By: Max Stewart
There are certain defining moments of the 20th century that shaped American life as we know it today: the invention of the automobile, Vietnam and the Sixties counterculture, introduction of television into every living room, Dr. King and the civil rights movement, the cell phone, the internet, and, you guessed it, Beatlemania. Sure, there were other rock ‘n’ roll acts that were idolized by the masses before the Beatles made landfall across the pond (i.e. Elvis, the undisputed King), but this band completely shifted the country’s view on pop culture and the characteristics of successful entertainers. Prior bands in the singles-driven music business machine seemed like manufactured, goody-two-shoe figures that were hardly relatable. Conversely, the lads from Liverpool were like a few neighborhood friends from down the street, and, oh yeah, their songs were the most prevailing musical force to ever hit the U.S.A. The Beatles took the country by storm when they performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 for an estimated 73 million people (roughly 40% of the ENTIRE NATION) that were infatuated by their shaggy-haired look, their defining presence, and their catchy songs.
John, Paul, George and Ringo changed the music game in so many ways: they made the album format more widely-accepted as opposed to churning out singles like a sprinkler, they would joke and sometimes intentionally stir up the press in a way that was never done by pop culture icons before, and they constantly reinvented their sound proving that musical genres are simply barriers meant to be broken. That being said, they managed to write unequivocally infectious songs that had a stronghold on an entire country ranging from shrieking teenage girls to toe-tapping dads. Every musician after the Beatles has taken something from the Beatles, whether or not they admit it. Their song structures and melodies forged a path for thousands and thousands of bands to take while riding their wake.
Of course, we could spend days discussing the ripple effect of the most influential band of all time, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because one of the major songwriting forces of the Beatles, and arguably the GOAT, is still performing at age 74 with the same energy and magnetism as if it were 1966. One would think that a concert featuring a member of true rock royalty (it’s SIR Paul McCartney, to you!) would be mirrored with over-choreographed production, lifeless performance of “the hits” and no real audience connection. That’s where you are wrong, mates. Sir Paul has the rare ability to make a packed arena feel like an old English pub where he’s fully engaged with the crowd throughout the evening.
McCartney has always been the most approachable and relatable member of the Beatles akin to your favorite uncle that you are always most excited to chat with at Thanksgiving. Uncle McCartney absolutely did not disappoint during his two night run in DC on August 9 & 10, as he made time in between songs to tell stories and tidbits like we were sitting around the table drinking wine and chowing down together.
As soon as McCartney took the stage and picked up his signature Höfner bass, the crowd was on their feet. Once he muttered the line “It’s been a haaaard day’s night,” the entire arena was roaring. McCartney has never played “A Hard Day’s Night” as a solo artist until this tour, and one could not help but be drawn to the excitement of hundreds of Baby Boomers movin’ and a groovin’ while their idol play a hit from their formative years for the first time. McCartney then fast-forwarded the clocks to present day to perform “Save Us”, an up-tempo song off of his new album (very fittingly titled, New), which has a punk-inspired guitar riff that intertwines with a heroic chorus. Just as soon as the song ended, we hopped back in the DeLorean and headed back in time to hear “Can’t Buy Me Love” off of A Hard Day’s Night. The vibrato vocals were much more pronounced than the studio version, with every member of the audience singing along as an honorary 5th Beatle.
The Wings song “Jet” soared in part due to the crowd’s fist-pumps while belting the straightforward ‘JET!’ line, and then unashamedly following up with the falsetto ‘WOOOOOO’s. At this point, we were flying high as Captain Paul piloted the aircraft and we were all cruising at a very comfortable altitude (with cocktails in-hand).
“This song has a bit of an electronic ditty,” McCartney stated before a distinctly eighties, sythn-loop kicked things off for “Temporary Secretary”, from 1980’s McCartney II. The song itself was much more ahead of its time than it got credit for when it was released, and the melody holds up very well along with some light-hearted, quirky lyrics about a man in need of temp administrative support: “She can be a diplomat, but I don’t need a girl like that; She can be a neurosurgeon, if she’s doing nothing urgent.”
McCartney then picked up a tastefully decorated Gibson Les Paul and proceeded to flawlessly execute the twangy riff in Wings’ “Let Me Roll It”. The all-hands-on-deck chorus had everyone swaying and singing along. The end segued into a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” showcasing the cohesion of McCartney’s band (who he has toured with for over ten years): multi-talented keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, fiery bassist / guitarist Brian Ray, shred-master guitarist Rusty Anderson, and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. (who’s passionate pounding of the kits is a sight in itself, like a fully-formed version of Animal from The Muppets).
