The story of Bob Dylan's appearance at The Concert for Bangladesh on 1 August 1971 is part of rock and roll lore. Organised by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, The Concert for Bangladesh consisted of two performances at Madison Square Gardens, one at 2.30pm, the other at 8pm. Other artists included Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Leon Russell.
The purpose of the concert was to raise awareness of, and funds for, victims of the Bangladesh Liberation War, 1971, which displaced 7 million people. This was exacerbated by severe flooding in the area. The video below is from the last rehearsal and soundcheck, the night before the shows. Up till then Harrison was uncertain if Dylan would turn up.
The footage of George Harrison and Bob Dylan playing Dylan's song If Not for You is remarkable in many ways. Firstly, both Dylan and Harrison had recorded versions of the song (written for Dylan's first wife Sara) on their most recent albums. Secondly, both artists had not performed in public for some time. Dylan was in semi retirement, had played few shows since 1966, none in the preceding two years, and was reluctant to commit to his friend Harrison's benefit concert.
Mostly the footage is notable for the chemistry between Dylan and Harrison. Neither was relaxed – Dylan had serious reservations and Harrison was setting up a major event – even so the respect between the artists is clear. Bob Dylan almost seems to be holding back, taking the lead from Harrison on his own song. Dylan was of course aware that his phrasing is not conventional. Dylan fans might be reminded of the Cash/Dylan sessions, where Dylan and Cash amiably negotiate their way through songs.
Even after Bob Dylan turned up for the rehearsal for The Concert For Bangladesh, George Harrison was not confident that Dylan would make the actual shows. The night before, after the rehearsal, Dylan had reiterated his aversion to the Madison Square Gardens scene. Speaking to Anthony DeCurtis in 1987, Harrison spoke of Dylan's appearance at the afternoon show: "And I looked around, and he was so nervous, he had his guitar on and his shades, he was sort of coming on, coming. It was only at that moment that I knew for sure he was going to do it." Allegedly, the audience was totally astonished by Dylan's arrival.
Dylan played five songs, not including If Not For You: A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Blowin' in the Wind, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, Love Minus Zero/No Limit and Just Like a Woman. For the evening show, Dylan adjusted the song order and substituted Mr Tambourine Man for the excellent Love Minus Zero. Dylan's sets at both shows went down a treat. Years later, Harrison told Rolling Stone that Bob Dylan was so happy after the concerts that he picked Harrison up and hugged him, saying "God! If only we'd done three shows!"
Record company obstruction meant that the release of The Concert For Bangladesh triple album was delayed. Worse, the funds were only released to charities some years later, for the same reason. Nonetheless the precedent set by The Concert for Bangladesh, and the lessons learned, paved the way for subsequent major fundraising concerts like Live Aid.
Finally, a little treat for those intrigued by the way in which the future Travelling Wilburys compatriots pitched their vocals in the 1971 rehearsal take of If Not For You. Here is George Harrison singing If Not For You in a distinctly Dylanish style for Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert, 1992: