July 10, 2010
Better than: Any live performance of Beatles songs by anyone alive.
In between "woooos," "yeeee-hawws," "yay-yeahs," other assorted exclamatory noises, and turns gleefully thrusting his guitar or bass skyward, an energized Paul McCartney ripped through a hearty helping of Beatles songs in San Francisco on Saturday night. Which, no matter how expected it was, made most of those three fog-enshrouded, wind-whipped hours at AT&T Park unassailably awesome.
No, not "awesome" like the last good burger you had. "Awesome" as in truly inspiring awe, an overwhelming feeling. Fans, ranging in age from 16 to 60, broke down and sobbed in joy at some points. Adults slammed into each other in ecstatic embraces. Someone held up a sign asking Paul if he remembered them from the Beatles' '64 show at the Cow Palace. ("Oh, I remember you! Yeah!" Sir Paul responded.)
Awesome because you have never seen fireworks blow up during "Live And Let Die." Awesome because of "Let It Be" -- and the resulting, tears-streaming-down-cheeks inability to suppress the feeling it produced. Awesome. Because not only did Paul McCartney play Beatles songs in San Francisco on Saturday, but he and his band did us all the favor of rendering them (almost) exactly as they are so indelibly imprinted on all our cranial circuitry.
Okay. Despite the overwhelming feelings, some parts of Sir Paul's show -- like parts of the last few decades of his musical career -- were less than awesome. But more on that later.
Part I: The Approach
Ripples from the rare presence of a Beatle in San Francisco were felt inside Montgomery MUNI station at 6:10 p.m. Saturday: A man walks off an arriving inbound L train. He looks at a graying, jean-wearing straight couple who are waiting on the platform. "Is there something going on at the ballpark tonight?" the man asks with a vague air of irritation.
"Oh yes," the woman responds. "Paul McCartney."
"Aha," the man says. "That's why there are so many people with blankets." He walks away.
The woman mutters to her companion, as if in disbelief at what she has just said: "I'm about to see Paul McCartney," she mutters in half-disbelief. "Uuuuuaaaauuuggh."
This was the first sign Saturday that something very unusual was about to happen.
MUNI trains headed for the ballpark swelled with concertgoers. The people mobbed King Street before the show, with lines stretching halfway down the park to get inside. The lines also filled Willie Mays Plaza, where someone held a large black sign that read, "Fear God." Many stared upwards at a banner on the side of the park as they waited to enter. On it, a 15-ft. tall Paul roared at onlookers, half-mad and half-elated -- or perhaps snorting -- with his signature
Epiphone Hofner viola bass saddled over his shoulder like a logger's ax. "I wish I could have that poster," someone in line said. "I'd never stop looking at it."
Part II: The Wait
The massive stage erupted out of the Giants' outfield, its back to the bleachers. White plastic chairs filled a flat sea between it and the stadium's main seating. The wind blew hard against a flat gray sky. A little after 7:30, the giant panels to the sides of the stage began streaming a montage of photos and items from McCartney and the Beatles, like one big ribbon of memorabilia -- John's round sunglasses, postcards of Liverpool, early Beatles concert posters -- flowing from top to bottom. The P.A. played technoish remixes of Beatles songs, some oddball classical, and some Michael Jackson. The memorabilia ribbon cycled through once and started again. A lady behind me passed her friend a tissue in preparation. "Like tabs of acid," she joked. People grew bored with the beat music. The wind blew some more. I tweeted something snarky about Sir Paul being late. Then, at about 8:30, the music faded out. The video montage suddenly dissipated. A roar of excitement issued up through the stadium, the stage lights went bright, and Paul McCartney sashayed onstage, winking and waving like a walking center of the universe.Part III: The Show
The beginning did not overwhelm. Paul kicked it off with an appropriate (if slow-starting) "Venus and Mars"/"Rock Show" medley -- which was mostly exciting because the band and Paul were finally onstage and playing. They sounded amazing. The frigid crowd rose and danced throughout. Afterwards, Paul looked around as the Pacific wind whipped fake fog into a torrent. "This is such a scene," he remarked. "I'm going to take a minute for myself, just to take this all in." His words echoed throughout the near-silent stadium. Then, Sir Paul and his band dashed into the Beatles tune "All My Lovin,'" and the audience let out a huge collective squeal. Happy sniffing ensued. Violent hugs were had. The song -- this ancient, rickety, harmony-laden pop tune -- seemed to melt the cold. This was why we came to see Paul McCartney.Onstage, Sir Paul ricocheted around -- from bass to guitar to piano and back -- with an elastic energy. Between songs he relentlessly yelped, yowled and vocalized into the microphone like a two-year-old who has just discovered how to make sound. ("Woooaawow!" "Yeeeehaaahahaw!") Dressed in a long, black coat with purple velvet cuffs and collar, he looked every bit the monarch-approved song master -- even if his mannerisms and enthusiasm seemed largely toddleresque.
