in performance: paul mccartney

Paul McCartney performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Alex Slitz.

Paul McCartney had the sold-out audience of 19,000 before him sized up pretty well as his tireless and irrepressibly fun concert headed into the home stretch Saturday evening at Rupp Arena.

Noting that performances of his Beatles classics usually triggered “a galaxy of stars” through the glow of cell phones from eager fans while the delivery of new songs amounted, in terms of expectation and interest, to “a black hole,” he unapologetically launched into “Fuh You,” the third of three tunes from his 2018 album “Egypt Station.”

Maybe the audience showed a sliver of sympathy for the seemingly orphaned tune or perhaps they were taken by the its bright pop melodicism which sounded like the direct descendent of a Beatles gem. Regardless, the cell phones came out and lit up Rupp like a Christmas tree.

My guess is something different – specifically, that the Rupp crowd took Sir Paul’s bait and illuminated the tune after the rock icon’s none-too-subtle hint.

The moment was one of many highlights in an evening that was, from beginning to end, a marvel. But it proved especially insightful in explaining what made the performance so special. It underscored how the concert, for all its unavoidably nostalgic lure, didn’t stay buried in the past. Oh sure, the better part of the program – a stunning setlist of 37 songs delivered in a 2 ¾ hour performance with no intermission – went heavy on Beatles favorites as well as popular relics from McCartney’s ‘70s albums with Wings. But there were also surprises. Lots of them.

For starters, there was “Letting Go,” a gritty, hook heavy slice of forgotten rock ‘n’ roll from Wings’ 1975 album “Venus and Mars” that ushered in a three-man horn section. The trio entered not from backstage, but down the lower arena stairs and played the entire tune in the lap of the audience.

Later came “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a similarly gritty (and overlooked) mid-tempo rocker from the Beatles’ 1970 swansong album “Let It Be” that still reveals an earthiness in tempo and groove. It was also cool to hear guitarists Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson, along with drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. (who proved a powerhouse player, vocalist and all-around spirit for the entire performance) taking over the refrain originally sung by John Lennon.

Equally unexpected was “Queenie Eye,” a comparatively recent entry off of McCartney’s 2013 solo album “New” that, like “Fuh You,” was delivered with a keenly retro sense of fun spearheaded by the headliner’s natural sense of playfulness.

As for McCartney directly, he remains something of a wonder onstage. Two weeks shy of his 77th birthday, he looked fit, sang with surprisingly unblemished gusto (yes, a few cracks of age appeared, but nothing more than what most rock singers half his age reveal in performance) and flowed with the program’s length and drive as it were a casual stroll. A testament to his stamina was the encore segment, which had him ripping through a reserved but still immediate version of “Helter Skelter,” one of the Beatles’ most savagely electric works, after navigating a full 2 ½ hour set. McCartney didn’t look even remotely winded afterward either.

Undoubtedly the biggest audience expectation of the evening was how such a master song stylist would do justice to one of the most honored song catalogues in rock and pop history. To that end, McCartney didn’t disappoint, from the show opening glee of “A Hard Day’s Night” to an eloquent solo reading of “Blackbird” to a lean and effectively rootsy “Love Me Do.”

Curiously, the most poignant moment of the performance didn’t even involve one of McCartney’s own songs. Instead it was a take on late bandmate George Harrison’s “Something.” It began with an almost ragtime-ish feel on solo ukulele (a favored instrument of Harrison’s) before McCartney and the full band slowed the song to its familiar ensemble arrangement as a parade of video screen photos featuring the two Beatles, ending with a series of them laughing together in a studio, illustrated the memorial.

The concert concluded as it began with, coyly enough, the “Abbey Road” non-hit coda tune “The End.” A recorded snippet of the song brought McCartney to the stage. A full performance version sent the audience home with its lone verse reading like a time-honored mantra.

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Those are words that defy age and trends to enforce a sense of pop affirmation McCartney’s program overflowed with.



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