For McCartney’s 78th birthday, we reprise this review of his Dodger Stadium concert in July, with special guest Ringo
A Beatles reunion in Dodger Stadium. Paul & Ringo together. Wow.
After several decades now of writing about music and facing the perpetual challenge of translating what is beyond words into understandable language, that’s the best I can muster. Here in the heady aftermath of Paul McCartney’s final show of his Freshen Up tour at Dodger Stadium along with 50,000 of my fellow Angelenos on July 13, 2019 — Wow.
Of course, we all know the guy is amazing and has been for years. The songs. The Beatles.
Still, when the news arrived that he was coming to Los Angeles to perform at Dodger Stadium (not the most intimate or sonic-friendly venue in town), it was hard not to think: Sure, he’s great, the songs are amazing. But how great can it be? Could a man at his age, and in a venue so vast, still bring it? Could he still summon that gloriously timeless magical mystery spirit The Beatles summoned all those years ago from that electric summit they called “the top of the toppermost?”
The answer? YES.
Absolutely yes. Maybe now more than ever. And that was obvious from the first measure of the first song, “A Hard Day’s Night.” Suddenly there it all was. The ingenious songwriting, the Lennon-McCartney bond, the electricity, the harmonies, the sound. There was also a luminous sense of generosity and gratitude: starting his whole show not with one of his countless masterpieces, but with one of John’s instant classics, a song he wrote overnight to a Ringo quip, made the statement simply. This was a celebration, with all discord left to the past.
That statement was made also most poignantly when Paul did that which we were all hoping he’d do — bring Ringo up to join him. A Beatles reunion in Dodger Stadium. And few things recently have been more heartwarming than the sight and sound of Paul and Ringo together again, united in song and the spirit of love.
Together, The Beatles performed two songs never performed in concert by the band: the famous “Sgt. Pepper” reprise and “Helter Skelter.”
With remarkable energy, McCartney played his famous bass parts, as well as guitar, piano (both grand and psychedelic upright), mandolin and uke. But he never sat still for long. Looking especially spry, after each song at the piano, he’d jump to his feet and do a happy dance in place. He wasn’t playing a role, or affecting an attitude. He was that guy he’s always been, the one who delighted in rocking out with amazing players, and he wasn’t holding back his joy. Never has he seemed happier in his own skin, being Paul. He doesn’t even dye his hair anymore, and with his long silver locks flowing, he looked younger and more vital than ever. And he was humbly funny all night, as when he took off his jacket after a few songs, and the crowd cheered. “That,” he said, “ is the single wardrobe change of the night.”
Back when he first went solo and started Wings, and for some time, he necessarily separated himself from the monumental legacy of The Beatles to establish his solo voice. So in concert, though he would do a choice few Beatles songs that were essentially Paul, such as “Yesterday” and “Let It Be,” he mostly played his new music. Which also blossomed with brilliance, such as “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Band On The Run.”
Gradually, surrounded and empowered by virtuoso musicians raised on the genius of Beatles music, he eased into the comfort zone of embracing the full legacy of The Beatles. No longer competing with John, he instead opened each show with the visceral force of Lennon’s genius. For Paul to open with “A Hard Day’s Night.” which sprung out of the gates with such power that thousands were instantly connected by the spirit, was powerful proof that tonight wasn’t about proving anything, or trying to compete with the past. This was a living celebration of some of this world’s most beloved and beautiful art — delivered directly by the man himself.
He also performed another unlikely Lennon gem, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” which John never performed live himself. And he also brought the song Sinatra called his most favorite Lennon-McCartney song, “Something.” Which was, of course, written by George Harrison. In George’s ukulele-loving honor, as he has in previous tours, Paul began the song on a uke George gave him, before stepping into its gloriously rich Abbey Road arrangement.
Paul’s party was good for the soul. Hearing any Beatles songs – with few exceptions – usually lifts the spirits. But seeing and hearing them delivered so directly, without pretension or unnecessary alteration, was thrilling. Woven with warmly whimsical stories told with the easy humor of a soldier who had been to war and survived, it was the ultimate McCartney show.
Sure, for more than a half-century one of the great ironies of rock & roll is that, within this very group who delivered so much love and expansive harmony to the planet, who told us love is all we need, was increasing rancor. It’s not a mystery why: the lads were mere lads when they started, as close as brothers for years. Yet, on the world stage, they grew up and became individuals. Lennon, especially, but certainly George as well, were ready to make their own mark, separate from the Fab Four.
But Paul never wanted to break up the band. Quite the opposite. He wanted to get back, as he titled his song, to playing live. Something grand, maybe, like on the top of Everest. Lennon thought he was daft, but to Paul live performance was the crux of the thing.
So now he is doing exactly what he wanted to — performing the remarkable songs they wrote and recorded, including all those masterpieces made after they stopped concertizing. Since the production became increasingly complex, consisting of multiple layers of overdubbed instruments, orchestras, voices, effects and more, it was reasoned that duplicating that complexity live would be impossible. Yet — by enlisting musicians like Wix and the rest to join him in this task — he’s shown it is exceedingly possible. Experiencing any of these live, whether it’s “Sgt. Pepper” or the extraordinary Abbey Road medley, is exhilarating.
But Paul’s always been the gregarious one – the cute, kind Beatle, while John was the often caustic genius; George the enlightened mystic, and Ringo was Ringo. Only Paul could do it quite like this and with such genuine delight.
And as always, this tremendously prolific songwriter had new gems to perform, though knowing each new one played means one fewer timeless classic for the crowd. Even at more than three hours non-stop, many of his most famous masterpieces went unperformed, including “Long and Winding Road,” “Penny Lane,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and even “Yesterday,” the most recorded song of all time. (He did play “Yesterday” as an encore in several shows on the tour, but on this night played “Birthday” instead.)
With good humor, he even acknowledged he was well aware of which songs lit up the crowds. “We know what people want to hear,” he said, “because when we play an old Beatles song, all the cellphones come on and it looks like a galaxy of stars out there. And when we do a new song, it looks like a black hole. But we don’t care, we’re going to do the new ones anyway!” He then dove into “Fuh You” from Egypt Station, while many thousand happy, grateful Angelenos held up their phones. Dodger Stadium suddenly sparkled like an ancient night of stars.
Also sweetly poignant was when Linda McCartney’s iconic 1970 cover photo for his first solo release, McCartney, was shown. Beaming with gentle paternal pride is the bearded Beatle with the tiny face of Mary, his baby daughter, peering out from inside his big coat.
“That baby now has eight babies of her own,” he said. “And two of them are here with us tonight.”
When he first emerged solo with Wings in the 70s, it was the season of spectacle. Rock & roll had evolved from Woodstock to KISS. Suddenly it wasn’t about just the music anymore, or the songs. It was about theater and bombast. McCartney had major hits, such as “Live and Let Die,” the theme song for the James Bond film, ideal for such spectacle, and even engineered musically to accent explosions throughout.
But on this night it was clear the focus was on the music — as played with exquisite artistry by these five musicians — and on the joy built into the songs. Still, Paul’s always been a showman and a naturally gregarious performer, and this is Dodger Stadium, after all, the biggest baseball stadium in America, with a capacity of 56,000, larger than any small town in America. So there were pyrotechnics, yet kept to a minimum; “Live and Let Die” maintained its booming bombast with repeated incendiary explosions. But saved for the end of the show it felt just right. And after the final note of his ending song, “The End,” the sky above burst into a beautiful panoply of 4th of July fireworks. Which felt right — this was a celebration deserving of fireworks. But after the show. The music came first.
Like Lennon, who asked McCartney to join his band for the immensity of his musicality, as well as his jovial soul, Paul chose four musicians to join his band who are all virtuosos – like Paul himself – yet eminently likable. It’s an equation that works, and has for some seventeen years, outlasting the span of The Beatles as well as Wings.
Keyboardist extraordinaire Paul “Wix” Wickens played with Paul back in the 90s, chosen for the easy elegance of his ability to recreate orchestral Beatles parts and more on keyboard.
Then came the addition of two L.A.’s local heroes, Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray, both amazing players, and also Beatles experts. Like Steve Vai, who impressed Zappa and became a bandmember by knowing his music inside out, Rusty and Brian were both raised on Beatles, knowing every note and harmony part. That lifelong love is expressed throughout every show, as they bring the majesty of that sound with great reverence for the source, as well as with abundant joy in making that music with the man.
Add to that the monumental Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums, who holds down the dizzying range of rhythms with soulful intensity all night, but like Ringo is happy to play the clown. A large man with a tremendously endearing face and presence, like some robust cross of Zero Mostel and Fatty Arbuckle, he danced, exulted, acted out parts, and generally hammed it up all night to the delight of the crowd and to the bandleader, who obviously encourages such antics. Rusty also did several happy dances of his own, even when playing complex guitar riffs.
On this night the band was extended even more with the addition of a dancing, extremely hip three-man horn section, which burst out of the bleachers on the great Wings song “Letting Go,” grooving on that visceral minor-key edge miles away from McCartney. They played on many other of the horn-accented songs, such as “Got To Get You Into My Life,” covering parts Wix used to handle on the keys.
It was the final show of the tour, which is always an especially happy one for the band – knowing they not only survived but triumphed – and for the privileged audience. Paul and the boys seemed positively giddy all night. Paul told relaxed, funny stories – sitting back at the piano calmly relating a tale as if we were all hanging out in his living room – with more than 50,000 fellow humans on every word – and he honored the other three lads, singing the songs and praises of John and also “Georgie” – before thrilling one and all with a surprise Beatles reunion in Dodger Stadium, bringing Ringo on for a big hug as the crowd went wild.
In these days of perpetual division, few things ease the endless dissonance better than the sound of true human harmony. It’s something the lads provided from the very start when they arrived in America just months past one of our darkest chapters, the death of JFK. Now headlong into another season of discord, here comes Paul with that glorious harmony again, and on some of the most exultant and timeless melodies of our time. Paul and the band brought a beautiful bounty of heartfelt harmony all night, as every bandmember sings as well as plays. Of the multitude of talents that this man possesses, his remarkable gifts as a melodist are at the top, if not the very toppermost, of that list.
So just when it seemed all hope was lost, here comes along a reason to rejoice, and another confirmation of the power of song. Now all these decades since their opus officially ended, not only is their music as electrically alive as ever, still shimmering with a bold and joyous newness, but here’s Beatle Paul soldiering on, still delivering that vivid rainbow of rocking beauty. And it sounds as great as ever.
One thing for sure — John was wrong when he said the dream was over. 50 years since and that dream is as boldly new and beautiful and inspirational as ever.