While Guitars Gently Weep
The Concert For George Harrison
Royal Albert Hall, London
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 29 2002
Before the show began, Hare Krishna devotees chanted outside as celebrities emerged from their limos. Ticket touts sold £150 tickets for 10 times their face value, and there was the strange mix of nerves, emotion and inevitable this-really-is-an-end-of-an-era tears.
But when the musical banquet was complete, Harrison's music resonated most profoundly. Amassing some of the finest musicians from both the Eastern and Western worlds, musical director Eric Clapton succeeded in highlighting all the elements that made his long-time friend a singular force in rock history. Ultimately, the show transcended mere obligation to become a great act of love and compassion, one that made the collective heart soar.
It began with the massed ranks of Ravi Shankar's choir and orchestra, offering up the meditative calm that inspired the Dark Horse's most innovative music. Clapton joined in on acoustic guitar, Jeff Lynne sang "The Inner Light" in Harrison's low-key but measured style. Suddenly the Indian maestro's suggestion that "George is here tonight, how could he not be when all who loved him so much have gathered to sing for him?" didn't seem at all unreasonable.
A reminder that a sense of merriment as much as meditation made Harrison tick came with a quick blast of Monty Python to open the second half of the show. You couldn't help thinking that the notoriously publicity-shy Harrison would have particularly approved of Michael Palin, in gold lame jacket, adopting his egregious Northern compere persona to debunk any lingering pomposity.
The music that followed simply blew it clean away. The cast of 26 supporting musicians—including Harrison's son Dhani, three drummers and Beatle acolyte Klaus Voormann—might have seemed excessive on paper. But the Lynne-led openers—"I Want To Tell You" and "If I Needed Someone"—brimmed with fiery intent and exultant celebration, an atmosphere that came to a dizzy peak with Gary Brooker's lethal "Old Brown Shoe". The near-faultless choice of songs was highlighted by the Clapton-led "Beware Of Darkness", a cauldron of veiled menace and deep dread.
The sense of stakes being raised, of everyone playing at the top of their game, continued throughout. After his daughter Sam had breathed fire and vigour into "Horse To Water", demoed by Harrison near the end of his life but rearranged here as a soul stormer, Joe Brown delivered a joyous "Here Comes The Sun".
With Dylan unable to make the trip, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers pulled rank, clearing the stage for a sizzling "Taxman" and a melodically poignant "I Need You". The Travelling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" was a miracle of delicacy, miraculously summoning both the lost soul of George and the late, great Roy Orbison.
Brushing aside rumours of illness, Ringo bounded on, looking fit and well. After a rollicking version of "Honey Don't" written by Harrison's idol Carl Perkins, Starr became the fourth drummer of the evening for the grand finale, an ending that highlighted The Quiet One as the most perceptive chronicler of the end of The Beatles dream.
There were actually a few giggles when Macca began a solo ukulele version of "Something"—but, gliding masterfully into Clapton's resplendent guitar and sweeping orchestral take-off, it became an awesome monument of rhapsodic wonder. Sir Paul's "All Things Must Pass" swelled with good grace and humility, Billy Preston's "My Sweet Lord" was an irrefutable blend of gospel sanctity and spiritual release, while Macca's tumultuous piano chords and Clapton's anguished solo wrung all the love and sorrow from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".
At the end of the show, Harrison's window told McCartney that watching Dhani on stage made it seem that everyone else had gotten old and George had stayed young. It was certainly the best sort of memorial; Harrison's greatest compositions brought to life in all their gleaming, deathless vitality.