The cultural significance of a star of "Macca"’s magnitude makes the term “icon” fit him no better than a shrunken sweater already two sizes too small. He’s outgrown it and easily moved up in status to that of a historical figure. The first bit of proof of McCartney’s immortal legacy (other than the fact that not a decade goes by without a major Beatles movie) is the fact that the guy doesn’t sweat. While the potent stage lights made his band squint through the torrential perspiration running down their foreheads, Sir Paul’s face barely glistened.
The night started out with Beatles classics like “A Hard Day’s Night,” with “Can’t Buy Me Love” following soon after.
The audience’s thirst clearly favored the ‘60s, and not only in terms of music. McCartney’s every move was celebrated and even objectified, like with the whooping heard when he took off his coat. “That’s the big wardrobe change of the evening,” he joked after mouthing “What?” or like the whooping heard when he took a sip of water, (but really, what?) and then once again when he undid his shirt’s top button. While his band, including a young brass section trio with coordinated moves, was in all-black, McCartney was in a white shirt with black jeans and boots with heels, like a respectable rock star.
But McCartney would set his old-timers straight in the most politely British of ways. “We can tell which songs you like,” he said. "When we do an old Beatles song your phones light up, it’s like a galaxy of stars ... When we do a new song it’s like a black hole.
“But we don’t care, we’re gonna do them anyway,” he continued, before performing 2013’s “Fuh You.” But McCartney's hint is his audience's command, as they lit up every corner of the stadium into a man-made constellation. “All right, you proved me wrong,” he said with approbation.
McCartney is then again working a crowd of good hypnotic subjects, which he could induce to bark or belch in Swedish with as much as a mere suggestion. His shows may not feature any wardrobe changes, but McCartney switched instruments every other song. From various guitars to piano, to a mandolin for “Dance Tonight,” where drummer Abe Laboriel, who served as comic relief through the three-hour set, stole the show by going through a brief sampling of every popular dance move in the last few decades, including the “vogue” and the “macarena.”
While his face conveyed the fatigue of a performer who’s played the same tunes for the umpteenth time over six decades, McCartney made a gracious tour guide through a Beatles memorabilia museum. To begin with, he played the first song his old group recorded when they were known as the Quarrymen, after paying five pounds for studio time. “Expensive I know,” McCartney quipped. They each put in a pound and John Lennon kept the record for a week, as did McCartney, and so forth. Then, as McCartney’s explained, former player John “Duff" Lowe “kept it for 20 years, and then he sold it back to me for a very inflated price.”
After teasing the intro to “Foxy Lady,” McCartney confirmed the famous tale about the time Jimi Hendrix played a vibrating version of Sgt. Pepper’s two days after its release, during his show in London, as the Beatles sat in the audience. McCartney recalled a young Hendrix calling out Eric Clapton to get onstage to tune his guitar. “He said no, tune it yourself,” McCartney said Clapton replied.
Much of McCartney’s banter, like the tunes, is made up of tried-and-true classics. He also told the trivia item behind the Beatles' first Abbey Road Studio recording with producer George Martin, who put McCartney on vocal duties so Lennon could bring in the harmonica before the end of the lyrics “Love Me Do." McCartney told the audience he was so “petrified” that he can still hear the nervous vibrato in his voice whenever the song comes on the radio. “Well, not tonight,” he added.
Alone on a dark elevated stage, McCartney sang a love letter to Lennon, “Here Today,” while talking about men’s inability to say the words “I love you” to male friends. McCartney's stories don't just delve into Beatles oral history, they're parables of rock Gods instilling arcane lessons for the mere mortals. He also paid tribute to George Harrison by playing “Something” alone on a ukulele gifted to him by Harrison, before being joined by the band for the second half as pictures of Harrison filled the stage’s background.
McCartney’s vocals were largely drowned by a loud guitar's output, but it didn’t seem a Botox-like attempt to avoid showing his age. At (days shy of) 77, McCartney’s voice has been inevitably weathered by time, but though his own songs now fall outside his range, McCartney manages falsettos with ease, and his cracking voice only adds a Pavlovian level of emotion. Besides, those looking for a showcase of vocal gymnastics know to go see gold medalist Christina Aguilera instead. McCartney's concerts are keepsake memories, a chance to partake even minimally in the greatest artistic phenomenon of the 20th century.
