In the fall of 2014, a variety of musicians, actors, and comedians came together onstage at Los Angeles’ Fonda Theater to celebrate the life and music of George Harrison. Under the direction of George’s son, Dhani, the evening provided an intimate and celebratory occasion for reverence and an opportunity to bring to life Dhani’s vision of honoring his father’s beloved body of work. Released late last month in four configurations: 2xCD/DVD, 2xDVD/Blu-Ray, 3xLP, and digital download, the aptly titled George Fest certainly tapped into a trove of well-known luminaries, who no doubt answered Dhani’s call for service with unfettered enthusiasm and responsibility.
Emceed by Conan O’ Brien (who also kicks off the musical portion with a nice rendition of “Old Brown Shoe”) and propped up by the enormously talented and versatile Cabin Down Below Band, George Fest features twenty-seven tracks worth of material. Covering the gamut of Harrison’s catalog from early-period Beatles all the way up to 2002’s Brainwashed, the set can’t be accused of cutting corners or cherry-picking favorites. There are songs that are easily sung along to and a few that are obscure enough to allow for a quick game or two of “Name That Tune”. What’s missing from the audio version (but somewhat more visible on the video versions) are many of those special between-song moments: the visual picture of artists getting lost in the vibes, the musicians swapping instruments, the knowing glances exchanged when certain chords are struck and lyrics are sung. Without these, listening to the songs consecutively in a row can become a little ill-suited as things come across more as a random parade and less of a collective celebration.
And, with so many songs being performed in succession, the material can sag a bit. This tends to happen in tribute shows where an audience’s patience can be tested. As performer after performer details what the honoree’s music means to them in person, as a fan, one is able to retreat to the restroom or the bar for needed respite. Similarly here, one may feel the need to hit the skip button to keep things moving along. While not necessarily bad interpretations, the selections from Brandon Flowers (“Got My Mind Set On You”), Ben Harper (“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)”, and Karen Elson (“I’d Have You Anytime”), do little to move the excitement needle. Similarly, the final tracks of the album’s second disc fail to bring the proceedings to a climatic crescendo. The Flaming Lips do their thing with the appropriately psychedelic “It’s All Too Much” before ceding the stage to all-cast-on-deck celebratory closings of “Handle With Care” and “All Things Must Pass”. The performers here have their hearts in the right places, but the results are heavily tilted in the direction of karaoke rather than tribute.
As for the songs that do work, they tend to fall from those artists with the ability to tackle the material from their own unique angle. Norah Jones aces “Something” as her hushed yet breathy vocals bring an aching sentiment of longing to the lyrics. On the second disc, she returns to breathe some country air into the underrated gem, “Behind That Locked Door”. Strokes’ guitarist Nick Valensi takes the rambling “Wah-Wah” a few steps further than even the original goes, extending the repeats on the chorus and jangling the guitars with harmonious repetition. And, though the arrangement to “My Sweet Lord” remains faithful, Brian Wilson tackles the accompanying lyrics with freeform bits of phrasing-a bit of falsetto here a couple of clipped endings and muffled notes there. It’s a definite “in-the-moment” performance, one where Wilson’s own peculiarities as a performer do justice to the source material rather than undermining the original intent.
Despite some inevitable flaws, this remains a solid project. There’s no doubt that Harrison’s work deserves the accolades and tributes that his son has respectfully provided. While listeners may not find themselves devoutly returning to this album over and over again, it certainly should inspire them to revisit and continually celebrate the mountains of original work Harrison has bestowed upon the world. He was truly a classic artist who won’t be forgotten.