Paul McCartney Shows Once Again That He’s the Ultimate Living Rock Legend

Passing on seeing your favorite musicians in concert because you think they’re past their prime? You might be missing out on unparalleled awesomeness

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click to enlarge Sir Paul McCartney - Photo: Mary McCartney
Photo: Mary McCartney
Sir Paul McCartney

For most of my life, I shied away from going to concerts by legendary but allegedly “past-their-prime” musicians who have been extremely important to me since a young age — bands and performers who’ve shaped my musical tastes and have played a huge role in many other facets of my life, alternately offering joy and elation, and commiseration and comfort, depending on where I was at the time.

My resistance to seeing some of my musical heroes in concert was based on my longtime stubborn belief that I wanted to remember my idols as I knew them best — through the albums and video footage from when they were at the peak of their powers. I always feared going to see an act I forever looked up to with reverence and being disappointed that the magic has evaporated. Then, I thought, the memories of the music would be tainted — instead of remembering being obsessed with an album, playing it over and over again and conjuring my own images to go with the music (not to mention feeling the emotions I felt when the songs were there for me while going through tough or triumphant times), I feared the disappointment of a subpar concert would replace those memories that meant so much to me.

With some maturity and the experiences I’ve had after loosening my “rule” a bit over the years, I know now that my fears, while perhaps well-intentioned, likely kept me from going to see many aging artists before it was too late. One of the bands to blame for my trepidation is The Rolling Stones. When I think of Mick, Keith and Co., I think of wearing the groove out on their Through the Past Darkly compilation when I was in junior high; I remember diving deep into albums like Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main St., marveling at the brilliant, soulful recordings and the vitality and verve they conjured; and I remember stunning video footage of the band in concert in the ’60s and ’70s and vintage projects like The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. But after watching a pay-per-view concert from The Stones’ tour behind Tattoo You (an album I did and still do love) — all the way back in 1981, when Keith Richards was approaching his late 30s (which as a kid seemed “old”) — I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. Though that concert had some solid moments, I was bugged by the band’s performances of a few songs, including “Satisfaction” and even the then-new hit “Start Me Up.” The tempos on these particular songs were sped up and it sounded to me like the musicians were rushing through the songs to get them over with. I thought it was likely due to losing their passion for many of these crowd-favorite hits they’ve played thousands of times on several years’ worth of massive world tours. The jaunty tempos also had an almost “Vegas Revue” style pep, which I love (from a comedic standpoint) when done by people like Elvis and Tom Jones, but find disillusioning when done by legendary Rock & Roll bands.

I’ve always recognized that my reluctance to go and see these bands play live as they grew older was all my own weird hang-up, a personal choice I made as a defense mechanism, I believed, to protect essential memories. I never begrudged the artists for continuing to tour, and, as the packed or sold-out shows over the years have proved, there are many more people who derive deep pleasure from seeing their favorite groups perform (regardless of age or onstage effectiveness) than there are weirdoes like me resisting for selfish, somewhat irrational reasons.  

A few times over the past 20 years, I’ve given in and gone to see iconic figures perform, often inspired by a free ticket. In general, as I’ve aged, my hard-line stance softened. It also gradually dawned on me that the regret of not getting to see one of my favorite performers while they were still alive was a bigger deal than fretting about ruined memories. I’ve seen seminal (to me) acts like the Psychedelic Furs, Heart and The English Beat — groups that don’t even have original members anymore (usually another warning sign to me that things aren’t going to go so well when they hit the stage) — in the past 10 years and marveled at how impressive they still were. They still sounded great and played with a vitality that felt fresh and real. They also still had their “swagger.” I saw David Bowie on one of his last tours and he was fantastic, though I didn’t find that surprising at all, because Bowie was always relevant, a great and intriguing artist on record and on tour until the very end.  And I saw Pixies and The Stooges early in their reuniting phases and enjoyed both. But both left me conflicted about my (obviously loose) “rule” — they both played the classics, and played them well, but they were incapable of recapturing the visceral intensity and weirdness that made them such enigmas in their potent, formative years. If you are a decade or two (or more) beyond your early 20s, you likely understand why this is so. You might “live like there’s no tomorrow” and try to retain the spontaneity and not-care-for-what-others-think spirit of your rebellious youth, but growing older naturally and almost universally comes with at least some concessions.

