Sunday, August 07, 2011

Meet the Beatle

At the age of 69 it is sort of incredible how long Paul McCartney played and how good he was during his concert in Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. He still seemed quite youthful, and his voice has held up very well. If neither of these qualities were in place, I can't imagine that he would have played a nearly three hour show, which is what we got. His songbook certainly could sustain such a lengthy performance, one longer than that even. Still, how many people his age can you think of capable of doing this and doing it so well?

This was the last stop on his North American tour, and it wouldn't be out of the question to wonder if it might have been his last ever on this side of the Atlantic. Honestly, the chance that this was my final opportunity to see him live was a big motivation in my decision to buy a ticket. Maybe those thoughts factored into the setlist, which featured far more Beatles songs than I expected. Sure, it's not like he could go wrong playing some of the most popular songs ever. The size of the catalog he can draw from is staggering. His career in Wings and as a solo artist were represented, but The Beatles ruled the day. I suppose it was only appropriate. I certainly won't complain.

I got the chills several times hearing him enthusiastically perform classic songs that he's surely played long past the point where they interest him. Whether he stuck closely to the recorded versions or went with different arrangements, the results were thrilling. Among the highlights were a ukulele-led "Something" (not even one he wrote!), his solo acoustic playing of "Blackbird", "Maybe I'm Amazed", and the concert-capping "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End". He hit a stretch in the middle of the night where I was astounded to be reminded of how many truly great songs and popular hits he's written. How could you not love this?

I don't attend many big concerts like this, and when I do, it can be hard for the artist or band to shrink the venue. Most turn to big production values. There were a few of those during McCartney's concert--pyrotechnics during "Live and Let Die" were the flashiest--but for the most part the strength of the songs and the performance were relied upon to make the stadium feel smaller. To my amazement, he accomplished that. No, I wasn't doubting his abilities. After all, he's had plenty of practice. But it takes a lot of skill to make anywhere with a sold out crowd of 41,500 is intimate. To that end, McCartney's jovial attitude and anecdote sharing went a long way in making this massive space seem like a small party. Plus, say what you will about the peace and love vibe from the '60s, but the joyousness in his music is as pure and enduring expression of it as one might hope for.

The label "living legend" gets carelessly applied, but in the music world I can't think of many who are on equal footing with McCartney. What are the chances that any musical artist in the future can reach across as many generations and cultures for going on 50 years? (I'm not even sure the same goes for former bandmate Ringo Starr.) Initially I second guessed if I should go, but I'm glad I did. What a great night of music.

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