The Concert For Bangla Desh
George Harrison and Friends
Released: December 1971
Chart Peak: #2
Weeks Charted: 41
Certified Gold: 1/4/72
The Concert for Bangla Desh is rock reaching for its manhood. Under the leadership of George Harrison, a group of rock musicians recognized, in a deliberate, self-conscious, and professional way, that they have responsibilities -- and went about dealing with them seriously:
My friend came to me,
Heard at the end of the album, during the concert's single greatest performance by all concerned, the simplicity of the lyrics takes on a new and powerful force. For by then they are no longer an expression of intent but of an accomplished mission -- help has been given, people have been reached, an effort has been made and results will be felt.
With such names as Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and finally, Bob Dylan, involved, the concert would have been an enormous success no matter how it was planned or run. But part of the record's beauty is that Harrison staged a concert worthy of his purpose in every respect. With such an array of talent on hand, he created a program that miraculously avoided comparisons with any previous super-shows by staging it not as a collection of individual performances or fixed sets, but as a revue. His presence throughout undermined from the beginning the superstar quality of the evening and put the emphasis on the concert as a fraternal gathering of musicians devoted to a single charitable purpose. Seen in that light, his introduction of Ravi Shankar at the beginning of the concert is particularly moving, as is the inclusion of a full side of Ravi's music.
George's personal intentions resonate when he begins his own performance with "Wah-Wah," a simple statement by a musician who knows who he is and what he wants to play. "My Sweet Lord" and "Awaiting on You All" have a rough quality to them characteristic of most of George's performances on the albums. His efforts, with the exception of "Here Comes the Sun," are production numbers that required the participation of all the musicians. It is no wonder that on one number the chorus is noticeably off-key, or that on another the guitars occasionally clash with each other. More important than any technical imperfections that remain in the performance was George's decision not to tamper with the original tapes. By the end of the performances on side two we feel fully in the middle of a true musical experience. George's songs had already been heard once in perfect productions -- either on Beatle albums or on All Things Must Pass. I don't mind it all being a little rough around the edges when the quality of the music runs this deep. On "Awaiting On You All" it is exhilarating to hear his voice clearly singing the song for the first time, likewise the excellent guitar. And it is great to have a version of "My Sweet Lord" in which the emphasis is on the voice, words, and guitar, instead of on the sound as a whole.
"Beware of Darkness" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" features George with two other talents, Leon Russell and Eric Clapton respectively. The vocal duet on the former comes as a terrific surprise, one of the concert's best-balanced moments musically, a performance of almost stately proportions. Eric Clapton receives the largest applause the line-up and he then duets on guitar with George on a driving version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The song remains possible the best that George has written. Eric's performance on guitar only reminds us how inactive he has been lately and how much so many of his admirers would like to see him contributing again. His last album, Layla, was surely his best and one can only hope that he will pick up where he left off soon.
To me, Leon Russell's performance represents the one incongruous note in the program. Part of the brilliance of the concert is, first, hearing so many people who we are not used to hearing live at all, and, secondly, hearing musicians we have always admired playing with each other on stage for the first time. With the exception of Russell, nobody did a piece from their live sets -- in most instances because the artist doesn't do regular live performances. It was all something fresh, original, and unexpected. While Leon's music here is as dazzling as ever, during his set the concert suddenly became a Leon Russell show and I have heard that before. Good as his actual performance is, his conception of the role was too commonplace for an event as special as this.
George's capacity for pacing and timing is nowhere better illustrated than in his next move. Following the high's of Russell's rock performance, he had the stage completely cleared so that when he introduced the next guest there would be no need for further delay. He then went into an acoustic performance of an enormous Beatle hit, thereby accomplishing two things: he brought the level of the music down from full-scale rock to a quiet, acoustic sound and he did it without losing his audience for a second due to his brilliant choice of song, "Here Comes the Sun," to which he gives a superb performance, with the assistance of that excellent Apple band, Badfinger.
All of which led perfectly into Bob Dylan's performance. The 17 minutes of music he offers us here is certainly the best he has released in recent years. While conceived of as a special sort of greatest hits performance, the selection of tunes was merely a vehicle for Dylan to exhibit another new vocal style -- a style so rich and perfectly suited to him I can't help wondering why he immediately changed it again when he recorded the new material for Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. The performances are all great but "Just Like a Woman" sung with a sort of fierce, personal, but musical, determination is surely the best of it, one of the two or three great moments on the set as a whole.
