Monday 19 March 2018

George Harrison: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

'Unknown Delight - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of George Harrison' is now available to buy by clicking here! 


I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway). Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to (in some cases) last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! As for George, well he probably played less gigs than any other AAA artist (barring Lennon), with around seventy-five shows  in total across a thirty-one year solo career (with another 500-ish as a member of The Beatles of course, it's not as if he was sitting with his feet-up or had a phobia or anything) which has made picking out the most important ones a bit trickier. George wasn't a natural spot-light-loving performer either; he was, after all, the Beatle who first wanted to stop touring complaining that he couldn't be heard at gigs and only went back on his word for matters of great global significance (the BanglaDesh shows), slowing album sales (the 1974 'Dark Hoarse' tour) or when he really really needed the money (the 1991 Japanese tour). However the live concerts are an under-rated part of George's canon as a result and the fact that we have two live albums to enjoy at a ratio of 75 gigs played (with another show screened live on US telly) also means that Harrison's live career is better represented on record than most (though that half-planned live album from 1974 never did come out and probably never will!) Here, then, are five live shows, remember this is la-la-la-la-live!
1) Where: Madison Square Gardens, New York When: August 1st 1971 Why: First Charity Fundraiser and So Much More?! Setlist: [24] Wah-Wah [23] My Sweet Lord [34] Awaiting On You All [31] Beware Of Darkness 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' 'Here Comes The Sun' 'Something' [38] Hear Me Lord [45] Bangla-Desh (plus Dylan, Preston, Shankar and Russell songs)
We've already spent a whole review studying this gig, but it's too important not to mention again with so many 'firsts' about it: George's first live gig, the first time two Beatles were seen together on stage since 1966 and the first concert organised purely to raise funds for charity with none of the musicians getting paid a cent (not even travel expenses). Actually there were two gigs, at 2.30pm and 8pm, George figuring that as he had Madison Square booked for the whole day anyway the band might as well perform twice and raised double the funds with the exact same show repeated again (although, typically, Dylan's set was shorter the second time round!)The gigs were hard work to organise, especially at short notice, but it's measure of both the music world's big heart and their respect for George that he actually ended up with too many people on stage offering support and Harrison later talked about his grief at having to turn so many artists down (we don't know who though - presumably artists he hadn't worked with before given how many of his friends were on stage with him).  For the people who went one of the biggest surprises - not much remarked on now it happens all the time - was the presence of a 'film' taken from TV reports of the BanglaDesh disaster that was shown on the 'big screen' while the roadies were setting up the instruments in between Ravi's 'Eastern' set and George and co's 'Western' one. The music of course was largely great, despite the odd fluffed line and the clear speed with which the concerts had been arranged and everybody left feeling as if they'd seen a special show, maybe the first of many - which, sadly, legal hassles through Apple and the Inland Revenue put paid to, with George too grumpy and perhaps too shy to go through the whole thing again without his 'buddies' alongside him. Note though how many of the line-up will return for the 1974 Dark Hoarse tour and the Harrison tribute 'A Concert For George' in 2002, showing just how friendly George really was with the musicians who agreed to help him - and Ravi - out for this gig. The BanglaDesh shows may have taken a while to get the funds where they were needed, but it's the shows that keep on giving - literally with funds raised from the CD re-issues, the DVD and the first legal downloads all continuing to help UNICEF, not to mention all the other charity gigs the show inspired, Live Aid included. George remains the only Beatle mentioned by name at a meeting of the United Nations (when these gigs were singled out for praise by UN General Kofi Annan as an 'example' of what the world's artists should be doing) with at least $12 million raised to help UNICEF in BanglaDesh (this is a 1980s figure that misses out on those re-issues - the total is probably more like $20 million nowadays).
2) Where: Pacific Coloseum, Vancouver, Canada  When: November 2nd 1974 Why: First Gig Of First Tour Setlist: [59] Hari's On Tour (Express) [53] The Lord Loves The One That Loves The Lord [51] Who Can See It? 'Something' 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' [48] Sue Me Sue You Blues 'For You Blue' [47] Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) 'In My Life' [63] Maya Love [65] Dark Horse [26] What Is Life? [23] My Sweet Lord
