George Harrison's guitar no longer weeps. But Friday night at the Royal Albert Hall, some of his closest musical friends and comrades paid tribute to the late former Beatle in a concert that managed to summon up the spirit of both a raucous past age of rock-and-roll and the quiet man who was at the center of it.
The two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, shared the concert stage with Eric Clapton, Harrison's onetime rival and longtime friend. Clapton organized the show, dubbed "Concert for George," and led an all-star band, which included cameos by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, former Beatles session man Billy Preston and Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra, who was Harrison's band mate in the Traveling Wilburys.
Four members of the original Monty Python, Harrison's pals and favorite comedy group, reunited for a suitably deranged skit, and Anoushka Shankar, Ravi Shankar's sitar-playing daughter, led an ensemble of Indian players and singers through a symphony for George composed by her father, who was sitting alongside Harrison's widow, Olivia.
A giant portrait of Harrison, who died of cancer a year ago at age 58, hovered above the stage. Equally eerie was the presence of his 24-year-old son, Dhani, whose slender body, dark flowing hair parted in the middle, pear-shaped face and brown eyes are almost the exact match of his father. "Olivia says with Dhani up onstage, it looks like George stayed young and we all got old," joked McCartney at one point during the three-hour festivities, which raised money for the Material World Charitable Foundation, Harrison's personal charity.
As the rockers of the '60s approach eternity, memorial concerts like this one are bound to become more commonplace. It was one thing when pop stars died young from drugs or booze or an overabundance of horsepower in their sports cars. But to succumb to the diseases of age, mourned by musicians who are themselves visibly aging, is altogether more poignant and powerful. In a sense, the musicians onstage, as well as the predominantly middle-aged crowd that packed the hall -- tickets were sold out within an hour after the box office opened last month -- were contemplating their own mortality as well as mourning George Harrison's.
He was the youngest of the Beatles -- a mere 20 when their first single stormed the charts -- and the most uncomfortable with the tidal wave of fame, fortune and adulation that swept them up, rewarded and tormented them. His talents as a songwriter and musician were overshadowed by those of John Lennon and McCartney, but he helped drive the group's sound with his relentless if rudimentary lead guitar playing and lilting harmonies. He also served as musical innovator, introducing the '60s generation to Indian music and philosophy. When the Beatles broke up in 1970, he released "All Things Must Pass," a sprawling three-record set that produced the No. 1 single "My Sweet Lord," and led to the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh, which pioneered the concept of rock concert as global charity fundraiser.
After that, Harrison seemed to fade into the background. He despised the music industry and released only a handful of albums. He also founded the Handmade film company, which was responsible for Monty Python's "Life of Brian" and a half-dozen other notable British films. But as time went on, he seemed to retreat for longer and longer periods to his 38-acre estate in Henley-on-Thames, west of London, where he pursued gardening, entertained his musician friends and hid from an ever-voracious public. He grew even more reclusive after Lennon's murder by a crazed fan in 1980, even stopping his occasional lunchtime forays to the local pub.
His last few years were not easy ones. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997, underwent surgery and seemed to have recovered, but in 2000 the cancer was found to have recurred and spread. In December 1999 a crazed intruder managed to break through the estate's elaborate security system and stabbed Harrison 10 times with a knife before Olivia knocked him out with a table lamp.
Harrison went back into the recording studio a year or so before his death, with help from son Dhani and longtime friend Jeff Lynne, a multi-talented record producer. The result, which they completed after his death, was "Brainwashed," released last month to favorable reviews.
But none of the tunes from "Brainwashed" was featured Friday night. Instead, the concert began with Ravi Shankar's 40-minute musical tribute, "Arpan," which Shankar said meant "to offer" or "to give." "George was like a son to me," he told the crowd. "I strongly feel that George is here tonight."
After a short break, the portrait of Harrison in long hair, mustache and Indian garb was replaced with an older photograph of a cleaner-cut youngster in his proper early-Beatles suit and tie, cradling a Gretsch electric six-string. Out came the Pythons and a few helpers dressed as waiters for a brief singalong number, after which they turned around to reveal bare bums behind their aprons, followed by the equally perverse "Lumberjack Song" led by Michael Palin.
Then came the guitars. Clapton led the all-star band through a tight set of minor Harrison classics, beginning with "I Want to Tell You" from the Beatles' "Revolver" and including "If I Needed Someone," "Isn't It a Pity" and "Beware of Darkness." Petty and his band almost stole the show with a version of "Taxman" that managed to be both blistering and laconic at the same time, followed by the sweetly plaintive "I Need You" from the Beatles film "Help."
But things got turned up another notch emotionally when a grinning Ringo Starr bounded onstage, flashed V signs to the entire room and sang "Photograph," which he and George co-wrote in 1972:
Every time I see your face
It reminds me of the places
We used to go.
But all I've got is a photograph
And I realize you ain't coming back anymore.
"Of course it has a different meaning now," he declared.
Then Ringo introduced Paul McCartney, and the hall erupted. The cheering heightened when he pulled out a ukulele -- one of Harrison's favorite instruments for after-dinner singing, he said -- and started strumming "Something," perhaps Harrison's most famous song. Halfway through, the band joined in, Clapton gracefully unveiling the slow-motion guitar solo, then harmonizing with McCartney the same way that Paul and George had done on the "Abbey Road" album 33 years ago.
From there it was bedlam to the end, including a mournful "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," with Clapton again leading the way, embroidering the guitar solo he first unleashed on the original in 1968, and a soulful "My Sweet Lord."
It finished with Joe Brown, a longtime Harrison chum, strumming the old standard "I'll See You in My Dreams" as thousands of flower petals descended from the ceiling and the audience melted into the chill London evening.