The new Rhino DVD of the movie The Concert For Bangladesh is an interesting proposition for a number of reasons.
Historically, it was the first superstar benefit rock concert of all time, with the noble aim of donating the concert, album, and film proceeds to the victims of the famine of 1971, the same year of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan; the death toll was one of the worst ever for a famine; the country was war-scarred.
Musically, it was ex-Beatle George Harrison’s public debut as a solo performer; at 28, he was riding high from his 1970 triple-album All Things Must Pass, which had gone to #1, outselling his former band mates and gaining significant critical acclaim.
Filmed August 1, 1971 at Madison Square Garden, it marked a rare appearance by the then-elusive Bob Dylan who steals the show. Also present were Eric Clapton (post-“Layla” and mid-heroin addiction; it was a rare appearance for him, too), keyboardist Leon Russell (who was flirting with superstar status in those days), organist Billy Preston (who provides the most joyous note of a fairly solemn show), a dual drummer set-up of Ringo Starr (John and Paul were invited, but declined) and Jim Keltner, regular Beatle session man Klaus Voorman, hotshot young guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, Clapton sideman Carl Radle on bass, sax player Jim Horn and the Hollywood Horns, sitarist Ravi Shankar, a Bangladesh native and responsible for asking his friend Harrison to help in the first place, and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a sarod master.
Harrison had to bail out of producing a Badfinger album he was midway through, so perhaps as a consolation prize, all four members of Badfinger strum acoustic guitars throughout the show.
A very large group of anonymous background singers also appear.
The scope of this concert was monumental for a stage show; it was co-produced by Harrison and Phil Spector (seen briefly backstage with the musicians), and was an ambitious attempt to present a bona-fide Phil Spector wall-of-sound experience with a hard rock band.
In that final aim, the album only half succeeded at the time; the albums weren’t of particularly good fidelity; the highs (like Preston’s organ), and lows (like Radle’s bass) always sounded kind of murky. The first CD’s committed the unpardonable sin of speeding up the master tapes a noticeable fraction in order to squeeze what had been a triple disc onto a double disc.
Also disappointing was the film, of which not many prints were made, and those that circulated on the midnight-showing circuit usually showed considerable battle scars by the 90’s; the only print I ever saw was a spliced, choppy mess.
The new Concert for Bangladesh DVD, therefore, is a chance to set things right. Which it does; the film is beautifully restored. And the sound is mixed clearly and cleanly; I’ve never heard the nuance of each individual musician so clearly before, and it breathes life into the wall-of-sound; when the rock segment of the film kicks off with “Wah Wah”, one of Harrison’s best-ever riff-rockers, the presence of the band is felt.
The film, directed by Saul Swimmer, is a straight concert film with little in the way of cinematic surprises. The best moments are all musical. The show (there were actually two shows, one matinee, one night performance) opens with Ravi Shankar’s “Bangla Dhun”. After the audience mistakenly applauds the tuning, Shankar and his musicians launch into a sprightly piece based on a Bangladeshi folk song; the dual he and sarodist Ustad Ali Akbar Khan reach on their respective stringed instruments is incredible in its intensity, and sets an appropriate mood for the occasion.
Harrison, who was never shy about expressing his faith in music, frontloads the first part of the program with two religious songs after the opener of “Wah Wah”; the recent #1 hit “My Sweet Lord” and the wall-of-sound-dense “Awaiting On You All”; these are followed by a rousing performance of Billy Preston’s lone Apple hit, the joyous Gospel-rock of “That’s The Way God Planned It”; Preston’s animated performance and exhuberance, as he dances across the stage, is the closest anything gets to pure showmanship. A red-eyed Ringo comes up next with his solo hit “It Don’t Come Easy”; he blows the lyrics (and a whole verse), but gets a rousing hand nontheless.
With the exception of Preston’s number, nothing so far is particularly earth shaking, although all of it (except Ringo’s song) is quite solid. However, the film picks up from this point considerably; most of the best moments come after the first seven songs.
