Soundtrack-My Sweet Lord, etc.
For better or worse I found myself listening to a lot of George Harrison’s music the past few days. Particularly two tribute concerts-the “Concert for George” performed at the Royal Albert Hall one year to the day of his death, and “George Fest” performed in September of 2014 by a collection of classic and contemporary rock artists (and hosted by his son Dhani). Generally as a rule I find covering any Beatles material (and most of their solo material) to be in bad taste. It is rarely possible to live up to the original genius, and often times the songs are just plain difficult to reproduce. However, these concerts showed a unique quality of George’s music. They illustrate that his music is the exception that proves the rule, and is possibly even better and more accessible in the hands of others reverently reproducing the notes.
Song after song by “The Quiet Beatle” are handled with such care and given vibrant life in the hands of these performers. I found myself lost in the songs in ways that even the original Beatles and All Things Must Pass albums could not move me. Throughout his tenure in the Beatles, George often suffered from being outshone by his more prolific writing peers in Lennon and McCartney. Only with the masterful “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something” did George finally step fully into his own stature. Seeing these songs alsongside his other work in tribute helps his mastery to shine all the stronger.
His solo material is another matter altogether. The surprise of hearing freshness in his solo work has to do with the original production of the All Things Must Pass album. On this album Phil Spector brought his classic “Wall of Sound” approach to every track. The soft and mellow songs such as “If Not for You” and “Isn’t It A Pity” are beautifully rendered, but the rockers like “What is Life” and “Wah Wah” use layer upon layer of horns and vocals to nearly bury the melodies and intricate guitar work done by George. In concert, the covered versions of each song unleash the latent power in George’s compositions. I was stunned to find myself drawn in by the new versions of these songs.
“My Sweet Lord” has held particular resonance in my brainwaves the past 72 hours. It is the seminal Harrison song drawing on the spirituality for which he is known, bridging Eastern and Western theology (and also potentially plagiarizing Motown with his incredibly catchy melody). The spirituality of the song speaks to me as a Christian and as a pastor, but there was particular power in the presence of the legendary pseudo-fifth Beatle, Billy Preston, presenting it as a gospel chorus to a welcoming congregation of thousands during “Concert for George.” Though Preston has his own version of the song in his repertoire, there is something unique about this version. In Preston’s hands “My Sweet Lord” is not only the classic rock jam composed by Harrison, it suddenly transcends into another realm of song. As the jangly acoustic guitars chime in and Billy begins singing, this song is suddenly transformed into a joyous moment where a song of remembrance becomes a hymn of praise and healing for the grieving friends making music to honor their loved one.
When Preston and the crowd all sing together “I really want to see you, Lord, but it takes so long, my Lord…” it’s like I can feel the weight of the grief and the release of the joy in the relief that everyone in the room (and everyone listening in on that moment on the recording) is sharing in the journey. It’s a song of company for the road ahead. It’s a song of peace. I find my story fitting in the song, my longing to know and be known, my own hopes and failures…and also that nobody is alone. Hallelujah.
There are moments in “George Fest” that have a similar transcendent spirit. Seeing Dhani Harrison make music with Norah Jones offered a particularly surreal experience. She sang “Something,” “Behind That Locked Door,” and assisted with “All Things Must Pass.” In these moments we are witnessing the children of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar continuing the story and legacy of their parents, taking up a mantle of musical prowess and bringing the rest of us along in their wake.
Norah Jones’ voice is particularly suited to sing George Harrison’s music. She has a wonderfully understated presence that compliments the understated nature of George. “Something” comes across here in a subtle and beautifully textured manner. So often this song is covered with so much drama. Here the meditative moments reverberate, and the crescendo of guitars does not overtake the moment.
I’m a fan of having a soundtrack to my day. These songs have brought depth to the everyday moments. They have been a refreshing presence to help me offer my own self more deeply to each task, moment, and relationship in front of me.
For better or worse I found myself listening to a lot of George Harrison’s music the past few days. Really, though, just for the better.