It’s completely fair to suggest that George Harrison created the template for modern-day benefit concerts with his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. And while it may be an overstatement to declare the art of the sit-in, so ultra-fashionable today, was reinvented during these shows in August of that year, there’s no denying the high drama arising from Bob Dylan’s appearance(s) at Madison Square Garden some fifty years ago.
It’s also perfectly reasonable to say the late George Harrison never besmirched the legacy of the Beatles during the course of his solo career. No question he overworked himself in the recording of and preparing for touring behind his Dark Horse album of 1974, but that’s an excusable faux pas in comparison to instances of public drunkenness and drug bust committed by his Liverpudlian peers. Meanwhile, his solo debut of All things Must Pass, for its slight blemishes in composition and production, far surpassed the quality of Lennon and McCartney’s earliest work under their own names: both men suffered artistically without the presence of the other, the former turning strident in his self-serving sloganeering, the latter insufferably precious in his once irresistible charm.
In gestures of generosity comparable to (if not quite equal) to Harrison’s own, the musicians who agreed to comprise the band allowed George to replicate the Phil Spector ‘Wall of Sound’ density of the aforementioned first album under his own name. Jim Keltner drummed alongside Ringo (who got a tremendous ovation and sang his hit “It Don’t Come Easy”), while Badfinger added not only vocal harmonies and percussion but extra layers of guitars. It’s a tribute to all their intrinsic skills and professionalism that this performance is so laudable, as least as captured here, largely from the evening show.
Tuning occasionally took an inordinately long time—just prior to the suitably urgent rendition of “Bangladesh,” for instance. But for so large an ensemble, including a corps of singers and a horn section, the musicianship still sounds practiced and to the point, no mean feat given the relatively short time to prepare, roughly a week prior to the designated date. And there’s no sense of overworking arrangements, even the most famous tunes like “Something:” as the penultimate selection, it not only compares favorably to the studio rendition from Abbey Road, but may actually stand superior, sans the overly-conventional orchestration Beatles producer George Martin arranged for it.
Perhaps as means to echo the interplay of the Indian musicians led by Ravi Shankar that open the two hours plus, Eric Clapton’s stinging solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” off The White Album gives way to something of a duel with his good friend and frontman. Meanwhile, the all-star lineup also lent itself handily to the astute pacing of the show(s—there were two, afternoon and evening): how to follow Leon Russell’s uproarious crowd-pleasing medley of “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Youngblood”?.
Why, with one of the bandleader’s most beloved contributions to the Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun,” then Bob Dylan’s five-song mini-set. Featuring “Just Like A Woman” and “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry,” among others, the Bard was confident as he was patient, in good voice throughout, with nary a hint of the self-consciousness that plagued his reunion tour with The Band three years later. The future Nobel Laureate’s public appearances were as few and far between as ex-Beatles at this point in time–none had resumed regular touring–so while the very thought of an otherwise high-profile occasion such as the Concert For Bangladesh was provocative enough in and of itself, what actually ensued transcended the hopes and expectations of both artists and audience.
Its release in a three-LP vinyl box set a half-century ago was delayed for three months due to protracted negotiations between Harrison and the record companies involved, the money gleaned from this charity event was subsequently tied up even longer because of tax issues. Such obstacles were removed by the time of the theatrical release of a film in 1972, however, and, later on, the issuing on CD set as well as DVD helped aid in the flow of funds. All of which contributes practically and conceptually to the precedent George Harrison and friends set for charitable music events as well as the prevailing image of socially-conscious musicians in general.