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After the two triumphant charity concerts for Bangladesh that George Harrison and his all-star mates, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Badfinger, Leon Russell and others, played at New York in August 1971, his live shows were very few and far between. There was a poorly-received American tour in 1974 when he had a bad throat and was going through a rather preachy phase. Seventeen year later he was persuaded by Clapton to do a tour of Japan, where they felt critics would be kinder than in the UK or US. This double CD, credited to 'GH, EC and Band', including percussionist Ray Cooper and former Amen Corner frontman Andy Fairweather Low, is a record of those December 1991 gigs in Osaka and Tokyo. Apart from his British concert for the Natural Law Party a few months later, it was the last time he ever played live.
Featuring 19 tracks, the best of his solo material and his songs recorded with the Beatles, it's comparable with the 2009 'Let It Roll' compilation (which suffered from a rather indifferent choice of tracks and some surprising omissions) as a 'George Greatest Hits'. Sales however were disappointing; released in the summer of 1992, it made No. 15 in Japan, a pitiful No. 126 in the US, and failed to make the UK Top 100 (unless you count the NME chart, which placed it at No. 45 for one week). Maybe everyone involved, not least the record company promotion staff, were on their summer holidays.
Three Beatles songs come first. 'I Want To Tell You' is almost twice as long as the original 1966 version on 'Revolver', which gives George and Eric a chance to let rip on the guitar solos more. 'Old Brown Shoe' , which was somewhat buried on the B-side of 'The Ballad of John and Yoko' in 1969, is for my money one of his best songs ever with a kind of off-beat ska rhythm and peculiar chord sequence. It's one of those ultra-catchy songs that lodges in your head and just doesn't go, and the guitar and playful keyboard flourishes here make this one really sizzle. Next up is 'Taxman', his political diatribe from 1966 ('Revolver' again), which originally namechecked Mr Wilson and Mr Heath, now with updated lyrics to mention Messrs Major, Bush and Yeltsin (remember this was 1991!).
On to his solo career next, with a tender reading of 'Give Me Love, Give me Peace On Earth', followed by a rousing 'If I Needed Someone'. As with the previous Beatles songs, this packs a punch which the original version (from 'Rubber Soul, 1965) never really delivered.
The only disappointment for me comes with 'What Is Life'. The recording on 'All Things Must Pass' in 1970 is one of my favourite pieces of all time, but it owes as much to the stunning musical production as to the song itself. Here he rather loses it; it's too slow, he sounds a little half-hearted and swallows his words at the beginning of some lines. If they had omitted this track, the whole package would be all-but-flawless. Isn't it a pity (groan)?
However he redeems himself with a nifty guitar intro on the next track, and the audience start applauding as soon as they recognise the opening bars of 'Something'. Even without the lush strings, it works a treat. So do 'Dark Horse' with those mysterious Eastern-sounding flutes, and the rather bitter, sinister (but still enjoyable) harpsichord-driven 'Piggies' - I can never rest that extraordinary bombastic ending, which seems to come from nowhere.
To finish off CD 1, we have 'Got My Mind Set On You', the song which gave him such a hefty comeback in 1987 (No. 2 UK, No. 1 US). Again, the studio version was great, but live it's even better.
The repertoire on CD 2 is drawn largely from his solo career, the only songs from his Beatles days inevitably being 'Here Comes The Sun' and 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'. I'm running out of superlatives, but take it from me that these versions are probably as good as, if not better than, any other he committed to record. 'WMGGW' is the longest number here, clocking in at seven minutes, and the dual lead guitar work with Eric is stunning. It's on a par with the version on 'Concert for Bangla Desh', and I think both put the original studio recording, from the 1968 Beatles' 'White Album' in the shade.
From his solo back catalogue, he revisits 'Cloud 9', a bouncy 'All Those Years Ago', and from the lesser-known songs, 'Devil's Radio' and 'Cheer Down'. Naturally 'My Sweet Lord' is here, and it's no surprise that the audience go nuts clapping as soon as George hits the opening chord on acoustic guitar. I am one of the minority of fans who never used to care much for 'Isn't It a Pity', which always struck me as rather maudlin and dull, but here it comes across with a good deal more passion and soul than either of the two studio versions.
All the best bands finish off (sometimes, at least) with a Chuck Berry song, and 'Roll Over Beethoven' (which George sang on the Beatles' second album) brings us to a high-energy finish here.
There are no Traveling Wilburys songs here, by the way. That's understandable, as nearly all the songs were co-written by all members of the group, and they might have sounded out of place here. However, the production credit goes to 'Spike and Nelson Wilbury', the aliases he used on each of the TW albums.
Paul McCartney made several live post-Beatles and post-Wings albums, and I'm not going to make any comparisons here. Much as I like and admire Macca's work, on balance I prefer listening to George's records. There's something particularly appealing about his voice and that slightly vulnerable, spiritual quality in many of the songs. When his work was bad (preachy or dirgey), it was almost unlistenable. But at his best, he was tremendous. Notwithstanding 'What is Life' (we're all allowed an off-moment or two), I'd wholeheartedly recommend this.
PACKAGING AND AVAILABILITY
The single jewel case contains a 12- page booklet with several photos of George and the band, plus a few thoughts from him on most of the songs. If you look at the image of the front cover above, it isn't completely black apart from the vertical captions. Although it doesn't reproduce well, when you see the real article it includes a drawing of George which is only clearly visible when viewed at a certain angle to the light. (I can just make it out on this dooyoo page, but then I am familiar with it).
The double CD is available separately, and also as part of the 'Dark Horse Years 1976-92' boxed set, containing five studio CDs and DVD. Prices fluctuate, but at the time of writing there are new and marketplace copies available.
[Revised version of a review I first published on ciao]