Seeing Paul McCartney, who turned 69 this June, at Wrigley Field last night, the second of two sold-out shows in Chicago, confirmed what I’d always suspected: he was the brains behind the Beatles.
Sure, my favorite Beatle was always George. He had so much to give with All Things Must Pass, the result of years of being short-changed as the third songwriter in the band. And John was the cruel artistic force of the band. His songs cut through you in a way that Paul’s never really do.
But, in time, Paul has become my favorite. I love the anecdote about a reporter asking John if Ringo was the best drummer in the world. “No, he’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles!” John shouts back.
John’s response, of course, says more about Paul’s drumming than Ringo’s. His musicianship is so all-encompassing that it boggles the mind. On Monday night, he never touched the drums, but played barrelhouse piano on “Lady Madonna,” lovely fingerstyle acoustic guitar on “Blackbird” and “Yesterday,” and riffed hard on electric guitar for the “I’ve Got A Feeling” and the Hendrix tribute “Foxy Lady.”
Even take, for instance, his recently-reissued 1980 album, McCartney II. Bored with traditional studio settings, he rented a tape machine and went up to Scotland and started messing around with multi-tracking. The album that resulted is thick with synthesizers, tight drum grooves, and weird funkiness. The sky was always the limit for McCartney.
And McCartney had easily the most star power in the Beatles. He’s the great showman, peacemaker, diplomat, all-around great guy. While his songs sometimes veer into cheesiness, with 40,000 plus people singing along on Monday night at Wrigley, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” has clearly outlasted any snide remarks Lennon may have once attributed to his partner’s lighter touch.
McCartney and co. have been making the rounds this summer, hitting the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, among others. On Monday, after his two opening songs (“Magical Mystery Tour” and “Junior’s Farm“), he asked for a moment just to take in the history of “Wrigleys.” He walked a few feet away from the mic, set his hands peacefully on top of his Höfner Beatle bass, and took a few deep breaths, (to a roaring applause, of course). It was a sentimental moment. But it was utterly real.
McCartney enjoyed the Chicago crowd, making repeated reference to “Wrigleys,” bringing fondly to mind a Liverpudlian boy buying chewing gum at the local market.
The second night set drew nicely on early Beatles numbers, and McCartney’s band, while jaw-droppingly versatile, likes to play on the Beatles’ musical personalities on stage.
With McCartney on bass, lead guitarist Rusty Anderson plays a sort of John Lennon character, often playing scrappy electric rhythm and lead guitar on his Gibson ES-335 (the cream color of one of his axes in particular reminded me of Lennon’s Epiphone Casino). Guitarist (and bassist when McCartney moves to guitar or piano) Brian Ray several times picked up a lime green Gretsch for some George Harrison-esque moments.
But roles are not sacred here. Everybody does a lot of stuff – way more on stage than the Beatles ever did. All the extra parts – like all those strings on “Eleanor Rigby” – come from Paul “Wix” Wickens. With just five guys, it’s amazing the band gets this much sound – while simultaneously paying respect to the original arrangements.
Singing is also a pre-requisite for this band. Every member does it and they sound wonderful together. McCartney can still hit the high notes too.
They have fun playing early Beatles rockers like “The Night Before” and “All My Loving,” though the straight rock and roll arrangements – it felt almost like a sock hop – don’t leave much room for the band to stretch out. Early ballads like “And I Love Her” were also a nice touch, as were McCartney’s Rubber Soul and Revolver gems “I’m Looking Through You” and “Got To Get You Into My Life.”
The most sublime moments, for me, were when McCartney headed up to a riser to play grand piano. Most people only get one chance to hear “The Long And Winding Road,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and “Let It Be” straight from the horse’s mouth.
For George Harrison’s “Something,” Macca recounted the story of how he and George once worked out a two-ukulele arrangement at Harrison’s house. McCartney played uke on the song’s first verse, before being joined by the rest of the band and switching to acoustic guitar.
Instruments have a particular symbolism for McCartney’s live shows. He brings along the Epiphone Casino guitar on which he recorded the opening lick for “Paperback Writer” and also totes out his original 1964 Epiphone Texan acoustic guitar, which he was holding when the curtain opened on The Ed Sullivan Show for “Yesterday.”
McCartney played over 40 songs (counting segues like “A Day In The Life”/”Give Peace A Chance” and the Abbey Road finale medley, “Golden Slumbers”/”Carry That Weight”/”The End”) in just over three hours. There are too many songs to review individually here, and too many great anecdotes to retell.
But, as McCartney said so eloquently when asked by reporters, upon hearing about George Harrison’s death, if there were any particular memories he’d like to share: “In time I may get around to telling them.”
I’ll be holding onto and sharing the many memories of seeing Paul McCartney at Wrigley Field for years and years to come.