McCartney performed through a shower of laser lights, next to booming fires exploding inches away from the band, with fireworks going off above the stadium for “Live and Let Die,” after which he covered his ears and mouthed, “Too loud.”
“My Valentine” from 2012’s Kisses on the Bottom was dedicated by McCartney to his current wife Nancy as the music video played in the background, starring the icons of McCartney’s subsequent generations: Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman, as they translate the lyrics into sign language. McCartney doesn’t need any cameos, even on screen, even of that caliber.
Looking around, it's evident that the singer is one of the oldest people in the room, even in such a large sampling. Likely because McCartney is a phenom who still tours while most of his contemporaries no longer go out to concerts. Much like the case made by comedian George Burns, who said in his later years, “I would go out with women my age, but there are no women my age,” as McCartney ages, his fans stay roughly the same age. His older fans have had a half-century of opportunities to see him live, and they may already have, but for whatever reason, the audience seemed to be of a combined average of 40 years old. Friday's crowd was made up primarily of families with young children and grandparents. A reminder that, like no other, McCartney, with the Beatles, has united generations and disparate cultures through music stitched into an unbreakable fabric of collective memory.
McCartney's concerts are keepsake memories, a chance to partake even minimally in the greatest artistic phenomenon of the 20th century.
McCartney did a quick inventory of the crowd’s hand-held signs, including one that wished him a happy birthday, which prompted the crowd to begin singing “Happy Birthday,” as the band accompanied the impromptu early celebration. “It’s not even yet, it’s next week,” McCartney said, after thanking the audience.
He kicked his leg up in the air a couple of times, jokingly pretended he would stage dive or throw a guitar, but for the most part, McCartney’s biggest rock star move was the awkward little dance — to no music — he did while facing a roaring crowd after a song ended. Yet McCartney’s so comfortably at home onstage that he might as well change into sweats and browse through Netflix.
Moons and planets were projected on the stage for “Blackbird,” which McCartney said was inspired after learning of the civil rights movement's landmark event dubbed the “Little Rock Nine.” But he'd soon “lift the mood” as he said, by sitting behind a colorful piano for “Queenie Eye.”
A psychedelic video backdrop lit up the space for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” with frenetic visuals for “Helter Skelter.” During “Obladi Oblada” it was, of course, Laboriel who belted out the song’s signature manic cackle. “Back in the USSR” came with the story of McCartney playing the first rock concert to take place in Moscow’s Red Square. Russian government officials backstage, McCartney related, told him, “We learned to speak English from listening to Beatles records,” before erroneously greeting him with the words “Hello goodbye.”
No number got a reaction like anthem “Let It Be” and an interminable “Hey Jude,” where McCartney instructed the men, and later women, to separately sing the refrain. When McCartney later exited the stage briefly before returning for an encore, hundreds of audience members belted out the latter’s “na-na-na-na-na-na-na” in a spontaneous albeit disjointed chant.
McCartney returned carrying an American flag, while one band member had a British one, another a Texas flag and another a rainbow flag. Laboriel walked through the stage proudly holding up his glass of wine.
The night was filled with inevitable emotion: To begin with, a widespread communion in a stadium bubbling under the warm night's stars, with the reverence to those passed serving as a grim reminder that a too-soon future will take the remaining half of the greatest songwriting team of all time. Also an endless gratitude for McCartney’s gift of a catalog, and for the fact that he didn’t play the simply awful “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time.” It's a wonder there was still anyone in the audience left with dry eyes. A father and son, who’d been dancing close to the front with unabashedly dorky moves, high-fived and hugged each other.
But it takes a true maturing into adulthood to actually stop and reflect on how simple some of McCartney’s lyrics are. Marked with a peppy whistle or upbeat piano, there’s an inherent Randy Newman-type of merriment in much of his solo music.
He returned with a collection of nostalgia for the finale, with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “You’re Gonna Carry That Weight” and “The End” as strings of confetti and fireworks commemorated his departure, fittingly leaving behind a cloud of smoke and debris. The peace brought momentarily by McCartney’s spiritually binding presence, if only in a small sector of the world, would soon be a distant memory, as thousands sat honking at each other through the multitudinous exiting traffic. But it was glorious while it lasted.