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Benefit concerts revisited

'Concert for Bangladesh' and 'Live 8' sets arrive with mini documentaries and musical highlights.

October 25, 2005|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

More than three decades elapsed between pop music's first all-star benefit concert, "The Concert for Bangladesh" in 1971, and the grandest yet, the "Live 8" concerts in nine countries in July.

What has changed in between and what hasn't -- politically, philosophically, technologically and musically -- comes into relief with the release of new DVD sets for both events within two weeks of each other.

"The Concert for Bangladesh" (Apple Corps/Capitol, in stores today), is a two-disc set that brings to DVD for the first time the 1971 Madison Square Garden shows organized by George Harrison and featuring many of his pals, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr and Ravi Shankar.

No one had tapped pop music stars for a cause on a scale like this before, but when sitar player Shankar asked Harrison for help in bringing world attention and aid to the plight of refugees from war- and flood-ravaged region on the northern border of India, this concert was Harrison's response.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Bob Dylan song -- A review in Tuesday's Calendar section of a new DVD devoted to the 1971 "Concert for Bangladesh" identified the song "If Not for You" as a joint Bob Dylan-George Harrison composition. Dylan wrote the song alone.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Live 8 DVDs -- A review in Tuesday's Calendar section about the forthcoming release of DVDs from the Live 8 concerts in July referred to the set as including four CDs. It consists of four DVDs.

A boxed 3-LP set and a film were released the following year -- adding millions in sales revenue to the $250,000 raised at the concert -- and that 99-minute film constitutes the first disc. Capitol also is releasing an expanded two-CD set of the music alone.

The second disc includes several mini documentaries about the making of the film and the album and includes three previously unreleased performances, taken from rehearsals, including Dylan singing "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," and his duet with Harrison on their joint composition "If Not for You." Dylan's presence was particularly electrifying because before this appearance he'd been out of the public eye following his near-fatal 1966 motorcycle accident.

Harrison included Shankar on the bill to give Indian classical music exposure, but what most fans turned out for was the summit of rock titans, and they were well rewarded.

With the help of a massed band (overseen by Harrison and co-producer Phil Spector), Clapton revisits his famous solo on Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," organist Billy Preston gets caught up in the spirit of the day in a joyous "That's the Way God Planned It," Leon Russell gets raucous on an extended version of "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Youngblood," and Dylan supplies moral gravity with a handful of songs including "Blowing in the Wind."

It was eight years before another event came close to rivaling the ambition and purpose of the Bangladesh gathering -- the "No Nukes" benefits in New York. In the '80s, the Amnesty International tours, the Secret Policeman's Balls and the bicoastal Live Aid concerts in 1985 took the idea to new levels.

"Live 8" (Capitol, slated for Nov. 8 release) uses four CDs to cull performances by each act that performed July 2 at London's Hyde Park and Philadelphia's Museum of Art. Songs are cherry-picked from the day's other concerts in Toronto, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Johannesburg, Tokyo and Moscow.

That made for a lot of music in one day, and it's still a lot here -- on the order of 10 hours' worth, too much for most people in one sitting. The DVD allows a luxury similarly afforded to those who viewed the concerts live on the Internet -- if you weren't mesmerized by what was going on in London, skip over to see what's happening in Philly, Toronto or elsewhere.

The point was political action (urging leaders of G8 nations to write off much of the debt crippling many African nations' economies) more than music. Sifting four months later through 125 performances -- 98 from Live 8, two dozen more on a fourth disc of extras -- there's far more sense of musical and attentional sprawl than in the tightly focused 99-minutes of music from "Bangladesh."

There were so many acts at Live 8 it's folly to think everyone could bring something relevant and magical to their time on stage. But the highlights do still raise goose bumps: Paul McCartney and U2 starting the day with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," Annie Lennox's heartbreaking rendition of "Why" as images of ailing children flash on a screen behind her, Richard Ashcroft singing the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" backed by Coldplay, and Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and David Gilmour playing "Comfortably Numb" together for the first time in more than two decades.

One fascinating difference between the "Live 8" and "Bangladesh" DVDs is the visuals.

At "Live 8," using technology light-years ahead of what was available in 1971, cameras are constantly in motion, zooming in and out, cutting from one musician to another, panning, sweeping and all but turning somersaults to keep the viewer's attention.

"The Concert for Bangladesh," by comparison, unfolds in a far more leisurely way -- maybe too leisurely for some members of the attention-deficit disorder generation. Yet by allowing the camera to linger on Dylan's face for virtually the entire performance of "Blowing in the Wind," on Clapton's hands during solos or on Preston's lively dance for extended periods, a much stronger emotional bond is forged with the viewer.

There's no more emotional moment in either DVD than when Live 8 organizer Bob Geldof introduced Birhan Woldu, one of the starving African children who helped spur Geldof and others to action.

She turns up 20 years later at Live 8 as a stunningly beautiful young woman who'd recently completed the equivalent of a college degree in Ethiopia, thanks to help her family got from Live Aid proceeds, living proof of Geldof's words to the assembled masses: "Don't let anyone tell you this stuff doesn't work. It works. You work."

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