Conversely, I’ve experienced things like The Police (one of my favorites growing up) on its ’07/’08 reunion tour. The trio seemed unfocused and dispassionate about much of the classic material that filled its set. It reinforced my standoffish approach to going to see shows by artists whose music meant so much to me. I have seen Bob Dylan six or seven times and he was tolerable exactly once. A few times in the past 20 years I have gone to see more elderly greats perform due to the fact that they were at an age where they genuinely could die at any moment.  I’ve always loved Chuck Berry and James Brown’s music, but it didn’t have that deep, emotional impact on me at a young age like certain other musicians. Still, I couldn’t resist the chance to be in the presence of these icons who changed the face of music. Both shows were rough and messy, but I’m glad I got to see them.  

In 2011, it was announced that Paul McCartney was bringing his “On the Run” world tour to Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark. The Beatles have had more of an impact on my life than almost any other musical act… or cultural figure of any kind, for that matter. I’m fond of saying that, “Everything I learned, I learned from Sesame Street,” but I put The Beatles (and the individual members’ solo work) on a level above that. In that huge body of work, there are life lessons for every occasion and perspective-shifting poetics. Like many other music fans, The Beatles’ work is a part of my DNA. I don’t know for sure, but I might be an entirely different person if The Beatles never existed.

After passing up other McCartney tour stops in Cincinnati over the years, in 2011 I made the spontaneous decision to go all in and buy expensive tickets that had me just a few rows from the stage. I’d seen enough live footage of McCartney in recent years to know that he doesn’t slack when he goes on tour, and, thanks to the assistance of his amazing backing band, he still sounds excellent when he plays. And frankly I was a little bothered by how, even though I had the chance, I might go through life without ever seeing McCartney live, given how important his band (and post-Beatles work) have been to me. (Sorry Ringo — love ya, but I have no urge to see you in play master of ceremonies at your “All Starr” concerts.)

That 2011 show was such an emotionally moving experience, I spent the next several days obsessing about it — about what it meant to me and what I learned. I had planned to write a review of the show, but once I started working on it, I found that the sheer multitude and magnitude of emotions and revelations I experienced at that concert left me spinning and overwhelmed. I wrote and wrote and wrote, to the point where (much like this essay), it seemed to be way too long and unfocussed… and I hadn’t come close to expressing everything I felt while watching the show. I never finished that review — I like to say that it ate itself. The layers of feelings were so expansive, that review just collapsed and I ended up deleting in frustration.

McCartney’s current One on One tour brought him back to Cincinnati on July 10, this time with an indoor show at U.S. Bank Arena, next-door-neighbor to Great American Ballpark along the Ohio’s riverfront. Initially I was to be on vacation the week of the concert, but my travel plans fell through at the last minute. I’ve also been going through a deep depression. Once my trip was not happening, I immediately started thinking about the McCartney show. The very day I began seriously looking at buying a ticket (most of which were available on resale sites and well beyond what I could afford), I was offered a chance to go the show by McCartney’s publicist. Given my current mood and the impact that first McCartney show had on me, it seemed like serendipity. It suddenly seemed like I needed to be at that show, at this time. I needed that mind-blowing experience, and McCartney and his bandmates gave me just what I needed.