After the band jammed through the song from Are You Experienced, McCartney earnestly dedicated the performance to the late, great Hendrix. Eyes were wide and jaws were dropped as McCartney gathered us in his living room for the first ‘Fireside Chat’ of the evening. He described seeing Hendrix perform in London for the first time and remembered Hendrix ferociously using the tremolo on his guitar (aka, the ‘Whammy Bar’), which “in those days would send your guitar wildly out of tune”. Hendrix then looked out in the audience for some tuning assistance and asked “Is Eric here?” Eric must be a roadie, you ask? Nope. Of course he was referring to Eric Clapton because it turns out Slowhand himself was also in the audience that night. So, let’s recap: somewhere in London in the Sixties, Jimi Hendrix asked if Eric Clapton could tune his guitar, with Paul McCartney in the audience taking it all in and laughing along. The concert could have ended after this story and I would have left fully satisfied.
Sir Paul has a way of taking a basic two-chord structure and layering on a superb lyric that ultimately grabs you and refuses to let go. As the band played “I’ve Got a Feeling” from Let It Be, the audience was no doubt in the palm of McCartney’s hand. In between songs, McCartney was as spry and charming as ever and would modestly welcome applause while acknowledging every corner of the arena. At one point, he said he needed a moment to stop and “drink it in”. Although he has been playing for packed houses for roughly 50 years now, McCartney recognizes that his music is way bigger than him and that it means so much to soooo many. He sincerely pours his heart into his shows to make the experience magical for fans that have traveled near and far, spending their hard-earned money. Some of McCartney’s Sixties and Seventies counterparts could learn a thing or two from him when it comes to audience appreciation.
McCartney is every bit as sensitive as he is entertaining; as he sat down at the piano to dedicate the song “My Valentine” to his wife Nancy (who was in the audience), you could almost hear the audience “Awwwww” in unison. It was a treat for Wings fans to hear “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five”, and equally astounding to see how seamlessly McCartney can transition from playing bass and guitar to complex piano parts. McCartney is the epitome of a musical renaissance man. The audience continued to catch their breath during the love ballad “Here, There and Everywhere” off of Revolver. As if there weren’t enough teary-eyes in the Verizon Center, he then dedicated “Maybe I’m Amazed” to his former wife and Wings band-mate Linda who died tragically of breast cancer in 1998. McCartney has stated that he finds this song the most difficult to perform live in his older years due to the strain it can put on his voice; however, maybe I’m amazed at the way Macca did not fall flat on any note and continues to display wide-ranging vocal adaptability (had to do it, sorry).
There was truly a connection between the audience and Paul during the entire show despite his mammoth musical accomplishments and godlike celebrity status. It almost felt like Sir Paul was the humble king who welcomed all of the townspeople to dinner at the castle for the evening. Dozens of adoring fans brought signs to the show (which has become a staple for his concerts), and being the reverent performer he is, he will actually acknowledge some of them. “‘Band On the Run’ Woke Me Up From A Coma” was displayed in large text to which McCartney responded in disbelief, “Is that true?!?” Perhaps the most humorous and definitely the most “DC moment” occurred when the cameras showed a sign that read “Paul for President!” The entire Washington, D.C. crowd – no doubt many political workers and conflicting affiliations in the audience – erupted with cheers upon seeing the sign. “It’s too late!” Paul reacted. Given the mess we’re up against in this year’s Presidential election, maybe he’ll reconsider?
As American politicians continue to clash as a result of polarizing viewpoints, wouldn’t it be great if someone as amiable and authentic as Sir Paul could run our country? As many echoed the sentiments of the “Paul For President!” sign, McCartney very appropriately affirmed that middle ground does exist during the Beatles number, “We Can Work It Out”. The acoustic version dissected the song into its most pure form, highlighting one of the hookiest verses ever written. Beatles history buffs were delighted whenMcCartney performed The Quarrymen song “In Spite of All Danger,” especially when he divulged that he, Lennon and Harrison recorded the tune in 1958 for a mere five pounds. He then revealed the “musical phrase” that inspired “You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul, which morphed from an acoustic guitar part. It was as if we were hanging out behind the curtain with a magician who was revealing all of his tricks.