George put on the BanglaDesh shows in 1971 because he wanted to raise money and awareness for a good cause. He put on his North American 1974 tour because he couldn't stand being in an empty house without wife Patti anymore. Those facts alone spoke volumes about the mindset behind them and the way the shows were perceived, even though there wasn't actually that much difference between them (both sets of gigs featured Ravi and Billy as 'special guests' for instance). For crowds, though, there were a number of things that meant the 'Dark Horse' shows never quite hit the spot: George's new songs ('Dark Horse' was a far less popular album than 'All Things Must Pass' had been), the treatment of old songs (lines got tweaked for Beatle classics 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' and 'For You Blue' whilst Lennon's 'In My Life' was nearly unrecognisable as a brass-filled weepie ballad sung by Billy Preston) and George's failing vocals, which meant he largely stuck to guitar and all too often handed his vocals to his keyboard player. Throw in a couple of badly rehearsed jam instrumentals, the horrid 'The Lord Loves The One That Loves The Lord' right at the beginning and an overlong Ravi Shankar set partway through the show rather than beginning (as the BanglaDesh gigs had been) and a Beatle who was clearly a little lost, depressed and overwhelmed and you can see why this tour went down as such a disaster. Which is a shame because, at times, the shows really spark nicely on bootleg: 'What Is Life?' and 'Dark Horse' especially have a real gutsy rawness that really suits them and once you're used to them the renovations of old Beatle classics make some sense (even 'In My Life' which is, after all, a song about never being able to stand still that sadly never did get played in concert by its creator Lennon). Some of the audience loved it too - including an incognito Paul and Linda McCartney who happened to be in New Orleans recording the Wings album 'Venus and Mars' in early 1975 when George and co were passing through - they sat through the whole show in wigs and hats and through they'd gotten away without being spotted before the girl in the seat next to them turned round and said 'it was good wasn't it Paul?!' Loyally they spoke in the press about what fun they'd had, while Billy Preston (who never asked to sing any lead vocals) is the show's standout star, friend enough to lend a hand on the vocals and sounding great despite the boos he often received - but the press and some of the fans (heard booing throughout the set at some gigs, though admittedly others offer rapturous applause) weren't having it and this forty-five show tour (way too many for a nervy and often inebriated performer like George to get through) ended up being pegged a 'disaster' by fans, critics and George himself. He wouldn't be seen on stage for another eleven years and wouldn't set off on another tour for another seventeen. There is, so we think, a rough cut of at least one of the shows sitting in the Harrison vaults somewhere (with two songs leaked on the internet) probably with the soundtrack of a few others taped out there worthy of release - plus many a bootleg taped in poor sound by the fans in the audience (who actively grown whenever Ravi or Billy walk up to the microphone!)
3) Where: National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, UK When: March 15th 1986 Why: 'Heartbeat '86': Twelve Year Silence Broken! Setlist: 'Johnny B Goode'
Oddly, 'BanglaDesh' didn't set an immediate prescient for all-star musical fundraising shows. 'Live Aid' in 1985, however, did and it seems strange in retrospect that George and Ringo weren't at least asked to appear either alongside Paul's closing set or on their own (a measure, perhaps, of just how far George had sunk into anonymity in the years before 'Cloud Nine'). Harrison doesn't seem an obvious candidate to appear at this show either - a fairly low-key even organised to raise money for Birmingham's Children's Centre and mostly featuring Brummie bands. George probably got the call from two ways: a casual friendship with Denny Laine (then at war with McCartney) and organiser Bev Bevan of The Move, who knew George's current collaborator Jeff Lynne well (ELO reformed for the event and headlined, alongside The Moody Blues - marking their first time on stage with Laine since he left the band in 1966 - and UB40). Sadly George got rather lost amongst the throng, too nervous and out of practise to agree to playing his own set so he popped up on the all-star jam at the end instead, a rollicking version of Chuck Berry classic 'Johnny B Goode' (last performed by George as part of The Beatles on a Saturday Club show on February 15th 1964!) Sadly George doesn't appear on the fundraising single 'Action!' either. Largely forgotten by the history books, this is a key event in Harrison's career not so much for the show itself but because it started the process of George slowly coming out of his touring hibernation - a much higher profile 'birthday' gig for Carl perkins alongside Ringo followed shortly afterwards.

