Funnily enough even though Sgt Pepper started a love affair with The Beatles music in general and George's music in particular which still endures, it isn't my favourite Beatles Album, I prefer 'Revolver', so with the fiftieth anniversary of 'Pepper' looming I wasn't particularly excited by it, until I started seeing various events advertised to mark the Celebration. In the past couple of weeks I have been to several events some ticketed and some free and I am so glad I did, I have listened to the album with fresh ears, and appreciate even more why it was so groundbreaking back in 1967 and why it remains such a huge influence on many musicians today. I am not a musician, I can't carry a tune in a bucket, so I will apologise now to any of my musician friends reading this if I get any technical terms wrong, however what is not in doubt is the way the music makes me feel and I want to share that with anyone who cares to read this.
Back in March 2017 I received a brochure from the Liverpool Philharmonic, advertising their up coming programme, one concert stood out - 'George Harrison's Journey to Indian Music' so after a quick chat with hubby I purchased tickets for us both to attend. At around the same time the events for the 'Pepper at 50' celebration in Liverpool were announced, thirteen events one to represent each of the tracks on the album, included was 'Ragafest' at St George's Hall a free event lasting all day at the Hall plus four ticketed Indian Music recitals happening throughout the day. The recitals included food being served typical to the area of India the music at the recital represented so I booked for the concert, which typified Northern India, which is where George spent time studying with Ravi Shankar.
The concert at the Philharmonic was scheduled for Friday 9th June 2017 and was a joint enterprise between Liverpool University and the Phil, as it turned out it was a magical evening that left me incapable of uttering anything but 'Wow' and 'Fabulous' for a good hour afterwards.
On arriving at the Philharmonic, as we walked up the stairs to the auditorium we glimpsed a beautiful image of George as a seventeen year old in Hamburg projected on a screen above the stage. From a distance it looked like a photograph but as we came closer we realised it was a beautiful drawing by David Rainey.
There was a strict no photography rule in operation throughout the evening, so I have no photographs to share of the evening. We quickly settled in our seats and we were sat on the left side of the auditorium, because of the way the stage had been set for the concert this meant we had a prime view of the Indian musicians taking part. So we were able to see the amazing dexterity with which they played their various instruments.
The concert opened with a band formed by Liverpool based songwriter and multi instrumentalist Thomas McConnell (aka Tom Low), specifically for the concert. Thomas was co lead arranger and performer for the Within You Without You concert, along with Jasdeep Singh Degun.
As well as Thomas on lead guitar and vocals the band featured Adam Dixon on bass, James Madden on rhythm guitar and LIPA graduate Joe Warriner on drums. They got the night off to a rocking start with 'Help!', significant as it was whilst filming on the set of Help! that George came across Indian Instruments for the first time. Our narrator for the evening self professed life long Beatles fan and accomplished actor Gerrard Fletcher, explained that it was a journey that came about because of a series of chance encounters, at a time when George was looking for something more than the mania he found himself surrounded by. Followed by 'If I Needed Someone' and 'I Need You' the lights dimmed and the Indian musicians took to the stage. Lead by award - winning sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun, with Kirpal Singh Panesar, performing on dilruba, Gurdain Rayatt on tabla and percussionist Pirashanna Thevarajah,
Our journey continued with a Raga, the beautifully haunting sounds of the dilruba, joined by the sitar and punctuated by tabla and dohl with tambura and swarmandel underlining the whole piece. After what had been a stressful week I felt the music wash over me and fill me with a sense of peacefulness and calm and could understand why George always said that the music spoke to him and entered his heart'
We heard the story of David Crosby from the Byrds introducing George to the music of the great Ravi Shankar, and how George had purchased a sitar from Indiacraft and started to experiment with playing. It was that sitar that he would use on the opening bars of 'Norwegian Wood' and so we were treated to a beautiful arrangement of the song, played by both the Indian musicians and the western band.
A broken string during the recording sessions for 'Norwegian Wood' lead to George meeting the Angadi family, the first Indian people George had met despite his love of the music. The first half of the concert finished with renditions of 'Taxman' and 'Love You To'.
During the Interval, a small table appeared at the front of the stage and a set of tablas and a harmonium were placed on it.
Part two started with a short film featuring members of the Angadi family explaining how George became a regular visitor to their home to listen to performances by members of the Asian Music Circle. Explaining how George first met Ravi Shankar in their home and, how George would practise sitar asking if had 'got it right' when playing memorised strings of musical notes. The film also introduced us to the family of Mr Amritt Gajjar and Mr Purushottam Dattatraya Joshi (known as Anna Joshi) both now sadly passed. We were told how George had invited them to play on his new composition 'Within You Without You' and how recording took so long because of issues tuning the Indian instruments in the studio. Mr Joshi's son also showed us the copy of Sgt Pepper that George had sent his father and explained it was two years before they played the record because they did not own a record player until 1969.
As well as insightful interviews with the families they had been generous enough to share photographs of George in the recording studio during the Sgt Pepper Sessions and also during his visits to the home of Mr and Mrs Angadi. Mr Buddhadev Kansara and Mr Natvar Soni were also interviewed in the film, and they spoke about how they had been musicians on the original recording of 'Within You Without You'
The film finished to a huge round of applause and then Gerrard Fletcher introduced Mr Kansara and Mr Soni to the audience, They held us spellbound as they performed traditional Indian folk music on tabla and harmonium with Mr Soni adding beautiful vocals. It was a truly magical moment to be able to witness this performance by two men whose playing I had been so influenced by at the age of four even though until now they had never been named individually as being the players on the Pepper Album only ever being credited as 'musicians of The Asian Music Circle'.
There followed a short ceremony where they were decorated with flower garlands in acknowledgement of their musical careers to much applause from the audience.
The concert moved on to explore the influences of different sounds that the Beatles were creating in 1966 and 1967 with performances of both 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. Then the Indian musicians took over and we were treated to what can only be described as a duel between percussion and tabla fingers becoming a blur as the beat became faster, building in excitement until the final notes.
Of course the main focus of the concert was always going to be 'Within You Without You' and as all the musicians assembled on stage they were joined by the string section of The Northern College of Music. As anticipated a pure version of 'Within You Without You' followed with the melody played by the Indian musicians and a perfect vocal performance by Thomas McConnell. I felt so calm just allowing the music to wash over me but the best was yet to come. The vocal version that every Beatles fan would recognise segued perfectly into an instrumental version. The Indian musicians joined by Thomas on acoustic guitar, then by the string section, A quick change of guitar by Thomas to an electric guitar, and the music continued to soar around the Philharmonic Hall, washing over us all like waves at first lapping then crashing on the shore of some distant beach. A final change of guitar to a 12 string and the rest of the rock band joined in to bring the whole to resounding crescendo that left me breathless. As the last notes died away I looked at my husband and just said 'Wow' words to describe it were completely inadequate and that was the best I could muster in the moment. Then the audience were on their feet giving the musicians a standing ovation so well and truly deserved.
I had fully intended posting about the concert on my facebook page but I couldn't write anything that came close to describing the way I felt. It was a perfect celebration of George's song and the beautiful programme that was produced for the concert will sit alongside my programme from 'The Concert for George'
for many years to come.