The harmonica part from “Love Me Do” ignited a chorus of age-spanning fans singing harmoniously, which powerfully echoed throughout the arena. McCartney dedicated the song to the legendary George Martin: “Without George there wouldn’t be any Beatles records”. McCartney stated that the line ‘Love Me Do’ was first sung by Lennon, but Martin had requested that McCartney sing it when they recorded in London, so that John could enter with the harmonica on the bar. For that reason, McCartney claims he can “still hear the nervousness in his voice” on the original recording. Love continued to be in the arena air during the acoustic version of “And I Love Her”, another timeless Beatles classic that featured bongos and claves.
At this point, the rest of the band took a break and McCartney literally ascended as the center stage rose during “Blackbird”. He told the crowd that the song was written during the Civil Rights movement, and it was intended to inspire the oppressed African American community to rise above and “fly into the light of a dark black night”. Emotions were high during this solo portion of the set, and Macca continued to wear his heart on his sleeve in dedicating “Here Today” to John Lennon. “Sometimes you want to say something really nice and you think ‘I will do it tomorrow or I will do it next week.’ And suddenly it’s too late. I wrote this next song after my old mate John passed away. Let’s hear it for John.” After the roars of applause subsided, Paul said the song was “a form of a conversation that we never got to have”. The heartfelt and honest lyrics demonstrate his love for his former band-mate, despite all of the tension that may have existed in the final years of the Beatles.
The band was welcomed back onstage during “Queenie Eye”, which is McCartney’s strongest track from his recent solo album, complete with audience participation and an infectious pre-chorus that could have easily been off of Wings’ Band on the Run. “Queenie Eye, Queenie Eye, who’s got the ball? I haven’t got it, it isn’t in my pocket,” is apparently a salute to an old childhood game he would play back in Liverpool. “New” feels like a Help!-era Beatles tune with an upbeat tempo and classic Macca hooks. Sir Paul is not one of these egomaniac artists that thinks every release should be looked upon with the same holy notoriety as certain fan favorites. This was evident as he quipped that he can judge the response of a live song based on lights from phones that are out recording the experience, with the popular numbers transforming the arena into a “galaxy,” while the less familiar songs turns it into a “black hole”.
It was a delight to hear the playfully psychedelic “The Fool On The Hill” from Magical Mystery Tour, with his iconic colored piano at center stage. McCartney proves he represents the everyman (and woman) during “Lady Madonna” by paying homage to the hardworking mothers and women of the world, while images of mothers with their children flashed on the screens behind the stage.
“We’ve played you our oldest song, now we’d like to play you are most recent song,” which was an acoustic cover of last year’s collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West, “FourFiveSeconds”. This was definitely a more palatable version of the song as compared to the studio cut, and this section of the set appeased some of the younger millennials in attendance that may have been less familiar with the broad range of McCartney’s catalogue.
One thing that set the Beatles apart in their heyday was the fact that they did not always write happy-go-lucky love songs, as is evident in “Eleanor Rigby”. The live version of the somber tale of a woman’s lonesome existence on this planet shows that McCartney was never afraid to get real and touch on icky, non-mainstream topics in pop songs. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” was on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and it turns out that the inspiration for the song materialized when McCartney was hanging out at Lennon’s house and they both read an old circus poster hanging on the wall. Some of the lyrics were taken directly from the poster: “we kind of just wrote it down”. The ambitious carnival-themed live journey did not stray too far from the studio version that was masterfully pieced together by George Martin, and was complemented by a Technicolor Dreamcoat of background displays and lights.
When McCartney busted out the ukulele for “Something” (is there anything this man can’t do?), he yet again pulled us aside and told us about the time he learned to play the tune at George Harrison’s place. If you were in attendance and didn’t feel some sort of electricity as the crowd sang “You’re asking me will my love grow? I don’t know, I don’t know…”, I honestly feel sorry for you. McCartney “thanked George for writing that beautiful song” and, in one of many high moments of the night, the song transitioned to incorporate the full band about halfway through while photos of Harrison shuffled in the background.
Crowd participation was at an all-time high as the keyboard intro bounced along during “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, with the Verizon Center almost shaking during the lively chorus. The pace was set and continued as the band dashed through the three-part medley of “Band On The Run” with a vengeance, with the entire band in full swing. The engine noises meant we were headed back to the U.S.S.R.: “You don’t know how lucky you are, boy!” Uncle McCartney then told a real hoot of a tale about running into some members of the Russian government back in the day while playing the Red Square in Moscow (not to mention he put on an impressive Russian accent in imitating the man who informed him that he ‘learned to speak English from listening to Beatles records’).
