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Eric Clapton isn’t sure his buddy George Harrison would have liked the idea of a tribute concert. But it was something Clapton had to do to work through the pain of Harrison’s death two years ago.
With “Concert for George,” Clapton and a stageful of Harrison’s mates are helping to ease the loss for a whole lot of the former Beatle’s fans, as well.
Performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall on Nov. 29, 2002 — exactly a year after Harrison died of cancer — “Concert for George” is an appropriate mix of solemn reverence and mildly bawdy levity in memory of the quiet yet slyly jocular Beatle.
Along with musical director Clapton, the concert gathers surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and other Harrison pals such as Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar and members of the Monty Python troupe.
Harrison’s wife, Olivia, is a producer on the film, and son Dhani, who bears a striking resemblance to his dad, joins in on guitar for most of the show.
“Concert for George” sticks mostly to Harrison tunes from his Beatles and solo career, plus his days with the Traveling Wilburys, whose members included Petty and Lynne.
Most of the requisite Harrison tunes are represented, though the quality varies widely depending on who’s doing vocals. Ringo’s a bit too much the Vegas lounge singer on “Photograph,” the early ’70s single he co-wrote with Harrison, but Clapton pours soulful melancholy into his vocals and sizzling fretwork on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Harrison might not have appreciated the notion of a memorial concert, but “I need to be able to express my grief in this kind of way,” Clapton says in an interview segment just before that number.
Tender tributes Some of the most heartfelt vocals come from Preston, who soars with gospel awe and exaltation on “My Sweet Lord” and takes the lead from Clapton midway through “Isn’t It a Pity,” which seamlessly segues from a hushed rehearsal version to an energized stage performance.
Python members Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones provide comic relief, including a rendition of “The Lumberjack Song,” featuring “guest Mountie” Tom Hanks on backup.
McCartney does a sweet ukulele opening on “Something,” which gives way to a stirring full-band orchestration led by Clapton. Lynne delivers some of the finest vocals of his career on Harrison’s Eastern-inflected “The Inner Light.”
Shankar’s composition in Harrison’s honor will appeal mainly to fans of Eastern music, and the interview segments that punctuate the number slow the movie to a crawl.
Director David Leland and his collaborators unwisely chose to intercut interview clips within some of the songs, yanking audiences out of the groove on Petty’s version of the Wilburys single “Handle With Care” or Joe Brown’s cover of “Here Comes the Sun.”
Luckily, the upcoming DVD version will include both the film and the unedited concert.
Gilliam recalls how Harrison always felt that after the Beatles split, their playful spirit was somehow cosmically transferred to Monty Python. Harrison’s own spirit — that blend of inner peace and wry bemusement over the “crackerbox palace” of the material world — lives on in “Concert for George.”