Dhani Harrison’s career as a musician was born out of the unfortunate circumstances of his father’s death. He studied visual arts at Brown before helping his father, George Harrison, record his final album when the latter’s cancer was pronounced terminal. With the help of Jeff Lynne, Dhani completed Brainwashed after his father died. In 2002, and with the surviving members of The Beatles, Dhani participated in the Concert for George on the one-year anniversary of his death, the proceeds of which were donated to Harrison’s charity, The Material World Foundation.
That concert provided the template for George Fest: A Night To Celebrate the Music of George Harrison, which took place on September 28th, 2014. The all-star benefit was filmed, recorded, and mixed, and is now set to be released on what would have been Harrison’s 73rd birthday. As a survey of a great songwriter, George Fest works fairly well, spanning The Beatles through Brainwashed: the hits, collaborations, and deep cuts.
The problem is that this mix of musicians, while well-suited to raising money for charity, makes for an awkward album experience. There are all-time greats like Brian Wilson; modern rock luminaries like Perry Farrell, Wayne Coyne, Brandon Flowers, and Britt Daniel; bluesy crooners ranging from fairly famous (Norah Jones) to less so (Chase Cohl); musical celebrities who are more celebrity than musical, including the ex-Mrs. Jack White, Karen Elson; and comedic curiosities like Conan O’Brien and “Weird Al” Yankovic. The results are never bad, exactly, but they do fall somewhere between tribute and karaoke — call it Now That’s What I Call George.
All of the songs are roughly the same tempo and arrangement as the original, which means that the most memorable moments tend to go to the most accomplished vocalists. Norah Jones is a purring revelation on “Something”, teasing out the silky melody until she hums with a nearly physical ache. She also highlights a problem with the album: A lot of these dudes paying tribute to Harrison blend together. It’s easy to nod along to the familiar songs, half-listening. While Jones is the best of the bunch, these too infrequent female voices tend to wake the listener up like a sort of aural espresso.
Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass contributes several of George Fest’s most exciting tracks, possibly because the artists chosen to cover those songs bring qualities lacking in the original. One of the odder implications of George Fest is that Harrison’s voice, relaxed and pretty, wasn’t quite flexible enough to do his songwriting credit. What makes “My Sweet Lord” such a delight is Brain Wilson’s phrasing, the way he’ll sometimes growl and bite off the ends of words, and sometimes melt the melody like a vocal imitation of Harrison’s iconic slide guitar. “My Sweet Lord” is a tremendous song, one of the best of Harrison’s solo career, but Wilson’s faithful cover might just be an improvement. Also falling into this category are Nick Valensi’s wild, rocking version of “Wah-Wah” and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s haunting “Art Of Dying”.
Dhani Harrison makes several appearances, sounding eerily like his father. Unfortunately, this is more interesting to think about than listen to, except perhaps for devoted Harrison fans who always craved live versions of “Savoy Truffle” and “Let It Down” that sound nearly identical to the studio versions except with the noise of a crowd sprinkled in. Although the voices are different elsewhere, the same could be said about over half of these songs. Completists, collectors, and charitable givers who like the Material World Foundation won’t be disappointed by George Fest: It’s a consistent, competent, and sometimes moving tribute to George Harrison. Anyone else interested in the project might find more satisfaction in returning again to the deep discography of one of the 20th century’s most underrated songwriters.
Essential Tracks: “Something” (Norah Jones), “My Sweet Lord” (Brian Wilson and Al Jardine), and “Art of Dying” (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club)