And of course, how does one come back out after a set by Dylan that literally takes the roof off of the Garden, but with another enormous Beatle hit: And so George offers up a superb version of "Something" and then he is gone and back with what is again, for me, the album's most meaningful moment, the group performance of "Bangla Desh."
Besides everything else, Bangla Desh was a great show, brilliantly put together by an artist who not only knew how to assemble a lot of great musicians but had an instinctive feeling for how best to present them and their music with honesty, dignity, and maturity. The total effect was that the event did justice to everyone connected with it. The idea of an enjoyable rock show as a vehicle for aiding starving refugees never becomes incongruous precisely because both musicians and audience conduct themselves with such self-respect.
In particular, George Harrison emerges, from the introductory remarks to Ravi Shankar's set to the closing of "Bangla Desh," as a man with a sense of his own worth, his own role in the place of things, and as a man prepared to face reality openly and with a judgement and maturity with few parallels among his peers. As much as the music contained within the package, the spirit he creates through his own demeanor is inspirational. From the personal point of view, Concert for Bangla Desh was George's moment. He put it together; and he pulled it off, and for that he deserves the admiration of all of us.
- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 2/3/72.
Anyone lucky and/or privileged enough to attend last summer's George Harrison and Friends concert at Madison Square Garden has known for months that the music which was played there was absolutely unforgettable. But as the days grew shorter and the time drew nearer for the release of this three record set, there glimmered a doubt that the magic -- the historical significance -- the pure joy -- of that evening could be captured in something as mundane and limited as the grooves of a 33 1/3 disk. But those qualms should be dispelled now that the album is upon us. And "upon us" is the proper phrase: the music here practically jumps right out into your life.
Where do we start? Side five consists entirely of Bob Dylan in live performance. And, as if a time machine had dropped unnoticed through the roof of the Garden, it is the Dylan of the early-Sixties -- the freedom-riding, defiant young man who laid the groundwork for so much of the rock and roll which we now take almost for granted. As he does "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and "Blowin' In The Wind," you can hear the silence of an awestruck, almost disbelieving crowd. And when he finished "Just Like A Woman," with Leon Russell and George Harrison singing harmony and Ringo Starr playing tambourine, it's enough to make you cry and smile at once.
A close runner-up in terms of impact, if not emotion, is side four wherein Leon Russell rips through "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Youngblood," serving firm notice that if Dylan and the Beatles are the royalty of rock, he is very much an heir to their thrones. Harrison himself is in spendid voice for eight of his own compositions including "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Something." Aided by Pete Ham's acoustic guitar, he delivers an outstanding performance on "Here Comes The Sun."
But enough of this attempt to single out individual highlights in an album which is one consistent high. By the way, after you've sampled the musicianship of Harrison, Russell, Starr, Dylan, Clapton, et. al. you might want to return to side one, on which Ravi Shankar, the most masterful and accomplished of them all, plays with a sensitivity born of his love and concern for the people of Bangla Desh -- the people aided by the proceeds of the concert and the album.
- Ed Kelleher, Circus, 3/72.
The Concert for Bangla Desh was a special moment, a gentle attempt to let the power of rock help a lot of people hurt a little less. It was also special because we are just coming out of a curious time when our most important artists, our heavy dudes, refused to show themselves in public, preferring mythmaking to performing. But in addition to George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Leon Russell, Bangla Desh even managed to lure Bob Dylan out of the woodwork -- signaling that the times, they are, indeed, a-changing. If the supergroup didn't set off the spectacular sparks that might be expected, it did generate the best vibes that have happened for a while -- and enjoying that sweet taste alone is almost worth the regrettably (and unnecessarily, if stories about uncharitable record companies are to be believed) high price of the album. There are many textures: Leon Russell whooping through "Youngblood," Dylan barely electrified and tooting the harp again on "Just Like a Woman," George Harrison delicate and moving on "Something." It's a concert we'll all remember and, since five dollars per album goes to Bangla Desh relief, it's a concert we all should own.
- Playboy, 4/72.
