The afternoon show
The first Concert For Bangla Desh took place at 2.30pm on Sunday 1 August 1971. Harrison was nervous, having not played in public since December 1969 – and even then being part of Delaney & Bonnie and Plastic Ono Band.
This time he was the focus of the concerts, and was particularly nervous about the prospect. He opened the show by introducing Ravi Shankar and his musicians Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), Alla Rakha (tabla) and Kamala Chakravarty (tamboura).
The Indian musicians performed a traditional dhun titled Bangla Dhun. There is anecdotal evidence that they may also have performed a second piece lasting up to 45 minutes, but no recording supports this. Regardless, the set was politely received by a somewhat restless and anticipatory audience.
While the stage was cleared a brief clip from a Dutch television station was shown, which included images of the atrocities and natural disasters that had befallen the stricken area.
There was a short intermission where we used seven minutes of a film we had from Dutch television because the BBC, in London, wouldn’t let us have it because it was politics. They had a good film showing exactly what was happening and they wouldn’t let us have it for some political reasons so we had to try and find a film because I didn’t want the audience to be a crazy, rock ‘n’ roll audience. I wanted them to realise what it was all about. So I showed them this film and it really brought the audience down. Then we came on and did the rock ‘n’ roll.
Harrison, wearing a white suit and orange shirt, then took to the stage with a band comprising Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner and others. They performed Wah-Wah, Something and Awaiting On You All.
This was followed by Billy Preston’s performance of That’s The Way God Planned It, and Ringo Starr’s It Don’t Come Easy. Harrison then returned to centre stage for Beware Of Darkness and While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which included a duet with Eric Clapton.
Clapton almost didn’t take the stage, suffering as he was from heroin withdrawal. His girlfriend had failed to score the drug on the street, and he only managed to perform after a cameraman gave him some methadone.
Leon Russell played a medley of Jumping Jack Flash and Young Blood, before Harrison performed Here Comes The Sun for the first time on stage. He and Badfinger’s Pete Ham played acoustic guitars, and a gospel choir provided further vocals.
Bob Dylan then arrived on stage to audible gasps from the audience. Harrison later said “It was only at that moment that I knew for sure he was going to do it,” such was the reluctance of Dylan to commit.
Right up until Bob stepped up on stage, I didn’t even know if he was coming … The newspaper adverts couldn’t say ‘Bob Will Be On’ because he never comes on. He never comes up. He sits at home and reads it in the paper and then he doesn’t want to come. So I had to say, ‘We’ll put an advert in the paper, which will say ‘George Harrison And Friends’, and we sold two concerts just on that, so everybody else was a bonus for the audience. They didn’t really know who was coming. Bob came because, first of all, he knew it had sold out anyway and he decided he’d like to do this to help a good thing. It was only the night before the concert that we knew he was going to be on the show, but even then it was touch and go. He could have gone home again.
Dylan performed a five-song set, backed by Harrison, Leon Russell on bass guitar, and Ringo Starr. They performed A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Blowin’ In The Wind, It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry, Love Minus Zero/No Limit and Just Like A Woman.
The evening show
The reaction to the first concert pleased Harrison and Dylan, who went back to the Park Lane Hotel together after the afternoon show. They discussed possible setlist changes before the second Concert For Bangla Desh began at 8pm.
Harrison was given a standing ovation lasting several minutes when he first stepped on stage. Visibly moved but looking modest, he eventually signalled for calm, and told the audience about the sitar/sarod duet they were about to hear. He explained that Indian music was “a little bit more serious than our music, and I’d appreciate if you could try and settle down and get into the Indian music section.”
Shankar, Khan and Rakha were introduced to a standing ovation. Although it was customary to announce the raga after the tuning, Shankar thought he should address the audience first. He spoke of how many in the audience would be unfamiliar with Indian music, and their impatience to hear Harrison and the other Western performers. He reminded them of the crisis in Bangladesh and India, and the ultimate purpose of the event.
He then gave his customary request for people to refrain from smoking during his set. Given the swathes of tobacco and marijuana smoke that were impossible to miss in Madison Square Garden that day, it was a largely futile effort.
After the musicians tuned their instruments to the dhun they were about to perform, the audience – clearly believing it to be an actual piece of music – gave a round of applause. Shankar and Khan exchanged glances, and Shankar spoke into the microphone: “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hop you will enjoy the playing more.” This helped the audience warm to the Indian performers even more, and led to another round of applause.
Midway thought the evening show, around 200 people without tickets broke through the venue doors to gain entry. They were held back by 100 NYPD officers and security guards, who clubbed members of the crowd in an attempt to restore order. Despite this incident, the two concerts were otherwise peaceful affairs.
There were some minor changes between the two shows, mainly involving Harrison’s first and final sets. My Sweet Lord was brought forward, to be performed after Wah-Wah, and was followed by Awaiting On You All. Hear Me Lord was dropped from the last part of the show, which featured just Something and Bangla Desh.
Dylan’s set was also tweaked. Blowin’ In The Wind and It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry were swapped around, and Mr Tambourine Man was performed instead of Love Minus Zero/No Limit.
The second concert was generally thought to be the superior of the two, and made up the bulk of the subsequent album and film.
Following the second show, all the performers and crew attended a party in a basement club called Ungano’s. There were performances from Harrison and Preston, and a drunken version of Da Doo Ron Ron by Phil Spector. The party ended in the early hours of the following day, once The Who’s Keith Moon had smashed up the drum kit, which belonged to Badfinger’s Mike Gibbins.
I enjoyed it immensely. It was a bit weird because it was the first time I had been on stage for about three years. I was crazy with nerves beforehand. But if you have done your job, it’s okay. You soon relax. It was nice, anyway, because we had a lot of good pals around. Bob was as nervous as anybody that night. WE weren’t out just to entertain each other. We wanted to entertain the 25,000 people who had paid to come in. It is no good just standing there with our guitar and freaking yourself out.
Dylan was so pleased by how the concerts had gone that, according to Harrison, “he picked me up and hugged me and he said, ‘God! If only we’d done three shows!’” Despite their enthusiasm, however, neither Dylan, Harrison nor Clapton would return to performing live until 1974.