It’s rare to knowingly watch a human do exactly what the were put on this planet to do. But that’s the feeling you get while watching Sir Paul McCartney perform live in concert. Although he turns 71 next week, the icon is still treating fans to epic three-hour-long performances as part of his “Out There Tour.” For comparison, the Beatles’ set lasted just under 30 minutes the final time they played New York City in 1966. Slackers. Paul currently has no album to promote, and he likely doesn’t need the money. So why is he touring? Because he loves doing it. And it shows.
Arriving at Brooklyn’s sparkly new Barclays Center, you’re struck not just by the sheer number of people (it’s a sold-out house, naturally), but the sheer variety. There is no single demographic for a McCartney performance. Sure there are a healthy number of graying Beatlemaniacs. But a couple in their early twenties hold hands and share a kiss in front of me. Another young pair behind me are having their second (!) date. Children fill the 16,000-strong crowd, some holding up signs that say “Paul Rocks!” Steve Buscemi wanders past, looking for his seat. No single demographic. We’re all here together, breathing in that new-stadium smell, waiting for the representative Beatle to make his Brooklyn debut.
The show starts fashionably late, but by 9 PM, the time has come. Sir Paul’s arrival is heralded by the familiar refrain, “The love you take…” At that, the Knight of the Turntable bounds across the stage, clad in the mod Chelsea boots he made famous and wielding that distinctive Hofner bass guitar like his personal Excalibur. For a moment there’s nothing but white noise. The screams still follow him. Not quite as high-pitched and piercing as they were back in 1964, but DEFINITELY just as ear-splitting. And the sweet aroma of pot drifting through the bleachers is just as fragrant. Beatlemania is alive and well in Brooklyn on this warm Saturday night.
“Hey, New York,” he says simply before launching into “Eight Days A Week,” giving the 1965 number-one its first concert airing. His four-piece band is flawless and tight, which is to be expected: This tour marks their eleventh anniversary together. The Beatles (as we knew them) were only together for eight. Most remarkably, McCartney’s trademark tenor has aged rather gracefully. Of course his voice breaks a bit on some of the high parts these days, but these imperfections just give the all too familiar tunes some character, as if battle scars from their long and winding roads. The rare cracks are glossed over admirably with harmony help from drummer extraordinaire Abe Laboriel. And of course there’s the old trick he developed during the Beatles era for questionable vocal moments: Waving to the crowd and hoping their screams of adoration would cover it up. They do. Grown men with tears in their eyes grow hoarse screaming, “I LOVE YOU, PAUL!” And you can tell they really mean it.
Without an album of new material, McCartney’s set list focused on the old days. In fact, he delivered only two songs from the post-1975 years. From the start, the “Out There Tour” was intended to focus on rarities and deep cuts -if there is such a thing as Beatles deep cut. Judging from the army of Macca Fans in old tour T-shirts, this was not most people’s first evening with Sir Paul. But these veterans did not go home empty-handed as the man of the hour dusted off some never-performed-live tracks, many recorded after the Beatles quit touring in ’66. The sing-along-friendly “All Together Now” and vaudevillian “Your Mother Should Know” (both from 1967) got a warm reaction from the crowd, as did the Wings hit “Listen To What The Man Said,” which he resurrected for the first time in thirty-seven years.
He also took the bold step of performing two tracks from the Beatles 1967 opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For songs designed as studio productions, it was a risky move taking them to the stage, and the results were mixed. “Being For The Benefit Of Mister Kite” was able to pull off the demonic carousel from hell oom-pah-pah (not to mention McCartney’s killer bass part). But “Lovely Rita” did not fare quite as well. As the tune unraveled at the end, even Paul seemed relieved to have made it through. But still, the fact remains: We just got to hear Paul McCartney sing “Lovely Rita” for the first time since 1967. So no complaints here.
