20 Years Ago: Concert for George Bids an Emotional Goodbye
Paul McCartney was struggling as friends and family gathered to pay musical tribute to bandmate George Harrison a year after his death – and not just with his emotions.
"Paul had to admit that he didn't know 'All Things Must Pass,' and that was an awful thing to confront," fellow performer Eric Clapton told Rolling Stone in 2003. "It was huge humble-pie stuff for Paul to be among these people who he may have thought had a better relationship with George than he did. But I believe Paul missed George as much as — if not more than — anybody."
Clapton had spearheaded the Concert for George, held Nov. 29, 2002, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Also on hand were fellow Beatles bandmate Ringo Starr, Traveling Wilburys bandmates Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, Indian music mentor Ravi Shankar and Beatles collaborators Billy Preston and Klaus Voormann, among others.
Emotions ran deep from the very beginning, as a traditional Sanskrit invocation was followed by more Indian music and then a rendition of the raga-inspired Beatles B-side "The Inner Light" performed by Lynne, Harrison's son Dhani and a special ensemble. "Oh, yeah, it was a scary one!" Lynne later admitted. "I mean, with Ravi standing right there."
Shankar wrote a song for the show called "Arpon," which is Sanskrit for "the give." The opening segment also included an interlude by surviving members of the Monty Python comedy troupe, for whom Harrison financed the 1979 film Life of Brian. Then a group of friends and former collaborators took over, including Procol Harum's Gary Brooker, Ray Cooper, Albert Lee, former Squeeze member Jools Holland, Jim Keltner and Andy Fairweather-Low.
Watch 'Something' From Concert for George
Lynne, Clapton and Brooker initially took turns up front, with Lynne returning to play "I Want to Tell You" and "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)." Clapton led the group through "If I Needed Someone" and "Beware of Darkness," while Brooker sang "Old Brown Shoe."
Dhani's presence onstage for "Beware of Darkness" led Harrison's widow Olivia to describe it as "the most excruciating song" from the Concert for George. "It was obviously very emotional for me to see him up there paying tribute to his dad," she told Rolling Stone. "And listening to George's words — 'Beware of sadness / It can hit you, it can hurt you, make you sore / And what is more, that is not what you are here for' — feeling so incredibly sad and trying not to be sad, taking George's advice."
In a nod to his formative influence on the event, Clapton remained a consistent presence. "It was his idea," Olivia noted. "He phoned me not long after George died and said, 'I'd like to do something.' Eric was a very deep friend of George's, so I felt confident and relieved that it was Eric coming to me."
Clapton took the responsibility very seriously. "Olivia had given me this job of being musical director," he told Rolling Stone, "to single out people for certain songs, and I found that really hard. We were all quite protective of our relationships with George."
Petty offered renditions of "Taxman" and "I Need You." "Handle With Care" found Petty, Lynne and drummer Jim Keltner returning to their time in the Traveling Wilburys, a band that never toured before losing Roy Orbison and then Harrison. "I'd resisted playing Wilburys songs," Petty told Rolling Stone in 2005. "But when we did the Concert for George, that was one Olivia asked us to play."
Watch 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' From Concert for George
Clapton and Preston dug into a searching update of "Isn't It a Pity" while the occasion gave new emotional gravity to Starr's version of "Photograph," which he'd co-written with Harrison. Out in the audience, Dave Grohl was moved to think about a personal moment of loss, when Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain took his life in 1994.
"As if the previous hour hadn't already been the most life-affirming jolt to my soul, Ringo's presence and this song, in particular, struck an unpredicted chord within me," Grohl remembered in 2021. "Here was a man, generously withholding his own grief of losing a dear friend and bandmate, spreading love and joy by sharing the most healing force in a time of mourning: music. ... I sang along at the top of my lungs."
McCartney's performances of "For You Blue" and "All Things Must Pass" bookended "Something," where he was joined by Clapton after beginning with a personally important acoustic interlude. "Sometimes if you'd go 'round to George's house after you'd have dinner, the ukuleles would come out," McCartney said as he introduced the song. "And one time not so long ago, we were playing and I said, 'There's a song I do on the ukulele.' I played it for him — [and I'll] play it for you now. It’s a tribute to our beautiful friend."
Clapton, McCartney, and Starr reunited for the White Album favorite "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and Preston performed "My Sweet Lord" before Joe Brown closed the Concert for George with another ukulele-focused song, "I'll See You in My Dreams." Harrison had loaned Brown an album with a similar version by Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards years before.
"I hadn't heard it on the ukulele until George sent it to me, and I started putting it in my show after that, sometimes as the encore," Brown told Ukulele Magazine in 2021. "When we did the Concert for George, Olivia came to me and said 'Would you do me a favor? Would you close the concert with "I’ll See You in My Dreams"?' Because she and George would often come to my shows, and she loved that song and George loved it. I was over the moon to be asked."
The concert was filmed and released as a David Leland-directed project, arriving on DVD and CD in November 2003. A Blu-ray version followed in 2011 and then a deluxe 10-disc box-set version in honor of what would have been George Harrison's 75th birthday in 2018.
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