“George Fest: A Night to Celebrate the Music of George Harrison,” which hits the streets on CD, DVD, Blu-ray, vinyl and digital download on Feb. 26, is probably the type of tribute he would have loved. It doesn’t push to be a spectacle, just a night of good music. And that it is. Produced by son Dhani Harrison and David Zonshine, Dhani Harrison said he envisioned the concert, which took place Sept. 28, 2014 and was part of a celebration for the release of the “George Harrison: The Apple Years” box set, as a small club show where musicians (mostly) from his generation could cut loose on some of the deeper tracks of George’s career.
The concert was originally planned for the tiny 771-seat El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. But demand for tickets forced a move to the (not that much) larger Fonda Theater, which holds 1,200. In an interview on the DVD, Harrison also says he also says it was to bring attention to his father’s songwriting.
The film begins with clips and words of George Harrison to set the tone for the evening. Then the concert opens on an unusual note with comedian and late night host Conan O’Brien fronting a band to sing “Old Brown Shoe.” Before starting the song, he jokes he had thought the show was supposed to be a George Michael Fest. But for those who aren’t aware, O’Brien has a very good voice and he and the band do a gutsy version of the Beatles song. The band, which kicks through the evening, includes a rotating group that featured Jimmy Vivino on guitar, Austin Scaggs on bass, Greg Wieczorek on percussion and Steven Drozd, Matt Romano and Matt Sorum taking turns on drums.
O’Brien kicks off a great night with surprisingly few down spots. Despite all the young performers, there’s no danger of George Harrison music going punk. None of the musicians, young or old, take real liberties with the songs and they are pretty reverential to Harrison’s arrangements. The injection of younger voices into Harrison’s music adds a youthful spirit. The CD version is music only while the DVD includes interview clips in the film. A booklet of pictures is wedged tightly behind the DVD in the CD/DVD package. Be careful or the cover will rip.
The first half of the concert has some great moments. Norah Jones’ version of “Something” is beautifully low key. The Heartless Bastards’ version of “If Not For You” is right on the mark. Jonathan Bates’ version of “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)” brings the first appearance of Dhani Harrison and his father’s aura with him.
But the second half of the show really takes it higher. It begins with Dhani doing a great version of “Let It Roll.” It’s strange to see “Weird Al” Yankovic play it somewhat straight, but he almost does on “What Is Life,” though there’s a funny moment during his song where he takes a picture of the crowd with his cellphone. It’s even weirder when Yankovic, who is known for writing some crazy songs, explains in an interview on the DVD that he is a fan of Harrison’s because he wrote some of the Beatles’ “most twisted” songs. Brian Wilson gets help from special guest and fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine on “My Sweet Lord.” Butch Walker’s version of “Any Road” is sweet. The climax with the Flaming Lips’ “It’s All Too Much” and the performers singing “Handle With Care” and “All Things Must Pass” end the evening beautifully.
You could be tempted to call this the junior edition of “Concert For George,” but that would slighting this great evening. Call it a nice companion to that show. The younger performers at “George Fest” bring a fresh perspective to Harrison’s music and it’s a foundation that his music will continue to thrive on. And that’s the nicest tribute to George Harrison one could wish for.