Friday, October 5, 2012

"The Greatest Rock Spectacle of the Decade"

When I last wrote about the Concert for Bangladesh, I had this to say:
One of the central pleasures of the concert (as shown on the 2005 DVD) is that, notwithstanding the handful of rock 'n' roll powerhouses and living legends that participated, it was the well-regarded but still second-fiddle keyboardist Billy Preston who completely stole the show. In my view, his soulful rendering of "That's the Way God Planned It" and the animated, loose-limbed boogieing that he punctuates the song with outshine the two ex-Beatles' handiwork, Eric Clapton's unrehearsed guitar-playing, and Bob Dylan's mini-set. Preston's stage presence is truly radiant and even has an unmissable spiritual flair. There's also a lot of simple charm in the spontaneous feel of his performance. In sum, it's the most memorable moment of a concert not lacking in talent-heavy highlights.
After watching the film again, I thought I should go into greater detail. It deserves better.
Because the Concert became a template for future pop charity events like Live Aid and Farm Aid, it can be easy to focus on the significance of its legacy and lose sight of how incredible it was simply as a rock 'n' roll concert(s)*. No single performance is as memorable as "That's the Way God Planned It," but there isn't a bad apple among the whole batch. Every song delivers.
George and his super-group opened the show with three songs from All Things Must Pass: "Wah-Wah," "My Sweet Lord" and "Awaiting on You All." That's three Walls of Sound played live at Madison Square Garden. A perfect fit, as it turned out. Freed from the confines of the studio, the songs don't suffer from that gauzy, boxed-in quality that Phil Spector lathered all over his productions. These are the IMAX versions, exploding with bold color and a sonic hugeness that works much better live than on record. "Wah-Wah" in particular is a revelation. Next was "That's the Way God Planned It," which was followed by Ringo's star turn, "It Don't Come Easy." Ringo being Ringo, it's a perky, crowd-pleasing performance. Then came two more cuts from George: "Beware of Darkness," which features Leon Russell as a guest vocalist, and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which teams George with Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Because of his crippling heroin addiction at the time, Clapton wasn't expected to show. Only with the aid of methadone did he find himself able to function (and not all that well). Apart from the Clapton drama, the performance is noteworthy because it was the first time that "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" had ever been done live (the same was true for "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something," which came later). Next was Leon Russell's change-of-pace medley of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Young Blood"; then George's delicate, stripped down rendition of "Here Comes the Sun"; and then the surprise of the night: Bob Dylan. Dylan hadn't been onstage in several years, and George had serious doubts he would make it. Though a nervous wreck, he did show, and the crowd received him rapturously. As depicted on the film, Dylan played "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Just Like a Woman." In that brief moment, the spirit of Sixties idealism was revived. Finally, once Dylan wrapped up, George returned to the mic and closed the show with "Something" and "Bangla Desh," which was the first charity single in pop music history. It was a day of many firsts.
Again, what a collection of songs. And, just as much, what a collection of musicians: George, Ringo, Clapton, Dylan, Ravi Shankar**, Billy Preston, Klaus Voorman, Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Badfinger, and more. That's an embarrassment of riches. George had cultivated many strong relationships over the years, and the Concert testified to how well-regarded he was. It was an event rooted in friendship.
Of course, a few of George's closest friends from the near past were conspicuously absent. In the early stages of planning, John expressed interest in playing, but he later backed out. George had stipulated that Yoko could not be involved, which apparently led to a dispute between her and John. After the Concert, the excuse John gave for his absence was that he had been on vacation in the Virgin Islands at the time. Paul, on the other hand, was a firm no from the start. He said that too much bad blood remained from the breakup. He couldn't stomach the thought of working alongside Allen Klein in any capacity.
In the end, it didn't matter. As with All Things Must Pass, the Concert for Bangladesh was George's moment to shine. To this day, it's still a major part of his legacy. The Concert started out as a noble cause but became a landmark event thanks to those superlative musicians and those classic songs.
* - The Concert actually consisted of two installments, but the film combined them into one.
** - I apologize for ignoring Shankar and the Indian music set. It holds little interest for me. I appreciate the craft but don't care for the creation.

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