appealing personality, strumming along on an acoustic guitar throughout the performance.
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An outside-the-film note: Dhani Harrison has recently become more prominent, with his membership in Fistful of Mercy. The band, a threesome of Harrison, Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur, released its debut album, “As I Call You Down,” in October; it also is scheduled to appear at the Coachella festival, in California, in April.
“As I Call You Down,” which features Dhani on vocals, guitar and keyboards as well as a co-writer, has some strong echoes of George Harrison’s music. But it is a testament to the late Beatle that there are artists who are no relation who seem to be using him as a template for how to make music. “Wilco (the Album),” the 2009 record by Wilco, has one track, “You Never Know,” that features chord changes, slide guitar parts and a singing style that are so close to Harrison’s music it is chilling.
And Carl Broemel, a member of My Morning Jacket, released a solo album last year that goes even one better. The entirety of “All Birds Say” sounds like a tribute to Harrison.
Quiet, maybe. But he definitely made himself heard.
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