Paul and Co. alternated between Beatles tunes and Wings/McCartney solo tunes for the first roughly 90 minutes, with an emphasis on the post-Beatles numbers. A few of those, quite impressively, were not lame. ("Band on the Run" straight-up rocked). But many felt like they were being played more for Paul's benefit than the crowd's. "San Francisco Bay Blues" made for a charming addition, and Paul somberly played "Here Today," his imaginary, post-break-up conversation with John Lennon.
The man's stage banter was first class. Paul cutely commented on a false song start, explaining that his (tight as hell) band could have taped their parts like many others do. He joked about how the he found the crowd's handwritten signs distracting. After "Foxy Lady" briefly concluded to the solo tune "Let Me Roll It," Paul told a story about seeing Jimi Hendrix a few days after Sgt. Pepper's came out: Hendrix, Paul said, had already learned the whole album and played parts of it for Paul, adding a wild, whammy-bar-enhanced guitar solo. Paul was flattered. Not many people tell stories like that in the first person.
Let us now discuss the Beatles tunes: They were numerous, well-chosen, brilliantly played and almost completely satisfying. The night's selection included some expected ("Yesterday," "Get Back") and several surprising ("Helter Skelter," "A Day in the Life"). The best -- but it was close -- was "Back in the U.S.S.R.," to which Paul's band contributed remarkably Beach Boys'-like harmonies, while rocking out perhaps even harder than the Beatles did on the White Album. Lead guitarist Rusty Anderson rode the stage like a name-brand rockstar all night, and he got even more flamboyant later in the set -- like when he ran around in small circles while playing a solo on "U.S.S.R."
The limits of Paul's smallish band -- drums, keys, and two guitars -- only caught up with him once, when the keyboard-produced, plastic-wrapped-sounding strings on "Eleanor Rigby" distracted from the song's poignancy. It felt cheap. But mostly, the band's sound, like its playing, was spot-on. "Let it Be," another contender for best tune of the night, brought the house down, with the giant stage-side screens showing Paul's face reflected in the glossy top of his Yamaha grand. The crowd, seeming more worn than the band nearly two-and-a-half hours in, tried to sing along between sobs. From there it was straight into "Live and Let Die," whose "dah-duh" power-chording was punctuated by fireworks and flame throwers.It was clear by then, though, that Paul McCartney did not need fireworks or flame-throwers (and it became clearer during two, three-song encores). The former Beatle is armed with the greatest songbook in rock and the only authentic voice to perform it. His expert band insists on playing these songs the way they should be played. So if Paul McCartney's live show did not create an overwhelming feeling -- if it was not fucking awesome -- something would be very wrong. As the crowd shuffled out of AT&T Park under a sprinkle of confetti on Saturday, its buzz confirmed the opposite: the slow/lame parts of the show were a hazy memory, and everything felt very right indeed.
Personal bias: Paul McCartney is my least-favorite Beatle. I thought I might be offended when he played John songs on Saturday, but I enjoyed them. He's still my least favorite Beatle, though.