"I didn’t cry. I wanted to but I didn’t because it was a joyous occasion."
That’s what Ringo Starr told me last night after maybe the most beautiful and saddest rock concert ever to have taken place at the Royal Albert Hall in London. There, under the domed theatrical palace that has hosted so many historic events, former Beatle George Harrison was memorialised by his friends and colleagues. The three hour concert took place on the eve of the first anniversary of Harrison’s untimely death at age 58. By the time Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Starr, Jeff Lynne and others were finished there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Starr, overcome with emotion, kissed and hugged McCartney as they left the stage.
The remarkable evening featured performances by the aforementioned, as well as Ravi Shankar, Tom Petty, Procul Harum’s Gary Brooker, "fifth Beatle" Billy Preston, and 60s U.K. star Joe Brown. Making the evening more poignant was the participation of Harrison’s incredibly poised and gracious 21-year-old son, Dhani, who helped organize the charity event and put the finishing touches on his father’s final album, called Brainwashed, which was released this week.
In the audience meanwhile were a panoply of guests including actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, director Richard Donner and his producer wife Lauren Shuler Donner, Beatles producer George Martin, as well as legendary R&B star Sam Moore, rockers Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Annie Lennox, actress Helena Bonham Carter and director Tim Burton, former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, and the two Heather McCartneys—Paul’s eldest daughter and his new wife.
Other musicians in the band included Traffic’s Jim Capaldi, whom The Associated Press confused with Joe Cocker. (AP also thought inveterate Beatles fan Jerry Rubin of Los Angeles was the late 60s activist Jerry Rubin of the Chicago Eight.)
Highlights of the show were Preston taking the lead on "My Sweet Lord," McCartney on "All Things Must Pass," and Clapton on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"—with McCartney on piano and Starr on drums. The stellar back-up band, which featured three drum kits, six guitars, and at least two sets of keyboards, featured such Beatle/Harrison stalwarts as Jim Horn and Tom Scott on horns, Jim Keltner on drums, and Jools Holland on keyboards.
Besides the musicians, four of the five original members of the Monty Python comedy troupe paid tribute to Harrison by reuniting for a hilarious skit. Only John Cleese was not present, but Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Neil Innes, and Terry Jones pitched in as a tribute to Harrison, who produced many of their films.
The show was Clapton’s idea. In January he called Harrison’s widow Olivia and suggested they do a show for the first anniversary of the death. In short order he had corralled all the stars, Olivia told me last night after the show.
The result was nothing less than brilliant. The first part of the show featured the music of Ravi Shankar, who told the audience Harrison had been like a son to him. Then the 80-year-old Shankar introduced his musicians, which included his own son and daughter, who performed a gorgeous choral piece that involved Eastern and Western musicians. Clapton played guitar for part of that presentation.
After a brief intermission, however, the Monty Python gang, dressed as Mounties, did their memorable "Lumberjack Song." When the Pythons were done accepting cheers, Clapton returned with Lynne and Brooker and they played Harrison’s most famous songs—"I Want to Tell You," "If I Needed Someone," "Old Brown Shoe," and "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)." Up to that point the audience was still adjusting to the mood in Albert Hall—somber, but enthusiastic. But then Clapton led the group through the haunting "Beware of Darkness"and I think that’s when you could feel something in the house. When he came to the line "Beware of sadness" the sold-out crowd of 5000 started taking off eyeglasses and wiping their eyes. There was no turning back.
Before Ringo came out to a standing ovation, some other artists added to the pathos. Preston joined Clapton on a lovely version of "Isn’t it a Pity," Tom Petty resurrected the Traveling Wilburys with "Handle with Care" and the entire band—featuring the terrific Sam Brown on vocals—did a recent Harrison song called "Horse to Water."
But I think the most revelatory moment of this part of the program came when Joe Brown—Sam Brown’s father and a journeyman musician whom no American has ever heard of—ambled on to the stage. The two men, I learned later, had become friends in the 1970s when they lived near each other. They played ukulele together. So Brown was assigned the task of singing "Here Comes the Sun" and a uke song called "That’s the Way It Goes." He was a curve ball, a dark horse among big stars, and the honesty of his heartfelt beautifully executed work charmed and disarmed the audience.
Brown was also chosen by Olivia Harrison to close the show with the old Gus Kahn chestnut, "I’ll See You in My Dreams" while rose petals fell gently from the sky. Under the lights of Albert Hall, though, they looked like gold confetti. It was an almost indescribably lovely end to the evening.
Dhani Harrison, who resembles his dad very closely, spoke just before Brown played. (McCartney told the audience that Olivia Harrison said, "Dhani looks so much like George it’s like we all got older and George stayed younger.") Dhani said, "From the bottom of my heart, thank you. You were my dad’s best friends. God bless you."
More tomorrow from London and the George Harrison tribute concert including my exclusive report on the after party. One unexpected guest was May Pang, John Lennon’s girlfriend during his famous "lost weekend" in 1974.