4) Where: Yokohama Arena, Japan When: December 1st 1991 Why: Second and Final Tour Setlist: 'I Want To Tell You' 'Old Brown Shoe' 'Taxman' [47] Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) 'If I Needed Someone' 'Something' [26] What Is Life? [65] Dark Horse 'Piggies' [137] Got My Mind Set On You [127] Cloud Nine 'Here Comes The Sun' [23] My Sweet Lord [101] All Those Years Ago [138] Cheer Down [133] Devil's Radio [25] Isn't It A Pity? 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'

By 1991 George was itching to go on tour again for various reasons: partly financial as the Handmade Films law suit was still hurting his pockets and Friar Park was costing a lot to upkeep, but also partly because son Dhani was by now a twelve-year-old music addict and had never actually seen his dad play a live show. George was still nervous after the pasting his last tour got though and wondered aloud to best friend Eric Clapton if it was really worth it organising a band and putting up with the press when he could just stay at home with the plants? Eric came up with the perfect compromise, 'loaning' his own band to George and teaching them Harrison's pick of songs himself so he wouldn't have so much work (as wel as playing the 'opening' act himself) and telling George that they could start the tour in Japan where reviewers were much kinder to bands from the West than in Europe or America (the idea being that George would love it so much he'd tour both of them as well - though in the end George put the tour on hold 'indefinitely' and the tour never did make it out of Japan). The tours were a big success financially and commercially, with George - the first Beatle to tour Japan since the mid-1970s given Paul's heroin bust there in 1980 and John's half-planned tour the same year sadly cut short by his murder - received like a God. Unfortunately, though, he didn't often play like one. Deeply rusty after so many years away and missing home and hearth (even if his family travelled with him) George sounded out of sorts the whole tour (judging by both the official live album recorded in the middle of the tour and the bootlegs around of the beginning and end). The biggest problem is that he still isn't rehearsed, ad libbing a few extra lines in his Beatle tunes that he hadn't bothered to remember and deliberately revising others (most notably changing 'It's only me and not my mind' to 'it's not me and just my mind' on 'I Want To Want To Tell You'), while leaving pretty much all the guitar solos to Clapton to perform. Shakey and wobbly throughout, George sounds like he'd rather be anywhere else but on stage and it's a sad way for his regular gigging days to come to an end. The fans and critics were kinder, but the best summary comes from Dhani's disappointed re-action to the first show: 'Why did you do so many of your own songs dad? They're boring. Why don't you play a set of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins instead?!' George, tickled, added 'Roll Over Beethoven' as an encore at every subsequent show!

5) Where: Madison Square Gardens, New York When: October 16th 1992 Why: Final Gig! Setlist: [27] If Not For You [142] Absolutely Sweet Marie

George's last ever stage performance was, typically, nothing much to do with George at all even though there were so many parallels with the first for 'Bangla Desh' twenty-one years earlier. George was back at Madison Square Gardens backing Bob Dylan as he decided to change the set-list on the spot again - it was as if no time has passed at all! This time round though George didn't have to organise a thing and the shows were there to celebrate Bob's thirtieth anniversary in show business - at the time something of a record! Sadly The Traveling Wilburys didn't perform their one and only live gig as rumoured before the shows and instead George and Bob together duetted on their old 'All Things Must Pass' co-write (never played live before) and then George sang a song of Bob's that was later released as on the official live recording 'The 309th Anniversary Collection'. Neil Young, also performing, dubbed the night 'Bobfest' during his show a nickname which stuck! Not the best way for George to bow out perhaps, but then he didn't know it was at the time, with the last songs Harrison sung on stage being the decidedly odd 'Now here I stand, looking at your yellow railroad, in the ruins of your balcony, wondering where you are tonight'.


Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) Most covers of George's songs are invariably of his Beatles' work: 'Here Comes The Sun' and 'Something', especially, are ripe for re-plucking being famous the world over, but we've decided to dig a little deeper and select a few from his solo catalogue instead. We've also ignored the plentiful cover versions of [137] 'Got My Mind Set On You', by far the most covered track associated with 'solo' George, because strictly speaking that was a cover anyway (though not that many people knew this Rudy Clark number before George sang it). There are, after all, lots of other lovely cover songs out there to list. George, in turn, was a keen practitioner of using covers to promote other people's music (with two Hoagy Carmichael covers in his discography plus an Everly Brothers and a lot of Dylan) so we're sure he'd have appreciated this little list more than most - and indeed played on quite a few of the best Harrisong covers around anyway!
1) [35] All Things Must Pass (Billy Preston, 'Encouraging Words' 1970)
George's 'apology' for taking [23] 'My Sweet Lord' off Billy and using it himself after first promising it as an 'exclusive' was offering him the pick of any other Harrisongs he fancied. Billy, already a participant in the 'Let It Be' sessions where 'All Things Must pass' had been rehearsed, asked for this song and it was duly produced for his second 'Apple' album released shortly before 'All Things Must Pass'. This is a very different version, arranged by Billy with George's knowledge and approval, featuring schmaltzy strings and an almost crooning kinda voice unusual for the soul singer. This version of the song sounds more like a 'standard', or an upbeat gospel number, and lacks the quiet intimacy and emotion of George's. It's still a strong reading through, especially the massed choir harmony and Billy's improvisations that interestingly focus on the 'happy' side of the song rather than the 'sad' ('I'm so glad that it's gonna pass!') I actually prefer it to the better known cover of [23] 'My Sweet Lord' from the same record, which is a little bit too clap-happy in its new arrangement (even if the new funky beat works surprisingly well!)
2) [25] Isn't It A Pity? (Nina Simone, 'Emergency Ward' 1972)
Actually it was Lennon who had the Nina Simone fetish growing up (the 'Nowhere Boy' film makes constant use of her 'I Put A Spell On You') but Harrison who got the 'cover' after the Civil Rights activist bought a copy of 'All Things Must Pass' and fell in love with this song. A simple olive branch of peace and equality regardless of gender, religion or race, it sounds like a lot of her own politicised work. George's song of weary resignation wasn't quite working for her as it stood though so Nina became one of the first people (other than Sinatra at least!) to change the lyrics to a Beatle composition. As well as altering the arrangement, making the song bluesy and upbeat and replacing Phil Spector's production with a simple piano part, Simone improvises 'Forgetting to give back, forgetting to say thankyou, forgetting to give a note right back, isn't it a pity?...We're all the same, we're all guilty...Mankind has been so programmed to have nothing to do with care...I don't think it's applicable to me, the beauty that surrounds them, child isn't it a pity?!' The main theme the song keeps returning to though: 'Can't they see we're all the same?' Some fans hate it for messing round with history, but to these ears it works, slowly building up verse by verse as Nina swaps the song around, picking and choosing the parts that resonate with her and throwing in a few of her own observations. The moment when a band finally kick in, some three and half minutes in, turning this into a singalong epic works pretty well too. Surprisingly this song is amongst the most covered of George's solo career, with another nine more recorded covers including one more straightforward version by Matt Monro at the end of his career and yet another version by Billy Preston. 
3) [24] Wah-Wah (Ocean Colour Scene, 'A Hyperactive Workout For The Flying Squad' 2005)
I like Ocean Colour Scene. While other reviewers tend to laugh at them a bit nowadays for switching so readily from the grunge with which they started to Britpop and most people only know them today for their best-selling 'Mosely Shoals' LP they shared Oasis' brilliance for updating the past to sound like the (then) present with enough of their own distinctive flavour to be more than just another 'nearly' Britpop band. They clearly owned a good record collection between them too with some excellent obscure covers, of which this one might just be the best. Caught halfway between George's simple demo and Phil Spector's fireworks factory, this spin on George's bitter tears makes a similar amount of noise merdly from the meshed guitars. The arrangement is simpler, the drumming is more basic and the guitars sound tinnier than usual, but the sudden surprise very 1990s horns and the power of the massed echoed vocals works really really well. Funkier and rawer than the 'Pass' take, singer Simon Fowler clearly finds something in George's lyrics that he identifies with too and the result is a highlight of perhaps the band's patchiest CD (though 1999's very CSN-ish moment 'Profit In Peace' is still their crowning glory).

'Extra Texture (Read All About It)' (1975)
'Thirty-Three And A Third' (1976)

'George Harrison' (1979)

‘Somewhere In England’ (1981)
‘Cloud Nine’ (1987)
'Brainwashed' (2002)
'Hidden Harrison - The Best Unreleased Recordings'
Live/Compilation/Spin-Off Albums Plus The Occasional Wilbury
Non-Album Recordings 1968-2001
Surviving TV Appearances 1971-2001

Essay: Why The Quiet Beatle Always Had So Much To Say
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Songs

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