Echo Arena, Liverpool
How do you review a Paul McCartney gig? What metric do you use? The size of the crowd? The length of the set list? There’s no precedent for how the most successful songwriter in history should be presenting himself at 76.
The pre-show “support” is simply a one-hour build up to the great man appearing on stage. The first part is a DJ who mixes stems and loops from McCartney’s 60 year recording career, where nothing lasts longer than 60 seconds before segueing into another song you know like the back of your hand. The DJ then leaves the stage as the screens come on and a slow scrolling vertical digital montage of McCartney’s life rolls down the screen, soundtracked by more McCartney songs. It’s hard to know how long it’s going to be – turns out it’s over 20 minutes. The montage starts with a boy at a window on Forthlin Road, gradually moves through the stages of life, before ending with the image of a CGI Hofner Bass rotating on top of skyscraper with surrounding fireworks. At this point the imagery is matched by a soundtrack of the orchestral crescendo of A Day in the Life. Lights down. The man is onstage.
The show starts with a familiar yet unfamiliar CHANNNNNGGG as the lead chord of A Hard Day’s Night rings out, albeit as one of the very, very few songs to have been moved down a key. It’s not underwhelming, but after over an hour of anticipation and hagiography, your body is ready for something to finish, rather then commence. Even though I didn’t know the setlist, I did know that Macca being Macca we are in for a long haul of probably three hours, and we would all need to PACE OURSELVES. This is the other odd dynamic of a Macca concert, one that is the inverse of almost every other concert: When you go to a gig, a big popular band will have 2-3 songs in their setlist that will drive the crowd wild, and the rest of the show is managing everything else. Take, for instance, Nick Cave. I’m not saying he doesn’t have loads of good songs – he does – but people will melt or go to a different place when Red Right Hand or Into Your Arms kicks in. With McCartney it’s the opposite where he’ll play only 2-3 songs that *don’t* have that affect and pretty much everything else will set off an arena of gasps or excitement at the recognition of the first bar. (These 2-3 songs are the new ones, which he jokingly refers to as the ones where he can’t see all the cameras out)
So McCartney and his band of 16 years rattle off a few numbers as if they’re just warming up and sound-checking in front of us. For Letting Go he introduces his first horn section in yonks, who appear in the crowd. Notably, they are graduates from LIPA. However, McCartney knows so well what he’s doing and the evening has a bunch of gear-shifts that make the time fly by.
The opening guitar salvo ends with I’ve Got A Feeling and it sounds fantastic. The key isn’t changed, the band are so good together, and they sound truly live. That might seem like an odd thing to say, but one goes to a mega-gig like Roger Waters, and as good as it is, it’s almost *too* good. McCartney and his band, as well-drilled as they are, always feel live. There is nothing up their sleeves as they play. The guitar salvo ends with gear-shift number one as Macca heads to the piano and launches into Let ‘Em In (“the postcode lottery song”) then after a few tracks the next gear-shift sees the band rearranged at the front of the stage surrounded by some lowered screens, which seem to indicate they’re playing on a porch somewhere. At this point, the gig takes off…
There’s In Spite Of All The Danger: Paul introduces Quarrymen drummer Colin Hanton who waves up from the tenth row, and then as if to prove that even his earliest songs were hits, he has us all doing the wo-oh-oh-ohs in unison to this 60 year old rarity. Next up while Paul is still strumming an acoustic we are given From Me To You. Careers have been built on lesser songs than From Me To You, yet it could be said that it’s one of the Beatle singles that’s in the shadows a bit, given how epochal their 1963 (and everything else) was. And there he is singing it, the boy who wrote and recorded it. A man who changed the fabric of the streets around the venue and who’s statue is just outside.
We are halfway through and yet just like the Beatles themselves, we shouldn’t assume we’ve reached the pinnacle just yet. One person’s pinnacle is just a step to higher place when you’re Macca. Further accelerations abound.
Gear-shift: Solo Paul on guitar elevated over the whole arena
Gear-shift: Paul on a second psychedelic piano at the front of the stage Lady Madonna-ing
Gear-shift: Fuh You
Gear-shift: Back on the grand for Let It Be (a hug for the audience) then Live And Let Die (wakes everyone up again, pyrotechnics).
And the end of Live and Let Die Macca does a move I’ve seen him do a ton of times before where he leans at a jaunty angle against the piano on a pointed-out elbow, one foot crossed over the other. It conveys many things: “You’re seeing this, right? Can you actually believe this is happening? We are still not finished. My name is Paul McCartney, king of kings, Look upon my works ye mighty (including Red Rose Speedway) and despair.”
Hey Jude closes the set. Beforehand we were laughing at whether there’d be any singalong “just the boys… now the girls…” schtick. But it’s different when the man who wrote this universal anthem of support is in the room encouraging you to do so. A song that began out of wanting to let a five year old know he was loved, is supposed to be sung together. We are all we’ve got.
Value for money already having been given, there’s one more gear-shift for the encores, including the reappearance of Wonderful Christmastime assisted by a child choir from LIPA. Sgt Pepper (reprise) has fantastic big screen visuals of an animated Sgt Pepper album cover and surprisingly goes straight into a very heavy Helter Skelter. At a remove from the gig, this is kinda audacious: foregoing Yesterday, Jet, Silly Love Songs, or any of the thirty other number ones for a 50 year old album track is funny. The gig finally ends, as all Macca gigs have done for 30-ish years, with end of the Abbey Road medley.
Over three hours have passed, and while Macca has been chatty all evening, are there any final words to pass on to us all? While contemporaries like Paul Simon are retiring, what’s the future for Paul? “It’s been quite a night… it’s great to be back home…what can i say except… SEE YOU ALL NEXT TIME!”
Smoke bombs go off, and then he’s gone. Everyone is smiling. We’ll see him next time then.
On their feet most of the time. Did my best to ignore the family of three generations in the row in front of me. They were local, noisy and drunk. Also spotted were Elvis Costello, Diana Krall & kids. Elvis was as happy as anyone else, pointing at the big screen to show his kids when they popped up on it.
It made me think..
That’s Paul from the Beatles.