McCartney regularly takes moments during his shows to pay tribute to fallen family and rock comrades, but this time around it seemed like the roll call grew considerably. Of course he sang his tender “Here Today” for his musical brother John Lennon. “It’s in the form of a conversation we didn’t get to have,” he tells us. He also gave a musical nod to George Harrison with the now-familiar ukulele cover of “Something.” But the list continued. And it got even more personal.
While performing “Your Mother Should Know,” the video collage of famous mothers culminates with a faded photo of an anonymous little boy with his mum. That’s a very young Paul with his mother Mary (yes, the one who came to him in “Let It Be”), whom he lost to cancer when he was just 14. Forty years later he’d lose his wife Linda in the same way. He sings “Maybe I’m Amazed” for her. He performs “Another Day,” his first post-Beatles solo single, with a dedication for its producer Phil Ramone, who passed away in March. “Let Me Roll It” segues into a searing guitar jam that morphs into the riff from “Foxy Lady.” He sends that one out to his old buddy Jimi Hendrix, and recalls with pride the time the guitar god covered one of his songs.
It’s then that it hits you: These people aren’t just names in history books to Paul. He doesn’t mourn them like we mourn them. They are legends to us, but to him they’re friends. You couldn’t help but notice how small the man himself looks next to his Super Beatle image on the Jumbotron. Every now and then you can catch a crack in his Mr. Showman exterior as he glances around the stage, as if looking for John, George, or Linda to be by his side. He seems almost lonely. For all of the wealth and acclaim and memories, this man has lost more than most of us can ever fathom. There aren’t many left who have seen what he has seen. “Sole survivor, carrying the load,” he once sang. He might as well be talking about himself. He really has carried that weight a long time.
But despite the moments of melancholy, it was clear that the night was a joyous occasion for McCartney and he charmingly couldn’t resist pausing to bask in the glory. “At an event this cool, I just want to take a moment for myself and drink it all in,” he says as the house lights go up, providing him a clear view of the crowd. He gazes out across his temporary kingdom, reading the goofy messages that fans have written on signs. “I Named My English Bulldog Macca” reads one, while another offers him a massage. “Sign My Beatles Tattoo” one begs, and still another reads “Sign My Wife!” Paul likes this one. “I can’t be signing wives at this stage in my career!” he laughs. Speaking of wives, he dedicates “My Valentine” (the only 21st century song of the night) to his new wife Nancy Shevell. Everybody loves a happy ending.
Sir Paul keeps the treasures coming, jumping from guitar to piano and back again, with a little instrumental help from his friends in the band: Abe, Rusty Anderson, Brian Ray and Paul “Wix” Wickens. He thumps the walking bass-line to “All My Loving” on his Hofner, the same way he did when America first met the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For “Paperback Writer” he brings out his road-worn Epiphone Casino, the exact one he used to record the stinging lead guitar on the original. He gently picks “Yesterday” using the same Epiphone Texan acoustic heard on the record. He’s performed these songs so many times that it shouldn’t be special anymore. But of course it is. All too soon Paul ends his second (!) encore of the night, signing off with the medley from the second side of Abbey Road. “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Isn’t this where we came in?
Today it’s easy to lose the connection between music as a tangible object and music as a spontaneous act of creation. In 2013, the record is the song. Ironically it was largely McCartney himself who changed the way we think of music with the studio-centric soundscapes that he helped pioneer with the Beatles. And now watching him play live, he’s bringing us full circle. Fifty years ago a young lefty strummed his guitar and sang into a microphone. Those records then got shipped out and spread around for all to hear. Now he stands a few dozen feet away, showing us exactly how he changed our lives. It’s like watching a magician show you a trick at close range. But as you watch you realize that there is no trick. It’s happening in front of you, and it’s actually magic. Pretty cool.
Audiophiles have long been spouting their views on the “correct” way to hear the Beatles’ music, be it vinyl, mono, or 5.1 surround sound. And in the end, it does’t matter. If you can scrape together enough for a ticket (they’re pricey, we know), that is the definitive version. Music is not a record. Music is living. And as long as McCartney is living he’s going to keep making music. That’s what he was put here to do, after all.
Head to the next page to check out the full set list!