Want to see where all the rock star charity concerts got their start? Judge Bill Gibron recommends this historic moment in music, a truly inspirational and moving performance by one of the greatest assortments of artists ever.
A moment in history—and a hell of a concert as well.
It's a cliché, but the basic premise is still true—back in 1971, the concept of a concert involving an ex-Beatle, a bevy of his famous friends, and a virtually unknown charitable cause was the most radical of political and professional ideas. After all, George Harrison was just coming into his own as a solo artist (he was riding a wave of well-won admiration for his classic All Things Must Pass album) and his proposed cohorts, including Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, were in some manner of seclusion from their substantial superstar careers. That all three would end up on the same stage would not just be a miracle, but a timeless moment in music history that many were sure would never occur.
And just what was this Bangladesh thing, anyway? Though the 1960s had ushered in an awareness of all things Eastern and Indian, most people wouldn't have known about the thousands of dying refugees, escaping the escalating war between India and Pakistan, that the show was trying to support. Beyond how fashionable a Nehru jacket looked, most fans didn't fathom anything Asian, let alone the level of international aid and involvement needed. So to enlighten as well as entertain, to bring the problems of the East to the pampered and privileged West and throw in a little major musical amusement along with the plea seemed well intentioned, but practically impossible.
Leave it to Harrison, the most thoughtful and openly spiritual of the Fab Four to pull off this amazing harmonic convergence. Over two shows on August 1, 1971, the one-time moptop joined with his drum-playing bandmate Ringo Starr and keyboardists extraordinaire Leon Russell and Billy Preston, and with additional help from Badfinger, old bass-playing pal Klaus Voormann, and additional percussionist Jim Keltner, assisted by the production prowess of one Phil Specter, The Concert for Bangladesh did occur. Clapton arrived (though at the very last minute) and decided simply to play expert sideman for everyone else's performances.
Dylan was a far more questionable prospect, however. Up until the moment he took the stage, there was a distinct possibility that he would bail on the entire project. He was still in a kind of post-motorcycle accident exile, and wasn't sure if such a showcase was "his scene." He eventually took the stage and delivered what has to be the keynote of the entire concert—his reading of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." In the end, the massive Madison Square Garden crowd raised $250,000 from ticket sales alone. After months of work and meticulous preparation, a three-LP box set of the show hit the market. It sold millions of copies and eventually won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1972.
All of which leads to the final media machination of the event—the concert film. Dozens of 16mm cameras covered the show and it was up to director Saul Swimmer to put together an accurate representation of the musical magic made that night. Surprisingly, he managed just fine. The Concert for Bangladesh is a milestone for many reasons, but along with such other seminal films as Wattstax and T-Rex: Born to Boogie, it still fails to fully resonate with a modern-day audience. True, it's not a post-modern deconstruction of the entire performance process like the Talking Heads' historic Stop Making Sense, or the boffo bookend of an era like Woodstock, but it certainly holds its own with other examples of the live jive clique. Indeed, what The Concert for Bangladesh has that so many modern concert films lack is one simple word—musicianship. Oh, sure, most performers can call up their catalog with direct-from-the-groove reenactments, making the line between show and shill that much more meaningless. But when you see Harrison hold his own with Clapton as Ringo and Keltner pound out the basic blues beat to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," you understand the inherent nature of music and the exhilaration that comes from expert players performing at their peak.
The song selection here is heavy on Beatles/Harrison hits, but there is also a nice sampling of some standards, and a blistering set from Bob. Here is a list of what one can expect during the show:
• (Indian Music Set—Ravi Shankar and
The first thing you notice is how ageless the entire show is. Sure, Leon Russell's double dose of old school sleaze rock ("Jumpin' Jack Flash" sounds positively smutty) may reek of the dino days of the early 1970s scene, but to hear the astounding Ravi Shankar rave up the arena with his resplendent raga, no unenlightened fan could possible deny its foreign flavor—or its pure aural bliss. It is a transcendent moment in a concert filled with them. Too bad there is so little of the native noise in this set. In our new world order mindset of the post-millennium, such diverse sounds are welcome. Equally effective are the moments when the band steps back and lets Harrison pluck the pop song perfection that is "Here Comes the Sun." Along with some help from Badfinger member Pete Ham, the bare-bones reading of this stellar Beatles track is—dare say it—more beautiful than the recorded version.
Thanks to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound proclivities (there are no less than seven guitarists, two drummers, and eleven backup singers on stage), the All Things Must Pass tracks are flawless. "My Sweet Lord" is particularly effective, as it gives a nice complimentary spirituality to the gospel workout to come from Bill Preston. Many fans may frown at knowing that Slowhand himself fails to entertain with a solo moment, but his accompaniment work is wonderful. Though his shining moment should have been the blistering basis for the Beatles classic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," he more or less falters when given free reign to riff away. Instead, he is masterful during "Something," sending the ballad into a bombastic fretting frenzy.
