Paul McCartney: Wrigley Field, 7/31/11

Mon Aug 01 2011
When I saw Sir Paul McCartney play the Bradley Center in 2005, he was almost past the point where he could sing “When I’m Sixty-Four” in cheeky reference to the future any more.  Surrounded by a top-notch band, he still put on a pretty terrific show, but cracks were showing; not only had his range decreased significantly since I’d last seen him, the power behind it was lacking, and he seemed unsure of himself at times.  For the first time in my life, I thought he looked a bit frail up there, leading much younger musicians on a quest to update songs that are already timeless for an audience that either already gets it or never will.  I remember feeling like I couldn’t imagine the ol’ Beatle touring again after this, and I was glad to be there to witness it one last time.

When McCartney started announcing sporadic destination ballpark shows last year, I naturally felt a twinge of hope that he’d return to the area.  I had no delusions about seeing a mind-blowing show, but the truth is, my first time seeing Paul (Chicago, April 2002) was one of the most moving experiences of my life; I went in in a sour mood to begin with, not expecting much considering the rote performances I’d seen from other elder statesmen of rock, totally unprepared for the power of witnessing a Beatle play Beatles songs, and my head swam at the impact of it.  From then on, I couldn’t imagine skipping out on the opportunity to get back to that headspace, even if it was purely for the sake of the songs.

At Wrigley on Sunday night, the band was in magnificent form, Paul was as assured and charming as ever, and still it was all about the songs.  McCartney has written so many hits, he’s alone on a level of not even being able to play them all at a single concert, giving him the rare freedom to dig deep and really play whatever the hell he wants, knowing that the real fans will be grateful for every note and the casual crowd won’t remember whatever he might be leaving out.  So throwing in Wings cuts like “Junior’s Farm” and “Mrs. Vandebilt” and “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five” was almost like some modern rock up-and-comer playing obscure b-sides, a total thrill for a geek like me and an opportunity for Paul and the band to rock out on tunes they haven’t played in decades.

Then, of course, there were the Beatles numbers.  It would have killed me to have missed out on “Paperback Writer” after all these years, one of the greatest riffs Paul or anybody ever wrote, as well as the left-field Help! nugget “The Night Before” and (if you’re partial to the U.S. version like me) the classic Rubber Soul opener “I’ve Just Seen A Face”.  But you just never know what’s really going to bring your heart into your throat when you’re dealing with the Macca catalog; “Blackbird”?  “I Will”?  “The Long And Winding Road”?  “Let It Be”?  An apocalyptic take on “Helter Skelter” that would send most 69-year-old men running for their lives?  Impossibly, Paul’s voice was much, much stronger at this show than it was six years ago, and the man never once even took a drink of water the whole show.  I was hoarse halfway through.

He sang, told stories (loving tributes to John and George brought even the most stubborn audience members to their feet) and played guitar, piano, ukulele, mandolin and his trademark Höfner violin bass for nearly three hours, seemingly tireless in the sticky, sweltering Chicago night air.  If I were to make a complaint, it would be that he only played one track from his most recent album, 2008’s Electric Arguments, an eclectic, vibrant album that may be the best he’s put out since the 70s (via his alter-ego project with Youth, The Fireman).  But I’m not going to make that complaint, because only a fool would meddle with something that’s pretty much perfect as it is.  I’ll leave it to someone else to second-guess a Beatle.
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