Paul McCartney has something to prove. What that is is between him and his shrink, although maybe a desire to seem and feel undiminished is not as mysterious as all that. What we do know for certain is that, in the year of our lord 2022, McCartney is doing two-hour-and-40-minute sets that encompass 36 songs. If this seems at all slacker-ish, consider also that the singer is keeping with his touring custom of recent years and doing more informal, hour-long, 8-to-13-song “soundchecks” before the doors open for fans who buy VIP packages, something that puts him stage close to four hours each show day.
Unspoken at Friday night’s SoFi Stadium show in L.A., and un-alluded to in even the slightest way — even though Beatlemaniacs have it marked on their calendars for next month — is that he turns 80 next month, two days after the tour wraps up. It may be unfair to compare the ways in which different performers age, but it’s worth pointing out that McCartney is doing these fairly marathon shows at a point in his life that is past the point at which Frank Sinatra did his final concert, following a few years of publicly noted erraticism. And yet here we are at a point where, for him anyway, 80 seems to be the new July-or-August of his years. No one would begrudge McCartney, or very few would, if he cut a few corners: cutting the set length to a reasonable two hours here, lowering the keys a little there, or dropping some of the vocal ad libs to save his voice for Syracuse. But McCartney is not about to use impending octogenarianism as a rationale to finally half-ass it. In fact, he’s not even going to three-quarters-ass it.
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Of course, SoFi Stadium was filled with repeat customers — veterans of “Wings Over America” at the Forum in ’76 if not the Beatles at the Bowl in ’64 — but you didn’t have to look too far to see the sight of a 20-ish kid attending with a 75-ish grandfather, or even groups of proactive Gen-Z-ers that didn’t need boomer chaperones to see the value in coming. Whatever else might motivate McCartney to prove it all night, he’s surely aware that the “Got Back” tour is the only live experience of his or the Beatles’ music that these younger attendees will have in their lifetimes, and they’re not going to be grading it on a curve. That’s up to the oldsters: Were there enough deep ’70s cuts in the setlist? Is his voice what it was on the 2003 tour? But it’s hard to imagine too many people who were experiencing this as their first or only McCartney show not walking away with some deep feels they may feel compelled to tell their own grandkids about.
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The show here largely follows the template established by the 2019 tour, so anyone who caught the tour finale at Dodger Stadium in July of that year but missed SoFi doesn’t have to worry they missed out on too major a variation on the previous iteration. But McCartney didn’t really design the show with double-dippers in mind; L.A. is one of very few markets he hit in ’19 that he’s coming back to in ’22, whereas several other cities, he hasn’t played in decades (Baltimore) or at all (Spokane). Since three years ago, a number of songs have come out (gone this time are “A Hard Day’s Night,” the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise, “Eleanor Rigby,” “From Me to You,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and — bet you saw this one coming, or going — “Back in the U.S.S.R.”). Other have been reinserted from years and tours past (including “Getting Better,” “We Can Work It Out,” “New” and — hey, what’s this buried nugget? — “Get Back”).
Somewhat surprisingly, “Women and Wives” is the only song from his most recent album, “McCartney III,” to be plugged into the tour, and even that was absent from the setlist at SoFi, for some reason. But maybe the reasons for underplaying “III” generally are obvious; it was a pandemic album, scaled down and clearly not designed with stadiums in mind, unlike its predecessor, “Egypt Station.” McCartney half-joked that when he plays a Beatles song it’s like a galaxy of cell-phone lights, and when he does contemporary material he peers out into a black hole. But there were no bathroom stampedes during the 21st century picks, not even for “Fuh You,” the Ryan Tedder co-write that McCartney continues to seem to love beyond all reason, despite the better recent choices available to him. (Would he take a request for “Deep, Deep Feeling” instead? No, he probably wouldn’t.)
As for older songs that haven’t been tried on tour before, McCartney isn’t doing so much of that rediscovery this go-round, although fans are getting “You Never Give Me Your Money” (last played on tour in 2003) and “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” (only ever toured in 2005) as a medley for the first time. Maybe the true newbie in the lineup is the idea of “I’ve Got a Feeling” as a Lennon-and-McCartney encore duet, with footage and isolated audio of his late partner snipped out of the “Get Back” film by Peter Jackson for the tour’s purposes.