And then there is Dylan. Looking rather down (it was long rumored that he didn't want to play, and he especially didn't want to perform "Blowin' in the Wind"), but bucking up for the cause, his quartet of classics is simply remarkable. "Like a Woman" takes on a life of its own when Harrison and Russell join in on the chorus and the aforementioned reading of "Hard Rain" is regal. Taken in total, this is a concert promoting substance over style—not just the cause, but the case, for these musicians' amazing talent and skill. One has to remember that Harrison had not really performed solo before, and had stopped touring with his previous band—a little something called The Beatles—around 1966. So for him to take the stage and play was indeed something decisive. But he completely commands the arena, putting across his sincerity and his mysticism so profoundly that one cannot help but be moved. Indeed, the entire concert was a faultless amalgamation of idea, environment, and follow-through.
Perhaps the reason more benefit shows didn't immediately pop up in the wake of Bangladesh's bravado is that it was indeed something very special. Everyone knew that it could not be recreated, and even today's superstar roundups can't compete. Live 8 and the like are just individual showcases—a Billboard chart compendium of competing acts. The Concert for Bangladesh was about a band and a bunch of performers who wanted to put their moxie and musicianship where their money was. The result is a truly historical moment. As a film, director Saul Swimmer doesn't do anything fancy. He simply lets his cameras record the action and then edits it in a way to accent and compliment, not complicate, the songs being performed. For Dylan, that means many solitary close-ups. When Harrison helms "My Sweet Lord," the lens pulls back, showing the entire band.
There is not a lot of banter between songs, as Harrison wants to keep the focus on the songs. But Swimmer doesn't always stay on subject. He will sometimes allow his viewfinder to fixate on something silly (Leon Russell chugging a Coke) or reflective (Billy Preston's impromptu dance during "That's the Way God Planned It"). Modern techniques in ADD concert filming have definitely rendered the look of this motion picture as quasi-lost and dated, but the music will never fade away. Both as a cause and as a concert, it remains a true bounty for Bangladesh.
Rhino, in conjunction with Apple and UNICEF, have delivered a definitive package of this landmark performance. Newly remastered from the original 70mm negative, the film looks phenomenal in its 1.33:1 full screen format (sorry 16x9 fans). Yes, there is some minor grain, and the stage lighting renders everything very red and ruddy, but the overall effect is pristine and nearly new. Indeed, anyone who has seen concert films from the 1970s will instantly recognize how superior this transfer is.
On the sound side, the stakes are raised even more substantially by the addition of a new soundtrack. The original analog version of the film is here, as are both sparkling 5.1 facets (Surround and DTS). While all three are sensational, the DTS wins out for its crystal clarity and impeccable sense of space and separation. Phil Spector wanted crowd noise to be front and center in the mix—he loved the whole "live experience" ideal, but the two multi-channel tracks balance everything out expertly. No one thing overwhelms the music and you can hear individual instruments as they add their special spice to the creative din.
Not stopping at terrific tech specs, Rhino also offers a bonus disc of supplementary material. The most impressive, sadly, is not the 45-minute documentary on the event. Certainly, it is informative and captures the spirit of the show well, but since Harrison is not physically present (we only hear his voice) and many of the performers are just pleased to reiterate how great the experience was, we don't gain a lot of valuable insight into the overall concert production or experience. There are tidbits along the way (Dylan's reluctance, the decision to ditch a couple of songs), but for the most part, this is a pleasant trip back that keeps the good vibrations of the benefit alive and intact. More interesting are the previously unseen performances by Dylan ("Love Minus Zero"/ "No Limit"), Bob and George (a rehearsal duet on "If Not For You"), and a ballsy band jam (featuring Leon Russell's vocals) on the Robert Johnson classic "Come On In My Kitchen."
Equally compelling are the mini-features, little filmed bits that describe different aspects of the Bangladesh story. We learn how the movie was edited and meticulously blown up to 70mm, frame by frame (The Making of the Film), hear about the album mix (The Making of the Album), and experience the iconic cover and inserts (The Original Artwork). Along with some additional recollections, a nice recap of the musicians and minds involved (Take a Bow), and a booklet that recreates the original LP insert, this is a fine DVD package of a landmark rock-and-roll moment.
Though it may seem disingenuous to get all worked up over something that seems like a common occurrence in our present pop culture landscape (a major catastrophe hits—an all-star concert follows fairly quickly), this is truly something special. Nearly 35 years ago, without the benefit of 24 hour cable news and globetrotting reporters, the story of the brutality occurring in Bangladesh was a revelation to those concerned about world issues—and so was the concert that tried to address the issue. Reliving it all now decades later does not diminish its impact one bit. Beautifully performed and flawlessly executed, The Concert for Bangladesh is a live-act classic. Fans of fantastic music should not miss it.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Concert for Bangladesh Revisited" -- Documentary
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