In his two-hours-and-forty-five-minute show on Sunday night, McCartney (who, it’s easy to forget, is 74 years old) did his job better than you do yours. McCartney is a masterful showman who keenly understands how to push the right buttons with his audience. Though that might seem simple when your audience is so completely in awe of you and the work you have done, McCartney keenly understands his impact on people (and comes off as appreciative of his influence on not just culture, but people’s personal lives), and he uses that to great effect in his show. Besides being one of the best songwriters to ever write a song, he is one of the greatest entertainers in the history —from his setlist choices to his between song banter (which ranges from goofy to emotionally touching), McCartney’s decades as a star in the biz have helped him hone a live show that connects to his fans deeply, charms the crowds’ pants off with his wit, appreciation and sincerity and crisply presents a mix of material from throughout his career, blending solo hits with his classics with Wings and that little band that changed the world, The Beatles. He could just play the show on a stark stage without saying a word and the music would speak for itself and leave every fan happy at the end of the night. But McCartney concerts are big productions, with captivating staging surprises that include pyrotechnics and compelling visual backdrops that sometimes work off of nostalgia, but are also often inventively artistic.

Understanding one’s audience has to make choosing a setlist daunting, especially when you have a few hundred undeniable crowd-pleasers in your discography. But McCartney gracefully meshes songs from all of his projects into his shows. The stereotypical “nostalgia act” probably doesn’t put too much thought into what is played — some have a stock 15-20 songs that must be played, and just running through the same favorites is likely easier than trying to force obscure or new material onto fans. But McCartney’s set, while dominated by his Beatles/Wings “standards,” incorporates more recent material flawlessly — songs from his 2013 album New (like “Queenie Eye” and the title track) might not be as familiar to fans, but in the context of his entire body of work, the tone and energy fit naturally and didn’t immediately lead to the typical mass exodus to the beer stands and bathrooms.

Like at his 2011 Cincinnati stop, the show opened with a lengthy and creative mash-up of McCartney’s material throughout the years, matched with collaged video footage from his life. The similarity to his tour five years ago initially suggested that perhaps McCartney and his band would just run through basically the same set. And there was a lot of holdover — some of McCartney’s between-song interaction with the audience was identical to his previous show in Cincinnati. His “Oh, the overstimulation of all of the pyro explosions and crazy lights during ‘Live and Let Die’ has worn me down, I can’t hear and can’t go on” act is like Paul’s version of James Brown’s “cant’-do-no-more/wait-yes-I-can!” cape routine. And while touching, his verbal introductions to tributes to John Lennon (“Here Today”) and George Harrison were almost identical to those the ones from his performance five years ago, though the ukulele-led spin of Harrison’s “Something” switched to a faithful and spine-chilling full-band recreation halfway through. McCartney also repeated lines about the early civil rights movement’s inspiration behind “Blackbird” (which he played solo/acoustic on a platform at the front of the stage that gradually rose about 25-feet above the crowd — a cool new element to the show).

But the One on One tour is loaded with so much different material — not to mention the brilliant new staging elements — it was well worth experiencing, even if you’ve seen McCartney a lot and might have thought, “Meh, been there done that.” While wanting to mix up the song selection from tour to tour (for the musicians’ sake, as well as the audience’s) is understandable and appreciated, there are certain songs that McCartney seems to have to play — songs repeated from his 2011 show included some no-brainer selections from The Beatles’ catalog (“Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby”), as well as Wings and solo songs like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Band on the Run” and the aforementioned “Live and Let Die.”

But the song selection circa 2016 included some great refreshed choices. The electronic-driven New Wave oddity “Temporary Secretary” from the 1980 solo album McCartney II — which was teased in the 2011 pre-show mash-up and is a great representation of McCartney’s long-running curiosity about new forms of music — was a cool surprise, complete with old-tech, Kraftwerk-inspired computer backdrop imagery. But given that the track itself isn’t nearly on the universal level of many of his songs (and actually sounds nothing like McCartney), some audience-members seemed perplexed. But for those who knew the track, it was an “Easter egg” of the highest order. McCartney’s shows play to the masses but are also rewarding to the die-hards. Those who have The Beatles’ starter-kit 1 compilation get “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “We Can Work It Out” and “Lady Madonna”; somewhat less casual Beatles fans got great renditions of “The Fool on the Hill,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and the great Revolver cut, “Here, There and Everywhere”; and completist McCartney superfans got a tip of the cap from Pual with “Secretary” and “In Spite of All the Danger,” the first song The Beatles ever recorded, when they were still called The Quarrymen.