The loose structure of the show will also raise some deja vu for those returning from 2019: a rocking opening stretch highly reliant on ’70s rockers like “Junior’s Farm” and “Letting Go” as Act 1; a partially acoustic, “Storytellers”-like magical history tour of the Beatles’ rise as the backbone of Act 2, going all the way back to the Quarrymen’s “In Spite of All the Danger” and leading up the Lennon tribute “Here Today” and the Harrison cover “Something”; and then, letting the third hour be birthday sons, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-ing and “Abbey Road” medley-izing.
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That structure indisputably works, and so, as part of a winning formula, does a band that has now been together for many more years than the Beatles ever were, guitarist Rusty Anderson, guitarist-bassist Brian Ray, keyboard player Paul “Wix” Wickens and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. The latter player also doubles as the tour’s sole dancer, mugging up a storm behind the kit during “Dance Tonight” before finally being forced to sit down and help kick out an acoustic jam midway through the tune. Anderson and Ray do an eternally expert job of recreating parts McCartney largely did on his own on his own on his DIY records, and get to step into the shoes of Lennon and Harrison in joining in for the triplicate guitar solos of “The End.” Horns have sometimes been replicated as keyboard parts on past tours, so the sight of a real three-man horn section on selections like “Letting Go” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” was a welcome one. The real star of the show, in some ways: the Hofner bass, which McCartney not only plays for a substantial part of the show, but which has been animated for the pre-show countdown, descending on the big screen like some version of the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball, and landing like a giant version of the “2001” monolith before attendees see it in the wooden flesh.
And what of McCartney as a singer… at age 79-and-11/12ths? He has been, by some almost objective measures, the best all-around singer as well as most accomplished mainstream songwriter of the rock ‘n’ roll era — and how convenient it was during the 20th century to have both of those in one package. The catalog is set in stone, but his ability to ape Little Richard’s scream, or to navigate the eternally tricky twists of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” eternally is not something we can assume or expect. It’s just assumed that rockers can sing their classics forever, until we’re jolted awake to the fact that they cannot, as with the recent instance of videos being circulated of a certain ’80s icon who is not coming within a prayer of hitting the notes on his band’s most enduring hit anymore. Any fears that this would happen with McCartney are fortunately unfounded, so far. Which is not to say that attentive fans will not take note of and discuss inevitable balladic passages in which you will hear an interesting combination of vigor and time-wisened fragility in his voice. But make no mistake — he’s going for the notes he’s always gone for, and hitting them, without the usual accommodations powerhouse singers have to make as they reach an advanced age. He still howls. And if you listen carefully, it’s maybe a softer, less throat-ravaging version of the howl than he used to do. That’s more of a technical adjustment than anything that is going to stand in the way of anyone enjoying a balls-out resurrection of “Helter Skelter,” anyway
Yes, “Helter Skelter” is still in the set, and still as gratifying as it ever was, with McCartney maintaining his king-of-the-heap status on the precipice of an age where we used to think Chuck Berry going through the motions with a pickup band in front of a few hundred people was as good as grandfather-statesman rocking got. As much as McCartney made history with the Beatles 60 years ago, it feels like he’s making history again in pushing the envelope of how long you can keep doing this kind of a massive, demanding show (as opposed to a Dylan or a Willie, who also are out there and doing it, but with lower expectations of heightened stadium energy). Being on stage in front of 60,000 people being able to confidently coo and bellow songs that you wrote 60 years prior is not something that God wrote into the human contract, but McCartney (like the Stones and Who and not too many others) is are out to prove nature and the Almighty wrong. McCartney’s only nod to the passage of time was a final promise that “we’ll see you next time.” Do we get this privilege, at this high a performing level, again in two or three years? In six? Who knows, but for now, there’s reason to be grateful that he just can’t stop going back to the top of the slide.
Michael Buckner for Variety
Michael Buckner for Variety
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