Paul McCartney is nearly 70 years old.
Not that you would’ve known that Sunday night at Wrigley Field as McCartney brought his “On the Run” tour to Chicago for the first of two shows.
Credit McCartney’s band for keeping the songs moving at a brisk pace and consistently challenging their leader. And make no mistake: it was a challenge that saw McCartney rise to the occasion playing bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric mandolin, ukelele, piano and organ throughout the two hour and forty minute performance.
Since 2002, McCartney has toured with Rusty Anderson (guitar and backing vocals), Brian Ray (bass, guitar and backing vocals), Abe Laboriel, Jr. (drums, percussion and backing vocals) and Paul Wickens (keyboards, guitar, percussion, harmonica and backing vocals since 1989) and that decade has given them plenty of time to gel together as a well-oiled, live machine.
Laboriel is the key to everything. His frenetic pace fueled the show’s fastest and most rocking moments (“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and “Helter Skelter”), the band followed his lead and his fills were the highlight of songs like “A Day in the Life.”
Three things amazed me about Paul’s performance: 1.) His ability to perform some of the most well known pop songs of all time (emotional songs like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Let it Be,” “Hey Jude,” and “Yesterday” that he’s performed countless times) with urgency and relevance as if he wrote them yesterday… 2.) His desire to take chances amidst a sold out crowd of nearly 45,000… and 3.) His ability to not only stage but carry a stadium show of this colossal magnitude with very little reliance on pyro, eye candy or other special effects.
If there was ever an artist with an excuse to rest on his laurels, Paul McCartney would be that artist. But here was a man onstage clearly enjoying himself and the opportunity to perform his unparalleled catalog of songs with a seemingly renewed vigor. It’s easy to forget just how many hits the man has. It’s also easy to take a nearly fifty year old Beatles catalog (whose songs remain daily radio staples on a variety of formats) entirely for granted. But Paul’s no-nonsense approach to Beatle classics like “All My Loving,” “Drive My Car,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Day Tripper” made me remember that these are the songs that shaped the rock and pop canon, the songs upon which so much rock and pop since has been built. There was no mistaking it with the joyous manner in which Paul approached those songs.
For years, I wrote off so much of the Wings catalog as overrated, schmaltzy pop unworthy of induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with “Let ‘Em In” the first song I’d use to defend that argument). Last night, the more uptempo Wings material (“Jet,” “Junior’s Farm,” “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five,” and “Live and Let Die”) predictably rocked. But “Let ‘Em In” sounded so great that it has forced me to entirely reevaluate my thoughts on Wings. Beatle tracks that I viewed in a similar manner (“The Long and Winding Road” and “Blackbird,” for instance) were similarly impressive.
In the stadium setting, it’s easy to play it safe. Paul refused to do that. No tour organizer in their right mind would advise a 60′s icon like Paul McCartney to perform an experimental, electro-pop song in front of 45,000 people at a sold out baseball park. But McCartney did just that when he performed the virtually unknown “Sing the Changes” (a track he recorded under the pseudonym The Fireman on the 2008 album Electric Arguments). And it totally worked. Paul also paid tribute to former bandmate George Harrison when he performed “Something”… solo… on a ukelele. These were refreshing moments.
The few bands who can manage to sell out stadiums for multiple nights tend to do so based upon a reputation for amazing live shows based primarily on pyro or insane stage setups with a focus on the actual music secondary at best. Paul McCartney used pyro and fireworks to appropriately accentuate the band’s performance of exactly one song: “Live and Let Die.” Aside from that, the stage was adorned with a video screen on each side with another video screen behind the band. That was it. This was a no frills environment that allowed the band’s performance of timeless music to speak for itself. And whether it was solo acoustic or full band, it did just that. I’ve seen bands close to the iconic stature of McCartney who couldn’t pull that off. And Paul made reference to that fact late in the show when he informed the crowd “There’s noone hiding under the stage.” He tried to brush it off as an “inside joke” but upon further thought, his intent was clear and acts like U2 or the Rolling Stones would be wise to take notice.
A solo acoustic rendition of “Blackbird” turned out to be a crowd favorite featuring one of the loudest sing-a-longs of the night while the full band’s backing harmonies on “Paperback Writer” absolutely solidified that performance. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” surprised me by being one of my favorite moments of the show. The band upped the ante on the song’s reggae roots (the light show spotlighting green, red and yellow), sped it up a bit and turned it into a downright celebratory moment.
Really, the entire show was celebratory. Featuring a tribute to Jimi Hendrix (“Foxy Lady”), John Lennon (“Here Today” and “Give Peace a Chance”), George Harrison (“Something” solo on ukelele), and the live music of Paul McCartney, Wings and The Beatles, Sunday night added another intriguing chapter to the history of Wrigley Field amidst an otherwise uneventful July at the ballpark.