Paul Is Alive: 10 Quick Thoughts Upon Seeing Paul McCartney With My Dad
1. My first musical memory is riding around in my dad’s car listening to cassette tapes. In a reflection of the times and my parents’ effort to keep things kid-friendly, most of them were contemporary Christian pop albums like this or this or even this. But there was also Abbey Road. I remember “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” in particular because children always gravitate toward the goofiest music, and because I found it shocking that such a cheery little ditty was actually the story of a blunt-object serial killer. My dad and I have watched our tastes diverge and intersect many times in the ensuing years, but the Beatles and Paul McCartney in particular were always our common ground. (Ours and billions of other people’s, but still.) So it was special to see McCartney together Sunday night in Cincinnati, especially from the kind of incredible seats you imagine when you begin dreaming of yourself as a professional music critic. My dad’s smile when we rolled up to floor seats about 10 rows back was thrill enough for the night.
2. You will not be surprised to learn that a Paul McCartney concert was great, but let me emphasize the greatness: Before this night, I cannot remember attending a performance that lasted three hours without ever getting boring — and that includes a previous McCartney concert with my family in 2005. From just after 8PM to just before 11, Macca and his longtime band did not let up save for the briefest of pre-encore departures. The vast majority of their work was enthralling, and the rest was still pretty sweet.
Surely much of that sustained entertainment value was because McCartney owns one of the greatest songbooks of any living musician, but let’s not undersell his understanding of how to construct a setlist. He shifted from instrument to instrument, altering the context just often enough to protect us from a lull. Had it ended about two hours in, with “Band On The Run,” it would have been a fantastic show. Instead, at that point the hit parade turned relentless: “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” “Let It Be,” “Live And Let Die” (complete with pyrotechnics), “Hey Jude,” each one dredging up enough excitement to work as the main set closer. And to think, “Yesterday” and the closing medley from Abbey Road were still to come during the encore! As my dad put it, “It’s amazing one concert can have so many high points.”
3. Naaaaaaaah nah nah nanana-nah! Nanana-nah! Heyyyyy Juuuuuuude! (Repeat ad infinitum.)
4. One of the loveliest stretches of the evening was when the band huddled around McCartney in a stripped-down setup to run through some early Beatles material, beginning with “In Spite Of All The Danger,” the first song they recorded for £5 back when they were still calling themselves the Quarrymen. “You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul was next; it’s a simple, pleasant pop song, but for me, it packed more of an emotional wallop than some of the epics. Some of those massive hits, like “Birthday” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” have been so subsumed into pop culture that they sound like wallpaper to me now. That said, the next part of the stripped-down mini-set was the ubiquitous “Love Me Do,” and that one landed quite nicely. This portion of the evening ended with “And I Love Her,” the Kurt Cobain-beloved ballad from A Hard Day’s Night, replete with McCartney’s ass shimmying to the rhythm.
5. Another contributing factor to Sunday night’s greatness: The requisite new material was not the energy-sucking downer we’ve all come to expect when a classic rock artist goes on tour. Latter-day McCartney has been responsible for some unlistenable dreck — remember “Freedom,” his post-9/11 rallying cry? — but he seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
I’d never paid much mind to “Queenie Eye” and “New,” some highlights from Macca’s 2013 LP New, until they made for an ideal pick-me-up after the quietest run on the setlist. This might sound insane, but when I envision them as part of an imaginary Beatles reunion album, they hold up. Even “My Valentine,” a relative snoozer he wrote for third wife Nancy Shevell, was punched up by Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp’s sign language routine from the music video. (He also did “Maybe I’m Amazed,” a song he wrote for Linda; you may not be stunned to learn Heather Mills did not receive a tribute.)
6. Speaking of new material, this image continues to crack me up:
7. Weirdly, McCartney did not mention Kanye West or Rihanna by name during his “FourFiveSeconds” performance, though both artists were depicted on screen in a photo montage — maybe he sensed that it wouldn’t go over so well with many of the aging white folks filling up U.S. Bank Arena? He also didn’t mention Black Lives Matter even though his preamble to “Blackbird” was all about the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s. McCartney has publicly supported a number of social causes in the past, and there were Amnesty International tables in the lobby, but his stridently apolitical stage show seems designed to let people have their nostalgia trip in peace. That’s too bad because he has a tremendous platform — literally during “Blackbird” he was standing on a humongous elevated platform — and it’s not like people are going to stop buying tickets to see Paul McCartney while they still have the chance.
8. About that: Paul is alive! I’ve never known John Lennon as anything but a ghost, yet McCartney is still “Here, There, And Everywhere.” (He played that one, too, and hoo boy, it was accompanied by what we millennials like to call “feels.”) As time rolls on, McCartney’s mere continued existence matters more and more.
He makes liberal use of his iconography throughout his concerts, projecting images of the Beatles era behind the band to remind you that the same guy from all that history is performing in front of you right this second. Playfully animated images from the ’70s aimed for the same effect. And man, it worked. For three hours Sunday night, I believed in yesterday.
9. McCartney’s glory days keep rolling further into the past, but he’s still out there playing concerts in fine form, one of our few remaining ties to a foundational time in global pop culture. It’s one of the reasons I considered going to Oldchella, that chance to grasp at something fleeting before it’s relegated to history books and holograms for all time.
I opted to just go see McCartney instead because he means way more to me than the rest of those guys playing out West this fall — and because I could share the experience with my dad, who introduced me to the Beatles all those years ago. (The clichés are really starting to pile up here, but they’re all true. Call me “Silly Love Songs” saccharine. I don’t care.)
Dad won’t be around forever either, a fact that first struck me a few years back when he turned 64 — because it made me think of McCartney’s Sgt. Pepper song, seriously — and really sunk in when emergency quadruple bypass surgery saved his life last summer. My first child was born a couple weeks later, which lent me all kinds of perspective about the sacrifices my parents made for me. The thought of being ignored by my kids someday is severely depressing. Throw in the recent deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey, both of whom were disconcertingly close to my dad’s age, and spending time together has taken on a fresh urgency this year.
10. Sunday’s concert concluded, as McCartney shows often do, with “The End,” the exclamation point on Abbey Road’s grandiose closing medley. You know how it goes: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” That may not be exactly true, but there’s certainly some wisdom in it. You can’t wait for other people to move toward you, lest you go the way of poor old “Eleanor Rigby.” You have to seek your loved ones out and let them know you care. Maybe that means taking a parent to see their all-time favorite musician in concert, or maybe it just means sitting down for an entire meal together without looking at your phones. You may not always get the reaction you were hoping for, but as McCartney reminded us ahead of his Lennon tribute “Here Today,” you’re better off coming together while you still can.