Paul McCartney knows how to please a crowd. That talent more than anything was on display during his two-and-a-half hour set at Citi Field (the new Mets Stadium). He walked the line between nostalgia act and “artist” (said pejoratively) beautifully, keeping familiar songs fresh and making unknown songs feel classic. Massive video screens on either side of the stage projected his every twitch to the back row while a main screen behind the band showed video clips to support the tunes.
The first proof of his performance ability, though, came in the song choices. For an artist of Paul’s stature, there are really two ways to go. He could make like Dylan and play loads of new stuff – and make the old stuff sound like new stuff – or he could make like just about everyone else of his generation and not play anything written in the last thirty years. With the Beatles catalogue being what it is, he would be more justified than most in going that route.
McCartney’s more clever than that though, or more restless. Don’t get me wrong; he played plenty of Beatles songs (twenty to be precise). When you look at the setlist, printed below, each one seems like a no-brainer. “Of course he played ‘Day Tripper,’ you say. “How could he not?” Well, smart guy, he hadn’t played “Day Tripper” in decades. Look at a setlist from a previous tour (like this one) and realize just how many “must-play” Beatles songs he has that didn’t get played tonight. “Magical Mystery Tour?” “Can’t Buy Me Love?” “Penny Lane?”
The point being, Beatles hits could fill five stadium shows. So cherry-picking them as he did proved a brave choice (though to be fair, it’s not like he has a dearth of well-known solo songs). The tunes he did pick were classic (“Let It Be,” “Hey Jude”), historic (“I’m Down,” played at the Beatles Shea show 44 years prior) and sentimental (“Something,” played on a ukulele George Harrison gave him). He even dusted off “A Day in the Life,” a song he had very little to do with writing, as a tribute to “my friend John.” You can imagine the cheers that met those three words. He upped the sentimentality even more by segueing into Lennon’s solo “Give Peace a Chance,” using the song as it was meant: mass sing-along.
Perhaps most amazingly of all, Paul performed even the most staid classics as if he actually still liked these songs. The Beatles broke up forty years ago; the fact that Paul seemed to still enjoy singing “Yesterday” was either a minor miracle or an Oscar-worthy performance. An astute crowd can tell when an artist goes through the motions with his mind on the next payday, so even though everyone would have cheered “The Long and Winding Road” no matter how he played it, the fact that he seemed invested in these chestnuts enlivened even the most nostalgic bits of the show.
The lesser-known songs provided some of the musical high points of the show though. Seeing Paul McCartney sing “Eleanor Rigby” is a moving experience for all sorts of historical/sentimental/personal reasons, but the unfamiliar material had to stand up on its own merits, free of nostalgic associations. It did, beautifully. The two tunes from his most recent album, Electric Arguments released under the Fireman moniker, bounced along like rough-around-the-edges Hard Day’s Night outtakes, the harmonica-driven “Highway” in particular throwing just a bit of grunge into the pop. McCartney seemed proud enough of the new stuff that he saw nothing indulgent about throwing in half a dozen new tunes. When the artist isn’t making self-depreciating jokes like “This is a new song, so go take a beer break” the crowd is more likely to take him on his word that they do deserve to stand alongside the better-known tunes.
Throughout the show Paul seemed as chipper as the audience. You wouldn’t know he’d played the same set in the same place two times already that week. Always the most angst-free Beatle not named Ringo, Paul’s enthusiasm cut through all the fancy technology around him. He seemed so genuinely happy to be there singing these songs, it was almost cute to watch. The man may be sixty-seven, but he’s a long way yet from senility.
His band, however, seemed a bit more jaded. They kept the energy up throughout, but it seemed more self-conscious, an act to disguise the fact the fact that they were sick of “Let It Be.” To be fair, they did seem kept on a pretty tight leash. Paul wasted the two guitarists’ talent by having them perform note-for-note copies of every song's original solo like a karaoke Guitar Hero. Drumming legend Abe Laboriel Jr. took a few more liberties, pounding out crashing beats and fills to songs that benefited from the extra jolt of energy he provided. He seemed almost too good. When tightness comes at the expense of spontaneity, maybe it’s time to stretch out.
The unfortunate idolization of the "Original Recording" led to the band synthesizing every sound that wasn’t a guitar, piano, or drums. I can understand the desire not to take a full string section on tour, but piping in the horn blasts for “Got to Get You Into My Life” comes off as cheap. Surely Sir Paul can afford a trumpet player or two.
Perhaps that’s why his few solo performances felt so refreshing. “Here Today” was a gorgeous finger-picked tribute to Lennon that brought tears to those of us who couldn’t even see the photos scrolling on the screen behind him. Even “Blackbird,” the bane of budding guitarists everywhere, emoted a refreshing purity without extra accoutrements.
Now McCartney may not be up to a stripped-down solo tour like Bruce Springsteen. Being the crowd-pleaser that he is, I don’t think he could bear to force an audience to suffer through a (gasp) string-free version of “The Long and Winding Road.” Still, the line between nostalgia and creativity runs thin and, though he hit the mark at Citi Field, his position was precarious. So keep playing your new songs, Paul, and maybe even consider revamping the old. The audience loves this music as much as you do. They’ve stuck with you for forty-five years; you’re not going to lose ‘em now. Trust us.
Drive My Car
Only Mama Knows
Got To Get You Into My Life
Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady
The Long and Winding Road
Sing the Changes
Band on the Run
Back in the U.S.S.R.
I've Got a Feeling
A Day in the Life/Give Peace a Chance
Let It Be
Live and Let Die
I Saw Her Standing There
Sgt Pepper's (Reprise)/ The End