When I read interviews with Yoko Ono, I often get angry. Too many people are still asking her too many questions about John Lennon, and she is still dropping a resigned “my husband” into every other sentence whether the questions pertain to him or not. Beyond the tragic death of the late, great Lennon, Ono has spent nearly 30 years on music and performance in the service of world peace. She should respect her own solo legacy enough at this point to discuss it on its own merits, without constantly having to join herself at the hip to the ghost of a legend. It can’t be easy playing widow of a dead Beatle.
Nor can it be easy to be a dead Beatle’s son. Sean Lennon has his own struggle in the music business. So does Dhani Harrison. George is my favorite Beatle and I do try to keep up with his son’s musical endeavors. Dhani got to spend a great deal more time with his father than Sean did, and therefore must feel a particularly strong devotion to his legacy. With Lennon’s name recently licensed for a clothing line, it seems to me that the Harrison name is holding fast to more gravitas.
For the first anniversary of George’s death, Eric Clapton organized the Concert for George in 2001. It was an amazing tribute, studded with the stars who knew him best – Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr repping the Beatles, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty repping the Traveling Wilburys, Ravi Shankar repping a sense of spirituality and Eric Idle repping a sense of humor. They played 26 songs, both hits and B-sides, and the proceeds went to Harrison’s non-profit, the Material World Charitable Foundation. It was a pretty hard act to follow, but in 2014, Dhani nailed it. George Fest, the equally brilliant show with twenty-six songs and proceeds going to George’s non-profit, is finally available on CD/DVD.
Dhani stocked his stage with younger musicians who have fewer direct ties to George. This more millennial generation is faced with a philosophical problem of how best to cover historically significant songs: whether it is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous interpretations, or to pick up guitars and simply imitate George’s originals, to the extent that imitation is even possible. Most of the tracks do turn out to be faithful renditions that nevertheless fall short of full reproduction. There are two particularly great, more interpretive covers on the album: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club handles “Art of Dying” like they are auditioning to back up Garbage’s Shirley Manson, and Butch Walker’s frenetic “Any Road” would’ve made the Clash proud. Walker smiles with a snarl that was stuck in my head for days.
“Art of Dying” included the lead singer playing his own slide guitar parts, which was bold and able to succeed because he brought something new to the melody. Let’s face it: George was ace on slide guitar. The bulk of his solo work had an incredibly high degree of difficulty if you measure it solely by any other musician’s ability to reproduce George’s melodies with impeccable fidelity. Most of George’s original slide work is owned either by musicians who are not serving simultaneously as lead vocals, or by lap or pedal steel players.
This points to the need for cover band experts when you’re dealing with a catalogue like George’s, and Dhani did indeed assemble a worthy crew. For starters, you’ve got “Weird Al” Yankovic completely crushing it on the vocals on “What Is Life” with precise, open-throated wildness. A lot of people might look at Yankovic as an unusual choice, but George was so invested in humor as a mode of songwriting and Yankovic really has a sweet sound when he wants to show it off, so the whole thing works. But heavy-lifting throughout the show belongs to Jimmy Vivino, an excellent side man and leader of the Fab Faux tribute experience. Ben Harper manages to sing and play at the same time, but said he had to work super hard on the slide to get it right. Matt Pynn on pedal steel does some lovely turns, as does Austin Scaggs on bass.
Dhani was wise to choose the Cabin Down Below Band for backing, as they deliver steadily on the instrumentals and leave star singers free to focus on the lyrics. I was struck over and over again by the female vocalists, and there are many. This is one vast improvement over Concert for George, which was completely a boys’ club. Norah Jones does two stand-out turns with “Something” and “Behind That Locked Door". The Black Ryder is haunting on “Isn’t It a Pity” and Ann Wilson does her thing marvelously on “Beware of Darkness". Chase Cole and Heartless Bastards also hold their own. Somehow, many of these performances emphasize George’s vibrato a little more cleanly than the male vocalists were able. George had such a uniquely honeyed voice, and the ladies paid stronger tribute on that score.
As far as song choice, many participants made spot-on choices. true to his glam sensibilities and driving ambition, Brandon Flowers tackled George’s last number-one single, the 1987 cover of “(I’ve) Got My Mind Set on You". Nick Valensi, of the often on a break and much internally conflicted band the Strokes, showed a great deal of sympathy for the frustrated complaints running through “Wah-Wah". Perry Farrell showcased his secret inner well of optimism in a slow-drip version of “Here Comes the Sun". The best overkill came courtesy of who else but Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips, on what else but “It’s All Too Much", featuring a masterfully discordant solo by Gingger Shankar on double violin.
And then there is the dangerously powerful Dhani himself. George Fest showcases Dhani’s sameness and difference from George in equal measure. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is nowhere to be heard. Casting aside the heaviest of his father’s legacy, Dhani instead picks some of his own favorite songs his father performed live only infrequently, and delivers top notch renderings of pieces that have actually been seldom heard. The outcome is a beautifully sighing “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)” and a bouncy ear-worm in “Savoy Truffle".
He could’ve gotten Eric Clapton up there and sung it right to him, as George did, but Dhani doesn’t. When Dhani wants to touch the legacy nerve, that too is done in a subtle way. For “My Sweet Lord", we must confront none other than Brian Wilson. Plainly speaking, Wilson’s vocal is terrible compared to every other singer’s extreme technical proficiency on stage that night. And he barely touches the keyboard in front of him. Still, the yearning and the hurt emblazoned across the sound of him thinking through George’s lyrics with everyone chanting “hallelujah” behind him -- to say it’s a mystical moment or a passing of torches moment isn’t really enough to do it justice. In his interview clip, Wilson speaks directly to George and he does so in the present tense.
There are several good full-cast jams. The gentlemen collaborate with Dhani on the Wilbury’s “Handle with Care", audibly evoking not just the noises of George, but also the ghost of Roy Orbison and almost hilariously good impersonations of Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. Again, Dhani could’ve gotten Petty and Lynne, no doubt -- but he is working on something arguably more important here than what Concert for George hoped to accomplish. When the ladies come on stage and join Dhani for the finale of “All Things Must Pass", I found myself recalling Ed Hamell’s brilliant story-song about this phenomenon, titled “John Lennon”: “While getting my baggage at LaGuardia Airport, I found myself next to his son, Sean -- tall, handsome like his father with his mother’s beautiful eyes, the son Lennon never got to see become a man. And now that I’m a father, I understand this more than ever. It was then I noticed: I was crying.”
Because all things must pass, we look for the George inside of Dhani. We look for the Harrison vibe alive inside modern music. A concert for George is not the same as a festival of him. George Fest emphasizes the influences of the dead among the living, and invites a crop of younger, less acclaimed musicians to cast forth their gratitude for the musical interests that bind them together with their historical favorites. Dhani Harrison is absolutely right -- this type of thing should emphasize the “tribute” part much more than the “legacy” part. George has already done his heavy lifting. I’m pleased to see Dhani holding his father’s burden dearly, but lightly.