Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thank you, Paul

Hearing Paul McCartney at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. last Friday turned out to be one of the watershed experiences of my fifty-two years on this spinning rock.

I had never previously seen Sir Paul, and only made the last-minute effort to grab a couple of obstructed-view tickets for the sake of surprising my fourteen year-old daughter on her birthday. Going in, my musical opinion of Paul's approach to his music was that his band merely cranks through the tunes in a perfunctory manner. Paul McCartney could hire anyone to play with him. Why, I have long wondered, does he not hire artists in their own right to bring some freshness and magic to the performances? It doesn't have to be creatively re-arranged, even -- the same arrangements played by musicians with points of view and real touch would be enough. Peter Gabriel's band, for example, is comprised of peerless musicians who bring depth, intelligence, and emotion to fresh readings of the material. Sting's bands, too. Or think of the superb band of all-star associates Eric Clapton pulled together for George Harrison's memorial concert in 2003. The music soared. In contrast, it seemed to me that Sir Paul's band -- while certainly comprised of competent professionals -- puts on an entertaining-but-non-artistic, revue-style show. Having seen -- and enjoyed -- the band many times on television, I never felt particularly compelled to spend the hundreds of dollars required to be in the same space as one of the most important musicians in human history for a few hours.

But my daughter, a talented young musician herself. absolutely loves The Beatles. Recently, when watching a Lennon/McCartney documentary together, I realized that she knew all kinds of little historical details I didn't know. So, I thought, "amazingly enough, it's still possible to hear Paul live in 2013; I wonder if I can give that to her?" So, a quick search revealed that a D.C. show was coming up in a couple of weeks. No way could I afford the $150 + fees and up (way up) ticket prices, so I grabbed a couple of obstructed view seats for $50 each. And boy, were they -- off to the side affording no angle on the stage. Even the screens were unviewable, save for their ambient glow alongside the ambient glow of the stage lights. All of this would be endurable if the sound was halfway decent. But no speakers were pointed in our direction, thus ensuring that would be exposed to an unintelligible aural muck all night long. So we walked the hallway perimeter until we found a spot where folks can stop and eat while facing the field. It was a flat counter next to a bratwurst stand where we could stand and munch brats, etc. We stayed there for over three hours, soaking in the experience. The vantage point wasn't great and the sound only marginally acceptable, but it was orders of magnitude better than our actual seats. It was doable.

And then the music started.

Eight days a week. Freakin' Paul McCartney singing Eight Freakin' Days a Freakin' Week! My baggage was poised to be thrown out the window. I wasn't adequately prepared for the hugeness of the event, defined by the weight of the songs and and the power of his own mythology. Perhaps Paul understands this and therefore calculates that his very straight-ahead, song- and bandleader-focused presentation is just enough to trigger a depth of emotional response against which further musical and artistic tweaking would be mere trappings. Yes, Paul & Band blasted through 38 tunes, jukebox-style, original arrangements mostly intact and with a more-or-less generic rock band sound. And it was GREAT. Full of energy, joy, camaraderie, and projecting that ol' Beatles positivity, the band elevated all of us. And I'm gonna guess there were 40K people there, easily.

I've spent my life going to concerts, but there was something different about this one. Normally, I feel like I'm a fan of an artist among other fans of that artist; and irrespective of the artist's relative celebrity, it generally feels like we're bonded in appreciation of some sort of secret goodness. We're hip to something great (and even if it's Bruce Springsteen, not everyone is into Bruce Springsteen). But this audience is everyone; this music means something to just about every person. And to many, many, many more people than can afford to attend a Paul McCartney concert It's fairly mind-boggling. So, you look around and you feel connected to everyone on the planet in a way that other big shows don't necessarily make you feel. From toddlers to grandparents, they're all there. Hell, I'm enjoying a wonderful, sustained riverfront breeze in a beautiful new ballpark, and it hits me that McCartney appreciation cuts across more demographic lines than baseball does. The smiles, the singing, the respect for each other's space, the quiet in the quiet spots -- 40K people at their human best at the Church of Music, led by the Pope of Popular Music -- it was truly something to behold.

And the music ... In the interest of time, I'm going to bulletize some musical observations and highlights for you:
  • Dude can still sing, with range and power, in the original keys. And when the compositional diversity spans Yesterday to Helter Skelter, it's even more impressive. Does he sound like he did decades ago? No, but he hasn't lost much.
  • He still plays great on all the instruments he chooses to play: bass, guitars, piano. And on the tunes when he's holding down the bottom end on bass, the band rocks its hardest. The rhythm guitarist generally plays bass when Paul is on another instrument. He's a good player, but the notes don't have the elasticity, power, and articulation as when Paul straps on that Hofner.
  • Foxey Lady jam as the coda to Let Me Roll It. Enough said.
  • Lovely Rita! Now there's a delightful surprise. And it was big, lush, and orchestral. One of the night's highlights, for sure. Your Mother Should Know and All Together Now were the other unexpected inclusions.
  • This night's Lennon song was Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite. What a great choice, rendered beautifully by Sir Paul -- the vocals shone against the wonderfully colorful arrangement. And another reminder of the Beatle's incredible music scope. "Oh yeah, I forgot they helped define psychedelic music, too."
  • It seemed to me that the already blistering show notched itself up energy-wise at the exact moment when the the full ensemble kicks in during Something, Paul's expected ukelele tribute to George. He goes through the song form alone, strumming the uke on a darkened stage. After some time, the kick drum begins to reinforce the groove, cymbal splashes and other kit effects accent Paul's reading of Frank Sinatra's "favorite 'Lennon/McCartney' tune". Then, bam, the band kicks in, and the music begins to take flight. It never lost altitude for the fourteen songs remaining. The immediately subsequent Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da would have torn the roof of the sucka, had there been one at Nationals Park. And it made me think of my late father, who loved that song.
  • Back in the U.S.S.R. reminded me of the cold war and how awesomely ballsy it was for the biggest musical group in the world to pen a California Girls-style paen to "the enemy's" women at that that dark and scary time in history.
And so it went: more tunes, more happiness, more realizations of how important this music is and how cool it is to be hearing it delivered with aplomb by a now-71 year-old ex Beatle. My daughter was beyond thrilled. We'd exchange glances whenever the goosebumps would ripple over us. Funny how Band on the Run was her bathroom tune -- it's just not part of the worldview of a 14 year-old music lover in 2013. But for me -- and it was a thrill to be in a concert where my age was the median age -- and many thousands of others around me; this was a tune that was fresh on the radio when I was her age. Another big moment.

Two sets of encores. I'm a sucker for the Day Tripper. And I love hearing those old tunes that evoke John's vocals as much as they do Paul's. So you hear him in the mix just as surely as if he were standing there. Man, I'm getting chills just typing this. "Yesterday" was a highlight for my Sinatra-loving, jazz guitar-playing kid who just loves great songs. And Helter Skelter absolutely shredded. "Oh yeah, they invented metal, too." Seriously, the Cole Porters of their day tossed off a song in 1969 that was heavier than anything Pete Townsend could conceive in his deepest acid-fueled nightmares. Proto-Nirvana.

What would be the perfect ending to all this? Of course, Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End would be. And indeed the iconic sequence was the peak of the show. Superbly executed, it send us out into the hallway singing the challenging parts alongside happy strangers. The young man next to us, clearly born a good five years after John was killed, exclaimed, "Happy Paul McCartney Day!" and gave each of us a vigorous high five. We bid a warm farewell to the lovely young couple and floated out on the Anacostia breeze.

God Bless The Beatles.


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