Few countries in modern history have experienced such traumatic birth pangs as Bangladesh. Still reeling after a devastating cyclone and tsunami double punch that occurred in November 1970, the territory of East Pakistan declared its independence from Pakistan on 3/26/71, resulting in civil war, 1 million killed and some 10 million refugees fleeing into neighboring India. (A smallpox epidemic in early '72 caused many more deaths and even more suffering.) Desperate to help the nascent nation, internationally renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar prevailed on his old friend, ex-Beatle George Harrison, for assistance. The outcome was Harrison's awareness-raising single "Bangla Desh," as well as a follow-up benefit concert. Hastily put together in five weeks, the resultant Concert for Bangladesh raised a quarter of a million dollars, and many millions more when the concert album was later released. That concert (actually an afternoon and an evening show) took place in NYC's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, August 1, 1971, featuring an all-star band that would put future Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Bands to shame. It included Harrison and (a surprisingly low-key) Eric Clapton on guitars, Billy Preston on organ, Leon Russell on piano, Ringo and Jim Keltner on drums, Klaus Voorman and Carl Radle on bass, and Badfinger on acoustic guitars, amongst many others, including Bob Dylan. The two shows, which featured essentially identical set lists albeit in slightly different orders, were cobbled together to create one fairly seamless cinematic experience; released in March '72, "The Concert for Bangladesh" helped raise even more takas for the noble cause.
As for the music itself, the show kicks off with Ravi Shankar (along with Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, the great Alla Rakha on tablas, and a woman only listed as Kamala on the droning tamboura) doing a piece called "Bangla Dhun." Demonstrating the greatest sheer technical virtuosity of any song of the evening, this 17-minute piece jump-starts the evening nicely; those viewers who enjoyed Ravi's set in the 1969 "Monterey Pop" film should just love him here! Harrison and his mates then take the stage, diving into solid, straightforward renditions of three songs ("Wah-Wah," "My Sweet Lord" and "Awaiting On You All") from Harrison's "All Things Must Pass," the so-called "Crown Jewel of Beatles Solo Albums." Next up, Billy Preston sings "That's the Way God Planned It," trading some nice riffs with Clapton and galvanizing the MSG crowd with some hyperkinetic dance moves. Ringo offers up his classic "It Don't Come Easy," and then it's back to the "Crown Jewel" with a supernice version of "Beware of Darkness," partly sung by Leon. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" finds Harrison overpowering Clapton in the song's dueling finale; Eric's guitar seems very thin and submerged here, and truth to tell, I have seen the modern-day band Fab Faux cover this song much more impressively, with Jimmy Vivino always kicking tuchus during the final segment. Fortunately, the concert takes a dramatically dynamic turn when Leon Russell then performs the now-classic medley of "Jumpin' Jack Flash"/"Young Blood," easily stealing the show and leading to repeated FM airplays for years afterward. George and Badfinger guitarist Pete Ham perform a lovely acoustic version of "Here Comes the Sun" after this, and then Dylan steps up to give the audience four of his classics--"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (seemingly solo), "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," with Harrison providing tasty electric licks behind, "Blowin' in the Wind" (again, seemingly solo) and "Just Like a Woman," with George and Leon singing accompaniment. "Something," featuring a sweet guitar break from Harrison, closes the set, and a fitting encore of "Bangla Desh" brings the evening to a close. Thus, the show/film/LP/CD/DVD reveals itself to be not just a goodwilled example of artistic humanitarianism, but a musical experience that can be well enjoyed today, over four decades later. My only beef: no "Let It Down"?!?!