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Harrison tribute concert is really something

Stick around to the very end of the closing credits for "Concert for George," and you'll hear the modest, self-mocking voice of George Harrison himself. "If I had a special," he says on the subject of all-star tributes, "I'd like it to be people who mean something to me."

Done and done. "Concert," which opens for a one-week engagement today, preserves the terrifically moving evening of music that took place in a packed Royal Albert Hall on Nov. 29, 2002 -- the first anniversary of the former Beatle's death from cancer. It rounds up all the expected Friends of George, plus a few surprise ringers, and lets them cut loose on songs he wrote and tunes he loved. As such, it's a must-see for Beatle completists and an unexpected treat for casual fans.

The evening was overseen by Harrison's widow, Olivia, but host Eric Clapton seems to have been the major organizational force. That's only fitting; Over the course of their careers, the two men shared guitar licks, recording studios, a reticence toward stardom, and even a wife (Patti Boyd Harrison, a.k.a. "Layla"). Clapton introduces the house band that kicks into "I Want to Tell You," and a sprightly group of dinosaurs it is: ELO's Jeff Lynne on guitar and vocals; Clapton, Albert Lee, Andy Fairweather Low, and Marc Mann on guitars (Mann ably mimicking George's slide solos throughout the concert); Jim Keltner and Jim Capaldi on drums; Billy Preston and Procol Harum's Gary Brooker on keyboards; Klaus Voorman on bass; Tom Scott on sax.

Then there are the guest appearances: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers taking on "Taxman" and the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care"; Ringo Starr singing a suddenly profound "Photograph" ("Every time I see your face/It reminds of the places we used to go"); Ravi Shankar and his sitarist daughter Anoushka leading an Indian orchestra through a composition over which Clapton plays glowing lead lines. Paying tribute to Harrison's love of all things Monty Python, surviving members of the troupe (minus John Cleese but plus Bonzo Dog Band's Neil Innes) perform a cheeky version of "Sit on My Face" and a rendition of "The Lumberjack Song" that includes lonesome Tom Hanks in the Mountie chorus.

Perhaps most startling is the front-and-center presence of 25-year-old Dhani Harrison, who plays acoustic guitar and who so closely resembles his old man in lanky, glowering shyness as to be George's karmic ghost.

A few things are lacking. Fellow Wilbury Bob Dylan is nowhere to be seen, and the spirit of John Lennon is conspicuously absent (and, in this context, not much missed). This critic's two favorite George solo songs, "What Is Life" and "Run of the Mill," go unplayed. And is it churlish to note that Paul McCartney sucks the air right out of the evening with a toothless version of "Love You Blue" and a silly Hawaiian-ukulele rendition of "Something"?

On the other hand, it's spookily touching to see this massed group of former rock gods gathered to honor one of their fallen. Bald spots and graying shags predominate; the giant velvet lapels of 1969 have given way to sensible sport coats; the granny glasses are for real. This is the first of what will undoubtedly be many musical wakes in years to come. May they all be this grand.

*** 1/2

Ty Burr can be reached at

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