“Danger” kicked off a part of the set that had the band huddled together in stripped-down mode, with McCartney presenting the segment of The Beatles’ early work with stories about the recording sessions and some insight into the band’s earliest songwriting and recording inspiration. It was another example of the interesting stage production that goes into McCartney’s shows — the band performed songs like “You Won’t See Me,” “Love Me Do” and “And I Love Her” in front of what looked like a small, bleak barn backdrop, while curtains were lowered to frame the stage in a way that made it seem smaller and more intimate. On the production side, every song was augmented with diverse lighting, effects and visuals — among the more memorable production triumphs were the spinning lights, lasers and psychedelic imagery that accompanied “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and the more minimal staging behind a great version of “FourFiveSeconds,” McCartney’s hit collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West which the band made its own with a more rocked-up arrangement.

McCartney’s charm and audience interaction are big parts of the entertainment value of the show, and at U.S. Bank Arena, those elements shined brightly. McCartney was his usual cutely impish self, throwing off funny asides between tunes and often taking a minute or two after playing a song to simply wander the stage and look around at the entire audience, smiling, waving and giving a few “all right!” nods as the houselights went up. As he’s done for a while, McCartney commented on the array of handmade signs audience members brought to the show — the quantity of which is the result of his reputation for not only paying attention to the signs (addressing them directly or nodding in the sign-holder’s direction), but also bringing the sign-makers onstage. A couple who held up poster board asking for Paul’s help in revealing the gender of their forthcoming baby (to … a Paul McCartney audience? Maybe they filmed it to show their family and friends?) was brought up onstage after being recognized earlier in the show, while another acknowledged sign person who said that if McCartney signed the cast on her grandma’s arm, her grandma would buy her a car. Like a comedian spontaneously interacting with their audience, these more off-the-cuff moments (as opposed to jokes he told at Great American Ballpark five years ago) were the purest representations of McCartney’s natural affability and charisma, as he joked with the shell-shocked fans, while also casually efforting to make them feel comfortable in front of tens of thousands of people.

McCartney’s whole show is an ode to his fans. As the band finished up the night (as has become tradition) with a three-song chunk of the magnificent short-song suite that closes The Beatles’ Abbey Road (“Golden Slumbers”/“Carry That Weight”/”The End”), golden lighting effects lit up the arena like a sun as McCartney delivered the rousing final line — “And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love/You make.” It appropriately wrapped up an evening of humor, passion, fun, introspection, community, history, death, love, sorrow, hope and elation with a bow of warmth and life-inventory philosophy.

When I saw McCartney’s show in 2011, I was overcome by not only the music, but by the response to it. His shows are a manifestation of mass public kinship, uniting people from many different walks of life through their passion for his music. The “na, na, na — na, na, na, na” coda of “Hey Jude” may be one of the most recognized sing-alongs in music, but if you attend a McCartney show, you’ll soon realize that every McCartney classic is a sing-along. The engulfing layers of voices singing along throughout the night to almost every song created a poignant ambiance that was palpable. Crowd members singing along loudly to a musician’s songs in concert is normal protocol, but the deep sincerity, love and passion was crystal-clear evident in the voices at McCartney’s show. The cross-generational make-up of the audience — literally showing the broad-ranging influence his music has had on generations — makes for a stirring experience in itself. Add in some of the most important music made in the past 200 years, amazing performances of that music (the ace band pretty much nails it all the way around, from the spot-on instrumental re-creations and the precision harmonies to the boundless, elated live-show energy) and the enthralling, inspired visual presentations and you have one of the best concert experiences you are likely to ever come across.

So if your favorite aging musicians are still on the touring circuit, don’t be like I used to be and scoff at the prospect of seeing your idols because they are assumed to be creatively bankrupt or missing the “oomph” they had in their youth. It can’t ruin the memories of the artist that you already have (those are implanted directly into your soul), and, best case scenario, it will be an experience that, like the music, stays with your forever. Why miss out on that chance?

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