LONDON — "This is a special night," Monty Python's Michael Palin told the 8,000 fans gathered Friday at Royal Albert Hall to pay tribute to George Harrison. But something about his delivery and his gold-lame-lapel tuxedo suggested that tear ducts should be kept on standby for the moment.
Solemnly, he continued. The "specialness" of this night, he said, was so "special" that its overwhelming specialness would render all other "special" nights, well, "unspecial." Because the bigness of the very "big" person they had come to honor was so "big" that, by comparison, the "biggest" of other "big" people's "bigness" would ...
And by then there wasn't a dry eye in the house, but from people falling about laughing rather than mourning the beloved former Beatle who died last Nov. 29 in Los Angeles after a long battle with cancer.
Harrison would have loved it -- not to mention the spirited Python rendering of "The Lumberjack Song."
Harrison loved the comedy troupe's rude surrealism and, given that the profoundly spiritual Briton considered physical death a matter of little importance, he would surely have been delighted by his old pals from the "Life of Brian" movie days sticking it to the Grim Reaper.
So the tone was set for the all-star second half of the show: the least mawkish of valedictions and almost two hours of rock 'n' roll the Harrison way -- marshaled by Eric Clapton, rumored to have proved a hard taskmaster during the three weeks of rehearsals that produced a set masterfully combining discipline and inspiration.
The band -- including Harrison's son, Dhani, on guitar -- slammed through Beatles favorites written by Harrison, including "I Want to Tell You," "If I Needed Someone" and "Old Brown Shoe," with lead vocals shared by Clapton, Jeff Lynne and Procol Harum veteran Gary Brooker. Incense filled the air, and children of the '60s -- the kind who can afford all-for-charity ticket prices of up to $260 -- traveled back in time.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers took over for a while and did fine with "Taxman" and a brief visit to the Traveling Wilburys repertoire, but the occasion really gathered itself around the two surviving Beatles, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. They got standing ovations, and the songs they chose had their own special poignancy.
Starr, resplendent in an embroidered scarlet velvet jacket, reached back to Harrison's old favorite, Carl Perkins, and sang "Honey Don't." On the Beatles' recording, Starr hollers for the guitar break with a "Rock on, George, one time for Ringo!" This time it was just, "Come on, let's hear you."
McCartney, as he had done on his American tour this year, sang "Something," the Harrison composition once described by Frank Sinatra as McCartney and John Lennon's greatest love song.
McCartney accompanied himself on ukulele, Harrison's favorite instrument for an after-dinner sing-along. Then in came Clapton and the band with the majestic lines of the original version.
The rock show closed with modesty and charm. Dhani Harrison thanked all the musicians -- "all my dad's friends." McCartney said Harrison's widow, Olivia, had just told him that Dhani so resembled his father that "it looks like George stayed young and the rest of us got old."
Finally, with the entire cast on stage, an old friend of Harrison's, veteran British guitarist Joe Brown, picked up the ukulele and, very quietly, sang "I'll See You in My Dreams."
"It's a favorite of George's and it's designed to send you home with a smile on your face and a little bit of love in your heart," he said.
While Brown sang, Olivia Harrison turned to her son and hugged him. And as the band members filed off, McCartney, who had never been closer than 20 yards to Starr on stage, waited in the wings for the drummer, then hugged and kissed him.
But the most graceful and lingering farewell may have rested with Ravi Shankar. The first section of the tribute was devoted to music he had composed in memory of Harrison, who, he said, had become "like a son to me."
Shankar's daughter Anoushka played a sitar raga, then conducted a 25-strong Indian group in a piece of dazzling complexity called "Arpan" -- a performance that an English audience might have had no chance of enjoying if not for Harrison's opening its ears to that musical culture.
The final lines of Shankar's lyrics say: "He gave so many songs to this world / We are remembering that great soul / And we salute him with love and respect."