“When I’m Sixty-Four” was conspicuously absent from Paul McCartney’s set list during his two concerts at Yankee Stadium over the weekend. No wonder. At 69, rock & roll’s most easygoing revolutionary is jamming harder than ever. EW was on the scene at the Saturday show, a nearly 40-song set which also featured some Empire State musical muscle in the form of a certain Bronx-born piano man.
McCartney’s nearly two-hour and 45-minute extravaganza spanned his output from the past 50 years. Chronological hodgepodge was clearly his goal from the outset, opening with late Beatles psychedelic tripper “Magical Mystery Tour,” followed by Wings shout-anthem “Jet,” and then early Beatles Dorian-scaled “All My Loving.”
Throughout it all he never left the stage for even a short break. His one costume change was to take off his Nehru jacket, leaving a white shirt with black suspenders. But his Larry King couture—and a few more noticeable wrinkles on his face—notwithstanding, he seemed to get more youthful and energetic, insouciant locks ever more boyishly tousled, as the sticky summer night in the Bronx unfolded. “Who is this Derek Jeter guy?” he kidded at one point. “Somebody said he’s got more hits than me.” Oh, did I mention McCartney knows how to work a crowd?
Actually, he did more than work the crowd. He seemed to get genuinely personal, sharing little anecdotes between songs. Like a story about how Jimi Hendrix debuted “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at one of his own concerts, after learning it in just two days, though Hendrix demanded that Eric Clapton, who was in the audience, come on stage to tune his guitar. (McCartney also added a few bars of “Foxy Lady” to his “Let Me Roll It.”) Or how he wrote “Blackbird” as a tribute to the American civil rights movement. Or the fun-fact that “Mrs. Vandebilt,” with its Slavic-friendly oompah, was by far his most popular song when he played Ukraine.
McCartney also paid tribute to two of his dearly departed bandmates. He strummed “Something” on a ukulele George Harrison had given him and eulogized John Lennon with the conversational, séance-like “Here Today.” Despite covering a pretty staggering amount of musical and emotional territory, his voice only cracked once, and he never even took a sip of water during the show.
One minor quibble. For a concert otherwise so vibrant, a continuous montage projected in back of the stage featuring images interpreting or narrativizing McCartney’s songs felt not only literal-minded, but an attempt to cast the set in a Vaseline-fuzzy light of nostalgia. “Band on the Run” was accompanied by outtake footage of Wings’ photo shoot for the 1974 album’s cover art. “Paperback Writer” received contrapuntal visuals in the form of pulp novels like Surfer Nurse. “Drive My Car” and “Jet” were coupled with—what else?—autos and aircraft. Sure a few were brilliant, like the point-of-view shots from people riding roller coasters during “Helter Skelter” and the Halloween-colored, El Lissitzky-style propaganda posters for “Back in the USSR,” but mostly it was an unnecessary affectation.
Especially when you consider McCartney’s knack for true, arena-size showmanship. Piano-ballad “Hey Jude!” all but invented the stadium-concert sing-along as we know it with those tongue-happy na-na-na nas. Oddly enough, some of his most theatrical moments came with Macca sitting in front of the ivories. In previous years, I’d suspect “Let It Be” would be more prominently placed near the end of the show. But last night he reserved it for the middle so that its feel-goodery would be cleansed with a splash of bitters from “Live and Let Die,” an apocalyptic yell that plays even better in these desperate times than it did in 1973.
Though McCartney’s songwriting craft has certainly diminished over the decades, it appears that his musicianship is better than ever. When piano man Billy Joel came out—to rhapsodic cheers from the New-York-state-of-mind crowd—his ivory-tickling on “I Saw Her Standing There” was no more impressive than that we had seen from the Ex-Beatle himself.
McCartney’s greatest triumph, though, may be in his simultaneous projection of himself as both arena god and ordinary guy. Like an Oprah Winfrey or Tom Hanks, he’s transcended all your usual celebrity taxonomy—he’s just like you, even as he flexes his star power. His most spectacular act of showmanship these days may be his ability to sell himself. But, damn, if it doesn’t sound great.
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