Music is the unifying force of the planet, and during “Let It Be” the arena was a true unit sewn together by the song. We did not pay mind to different political ideologies, ages, creeds, or religious beliefs; we were all just in the moment and could all get along for those brief few minutes. Music’s transcending power is why it is special to us all.
The set ended with a knockout one-two punch, “Live and Let Die” followed by “Hey Jude”. “Live and Let Die” is the quintessential power ballad, the elegant piano arrangement and vocals are literally blasted into orbit by a messy yet contained arrangement. And, oh boy, is it a spectacle live. The pyrotechnics literally brought the heat to the faces of the audience and the light show aligned perfectly with the ebbs and flows of the tune. What can you even say about “Hey Jude”? Oh I know, it is quite possibly the most fun song to experience live of all time. Every music fan should experience the “Na NaNa Na, Hey Jude” moment at least once.
The cell phone lighters (aka iPhone flashlights) filled the air with an accompanying mix of cheers and whistles as McCartney fervently returned to the stage waving the American flag. McCartney surely must feel a sense of pride as this country has been a pivotal part of his career, starting on Ed Sullivan back in ’64. He is a true entertainer who appreciates his broad audience and gives them all the show they deserve every night (the other flags waved by members of the band included the District of Columbia, the British Union Jack, and the Rainbow Flag).
The spotlight was solely on him for his acoustic masterpiece, “Yesterday” (also one of the most covered songs of all time), which still pulls at my heartstrings in the same way it did upon first listen (especially when more than 15,000 people are joining you). “I Saw Her Standing There” is every bit of the pop-fueled rock ‘n’ roll delight that you would expect live. McCartney always makes a point to bring fans with signs on stage to live out their Macca fantasy, and the highlight of both nights was when he brought a young woman whose sign read “Please finish my ‘Hey Jude’ tattoo”. Being the witty showman that he is, when the woman showed some skin for the former Beatle to sign the tattoo on her ribcage, he smirked and coyly responded “’Scuse us for a minute…. You never know what you’re gonna get up here”.
“They say it’s your birthday! It’s my birthday too, yeah!”; much to my girlfriend’s delight as she was celebrating another successful trip around the sun, McCartney dedicated the song to those celebrating a birthday as well as anyone “with a birthday this year”. Man, this guy knows how to keep a crowd engaged the entire show. When the audience wasn’t passionately singing or misty-eyed during the songs, they were in awe or chuckling by McCartney’s charismatic on-stage banter.
The set closed with three songs that consequently are also on the latter half of Abbey Road, which were played in the album’s sequential order: the piano-centric “Golden Slumbers”, followed by the
inspirational “Carry That Weight”, and finally putting a bow on it all with the poignant “The End”.
McCartney alternated guitar licks with the wildly talented Ray and Anderson during the final song of the night, proving he is as versatile of a guitarist as he is a bassist. “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”; these words seemed to resonate just as equally with the former Sixties flower child as it did with the Snapchat-obsessed, twenty-something in the crowd.
The tour is dubbed “One on One” and it is surely that. During both nights of shows in DC, Macca made us feel welcome at his home, while we enjoyed an unpretentious, human concert experience while being captivated by his charisma and delightful anecdotes. McCartney’s music means the world to so many people, and it was quite touching to see droves of families in the audience with the same mesmerized smile (I was introduced to the Beatles by my parents who also took me to see Paul back in 2005 in Atlanta; my dad once saw Wings two nights in a row in 1975 and my mom is a self-confessed MaccaManiac).
At this point in his career, McCartney could certainly opt to sit on a beach and collect fat checks somewhere in the South of France, but at 74 he still chooses to tour and bring out spine-tingling moments of bliss to a crowd that ranges from 9 – 99. And for that, Paul, we are so very thankful. Paul for President 2020? He has not lost a step in his elder years and is still sharp as a tack. Let’s make it happen America.
Setlist on 8.10.16:
A Hard Day’s Night
Can’t Buy Me Love
Let Me Roll It > Foxy Lady jam
I’ve Got a Feeling
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
Here, There and Everywhere
Maybe I’m Amazed
We Can Work It Out
In Spite of All the Danger
You Won’t See Me
Love Me Do
And I Love Her
The Fool on the Hill
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Band on the Run
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Let It Be
Live and Let Die
I Saw Her Standing There**
Carry That Weight
* On 8/9/16, McCartney played Wings’ Seventies mid-tempo “Letting Go”.
** On 8/9/16, McCartney played Wings’ swinging, bluesy “Hi, Hi, Hi”.