By Ernest Barteldes
When I first heard about George Fest, I thought it was really great idea: bring together a new generation of rock performers (alongside a handful of more established ones) to take stabs at George Harrison’s canon to younger fans who might not even had been around when Harrison released his final hit records in the late 80s.
I recall receiving an e-mail from a publicist about the release of the concert film and CD from the 2014 tribute show in Los Angeles shorty before its release , but due to my workload at the time it kind of fell through the cracks and it only came back to my mind when I caught the end of the film on MTV – when the entire ensemble ran through The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care.” I was intrigued and ordered the box from the New York Public Library (no, I don’t do Netflix) and sat down to listen to it as soon as it came in.
It was a fun show to watch, but I felt that the musicians could have been a bit more inventive with the music. After all, these were bands like The Flaming Lips (who took on “It’s All Too Much,” and oft-overlooked track from “Yellow Submarine”) and members of The Strokes, Heart, Spoon and other bands. However, with few exceptions they played most of the tunes a bit too closely to the original arrangements, sounding more like cover bands than they should have.
There were, however, some brilliant moments: San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club took on “The Art of Dying (from “All Things Must Pass”) and slowed it down, playing with distorted guitars and deadpan vocals that better translated the tune’s mood than Harrison’s overproduced version. Norah Jones (who also did “Something”) took advantage of the country feel of “Behind the Locked Door” to make the tune her own with a soulful vocal delivery and her own acoustic guitar accompaniment. The Cult’s Ian Astbury gives a chillingly beautiful take on “Be Here Now,” an obscure track from “Living in the Material World.”
The deeper cuts were the best surprise here – while standards like “My Sweet Lord” (with an honest delivery from Brian Wilson) and “Taxman” (by The Cold War Kids) were on the set list, we also got to hear seldom-heard tunes like “Savoy Truffle” (Dhani Harrison, who sounds and looks too much like his father) and “Any Road” (from George’s last album, “Brainwashed”). But there were a few missed opportunities – for instance, why have ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic do a straight version of “What is Life” when he could have amused us with “This Song is Just Six Words Long,” his hilarious parody of “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You” instead?
One could say such a rendition would offend hardcore George Harrison fans, but then again that was not even a Harrison composition in the first place, but a cover of an obscure track originally recorded in the early 60s by African-American R&B singer James Ray (go ahead, Google it). The tune, incidentally, is also on the set, played by the numbers by The Killers’ Brandon Flowers.
I am not in any way going to say it is a bad album – it is nice to hear all these young artists take on this music of my favorite Beatle with such gusto, but as I have said earlier, I would have liked if more of them had tried to be more inventive with the tunes, just as George himself did whenever he played live. You pay tribute not by imitating but by reinventing the music – and giving it your own take.