“Beware of Darkness”, an All Things Pust Pass song, gets a great hillbilly-bluesy-soul vocal on a verse from Russell. Harrison introduces the band and launches into “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in which Clapton takes a solo; Leon Russell gets to lead the band through a souped-up medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Youngblood”. An earnest-looking Pete Ham of Badfinger, whose acoustics aren’t heard despite the restored sound (as Spector himself said, some instruments are meant to be “felt” not “heard”), gets a moment of audible time in the spotlight as he plays an acoustic duet with Harrison on “Here Comes The Sun”.
And then comes the Dylan set. Harrison introduces Dylan, who comes out with an acoustic and a harmonica, and without acknowledging the audience, begins his mini-set with “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”, while the band turns their amps down to barely audible level, playing a muted country/folk, while Dylan’s voice and acoustic get to star in a very dim spotlight, everyone else in darkness. Dylan had been erratic at the time; this was one of his first high-profile post-Self Portrait appearances. He plays it straight; his rendition of “It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” is by the book, even if his vocal has an edge to it. “Blowin’ In The Wind” is given reverence. His highlight is when he shares vocals with Harrison and Russell on “Just Like A Woman”. The original version had been taunting, but this version is full of regret and hurt, even as he stays true to the arrangement.
After Dylan, the band launches into “Something”. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Clapton doesn’t take the solo; he plays hunched in the shadows (and he’d remain in shadows for a couple of years at least), very much the sideman through the whole show, which really is Harrison’s moment. The encore is the specially written “Bangla Desh”, essentially a plea for donations, but also one of Harrison’s heaviest hard rock songs.
The movie looks better than it ever has, and sounds better too. Harrison, who died four years ago, was overdue for some sort of re-appraisement of his solo work; The Concert For Bangladesh, which had always been an okay-sounding affair, really does sound much better now. Harrison’s guitar playing is excellent; seldom has he taken such an upfront role. Indeed, he seldom took the stage again; except for a mis-begotten 1974 tour of the U.S. and a better-received 1990 tour of Japan with buddy Clapton, Harrison never played live again.
As for the DVD: Beyond the rehabilitated movie, there’s a 72-minute limited-edition second disc full of goodies. First up is a documentary The Concert For Bangladesh revisited; the first thing we get to see is an also 28-year-old Geraldo Rivera, already with trademark handlebar moustache, reporting from the Garden.
The documentary repeats a lot of clips from the film, but also has recent interviews with Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Jim Keltner, Ravi Shankar, and plenty of behind-the-scenes figures. There are some interesting stories; the band had a week to rehearse, but Clapton, due to his addiction, didn’t show up (Clapton addresses this frankly in his interview). Harrison grew frantic as the concert drew near and he had no guitarist. Somehow, word got out, and guitarists with amps in hand started congregating outside the hotel where the band was staying. Plucked from the mob as a stand-in was Taj Mahal guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. Clapton finally showed at the last minute, not in the best of health, and both guitarists played the concert. Also a mystery was Bob Dylan, who wasn’t confirmed as late as the night before. There are some interesting candid rehearsal scenes in the documentary as well.
Also included on Disc 2 are three unseen performances, “If Not For You”, sung as a duet by Harrison and Dylan during sound check; “Come On In My Kitchen”, a Russell-Harrison duet, also done during sound check, and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (Dylan and the band from the afternoon show)
The packaging is excellent; a nice new cover on the heavy-cardboard box, an inner box with the original artwork, a glossy reprint of the original souvenir booklet, with a new forward from Ravi Shankar, and a nice message from the George Harrison fund for UNICEF, which continues to collect money for programs in Bangladesh to this day.
Obviously, any Beatles fan worth his salt ought to have this, but its appeal is wider. Dylan fans ought to have it too, not just for his performance, but for his outtakes, too. This is pretty much a last hurrah for Phil Spector fans. It was one of the most important events of rock in the 70’s, a template for future superstar concerts, few of which match this one for the quality of music.
It’s nice to see this worthy film be given such a nice restoration job, and Harrison given such an attractive package. It might make someone a nice stocking stuffer…
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