To mark the 20th anniversary of Harrison's famed all-star benefit at Madison Square Garden, Capitol has issued this two-CD set that contains all 18 tracks from the long-unavailable 1971 Apple live album. The original liner notes and booklet art are included, though the photo pages lose their impact in the downsized CD insert. Luminaries appearing alongside the ex-Beatle include Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, and Billy Preston. In keeping with the intent of the concert and the album and film that followed it, all proceeds from the reissue will go to UNICEF.
- Billboard, 1991.
A unique live document showcasing Harrison near his best, with ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and many other superstars. It has less-than-perfect sound but overall fine re-creations of his best work, with work by Bob Dylan as an added bonus. * * *
- Bruce Eder, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
The Concert for Bangladesh is rightly enshrined in rock history as the model for Band Aid, Live Aid, Live 8 and every other superstar benefit concert of the last three decades. George Harrison organized it when his friend and teacher, Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, told him about a massive humanitarian crisis taking place in East Pakistan and asked if the former Beatle could do anything to help. Harrison called on Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston and a host of other luminaries to perform two shows at New York's Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1971. The concerts raised $250,000 -- a significant amount at the time -- and the subsequent album and film (which has just been released on DVD) added far more to the total.
In emphasizing the concert's idealism, however, it's easy to overlook what a musical gem this two-disc set is. The musicians are inspired not only by a lofty sense of purpose but also by the thrill of playing alongside two Beatles. This was the first time any of the Fab Four had performed since the group broke up the year before -- not to mention the first time that Harrison had led a band live. When you hear the opening roar of "Wah-Wah," you know that not one of the many musicians onstage was willing to let him fail.
High points? Take your pick. Shankar movingly evokes a world of suffering swept up into transcendence in a spectacular seventeen-minute duet with sarod virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan. When keyboardist Russell, who had not been introduced, drawls a verse of Harrison's "Beware of Darkness," you can still feel the thrill of recognition shoot through the crowd. Harrison's and Clapton's guitar lines wrap around each other like lovers on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And Russell's rollicking medley of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the Coasters' "Youngblood" is sly, sexy and fun.
And then there's Dylan, who had performed only rarely since his 1966 motorcycle accident. Up until the moment of his introduction, Harrison wasn't sure his friend would even show up. Did he ever. Backed by Harrison on guitar, Russell on bass and Starr on tambourine, Dylan's acoustic renditions of songs such as "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Just Like a Woman" (a previously unreleased version of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is also here) are splendid -- filled with the beauty and conviction that have become the legacy of that righteous day. * * * * *
- Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone, 11/3/05.
Pull this out whenever your faith in the power of music begins to wane. Go directly to Billy Preston's spine-chilling "That's the Way God Planned It," which is performed with a star-studded house band. Turn it up. Listen as the organist and singer takes a packed Madison Square Garden through several minutes of uplift -- first a purposeful sing-along hymn, then a rollicking double-time jubilee. It's pure bolts of energy, live on stage.
This set is worth the retail price just for that track. And for the opening raga, which features Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan in a beautiful twenty-minute discourse. And for the well-chosen songs by Bob Dylan, who'd only performed on stage once in the previous five years. His set includes "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Just Like a Waman," which features background vocals by Leon Russell and the concert's organizer, George Harrison, along with Ringo Starr on tambourine.
It's worth having just to hear Russell link the Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" to the Coasters' doo-wop classic "Youngblood." And it's also essential for Harrison's turn, which features songs from All Things Must Pass as well as several Beatles compositions. Among these is "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Eric Clapton is on stage, and he and Harrison engage in one of the more thrilling two-man guitar explorations in rock. As they finish each other's thoughts, the two extend and amplify the song's intent: You haven't heard the full gamut of gentle (and not so) guitar weeping until you've heard this.
Organized by George Harrison to help Bengalis made homeless by the 1970 Bhola cyclone, the August 1971 concert stands as the first large-scale example of rock activism. Its successes were more than monetary: Harrison and his cohorts focused the attention of the West on problems in a remote, far less affluent part of the world, and showed generations of celebrities how to use their media profile to raise cash and consciousness. Many significant fund-raising events have happened since; few have been as musically consequential as The Concert for Bangladesh.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
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