At Fenway Park, Paul McCartney proves he remains without peer
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It wouldn’t last, but I was in a bad mood.
With the train shut down for maintenance between my house on the North Shore and Boston, driving was the only effective way into the city. And what would normally be a half-hour ride, perhaps 45 minutes with traffic, turned into nearly a two-hour, knuckle-dragging, rage-inducing experience on the road, all for the honor of parking a 30-minute walk away from Boston’s Fenway Park. We got to our seats moments before the show began, with the edge of that nightmare commute still lingering.
Then Paul McCartney walked on stage. And he played “Can’t Buy Me Love.” And “Maybe I’m Amazed.” And “Let ‘Em In.” And “Helter Skelter.” And more than 30 more jewels from a life in music that is quite literally unmatched within the past 75 years.
The reintroduction to concert life is still flickering in earnest, of course, for the performers and folks like me who used to mark the days between shows. And more than I would’ve realized beforehand, these two shows were a salve on the soul.
So brings us to these two nights as part of McCartney’s “Got Back” tour. Despite a startling lack of communication from the venue — from point-of-sale to the start of the first show — to actually attempting to navigate the 400 metal detectors, all the way through the minor horror of trying to navigate Major League Baseball’s ticket app in the midst of all this to actually access our seats, we were in. And as soon as he and his band stepped on stage, all was forgiven.
Comparing the two shows, he seemed a little looser the second night, even if 80 percent of the setlist remained the same. I can’t be asked to pick between “We Can Work it Out” or “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” for example, and was more than happy to have gotten to hear both. And to the point that he was feeling it, he tossed “Jet” into the proceedings on that second night.
Some of the stories between songs were repeated, though coming across a bit more naturally during the second performance, the first show serving as a breaking-in period, maybe. And for the first two thirds of the show, he did work in a good chunk of deep album nuggets and songs from his more recent albums, including 2013’s New and 2018’s Egypt Station (though noticeably omitting 2020’s pandemic-driven McCartney III). And toward the middle of the set each night, he reminded the crowd that he, too, was aware of the distance between “Fuh You” and “Let it Be.”
“We know which songs you like. We can tell, because, you know, if we do an old, famous Beatles song, all your phones light up, it’s like a galaxy of stars. And if we do a new song, it’s like a black hole.
“But we don’t care. We’re gonna do ‘em anyway.”
As well-worn as the stage banter might be, he still plays the less familiar material with energy and enthusiasm, stretching out his stagecraft and keeping his more recent songwriting relevant. Since the dissolution of the Beatles, McCartney has released 27 albums, not including his collaborative work in The Fireman, numerous live albums or his classical efforts. And he’s had his current touring band in the fold since 2002 — twice as long as either the Beatles or Wings lasted. Since 1960, he has rarely taken a break of more than a year, unheard of for other musicians of his generation. The man is a legend, but he doesn’t rest on it.
With live music not available during the pandemic, I went deeper into vinyl and trying to get the stereo sounding as good as it could than I ever had before. And with that came a heavy dollop of the Beatles, finding new versions of their records and vintage copies and whatever else I could to get the most of that sound in my space. That, of course, branched out into their respective solo careers, and I got a new appreciation for McCartney’s less heralded stuff. The 2018 reissue of Red Rose Speedway, rearranged back into its original conception as a double album, for example, got a good amount of time on the turntable.
The arrival of McCartney III was another lifeline in that time. Despite all the free time and supposed opportunities to make the most of it, the reality is that all those hours in isolation did not breed productivity for most. But as we have and will continue to discuss, McCartney does not live in the same realm as the rest of us, and he managed to make one of his better albums in years in that time. But most of this time was spent on the classics — Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album and Abbey Road — and letting those records spin for hours and hours into the night. As much time as I’ve spent with the Beatles since childhood — a considerable amount — it increased exponentially across the past two years, somehow.
All this is an overly elaborate way of saying that, when tickets went on sale in February, I was all over it. Since seeing him in 2005, I’d skipped his past few tours for various reasons (money/time/laziness/etc.), but those were no longer insurmountable obstacles. We only have so much time, and I was going to see a Beatle who continues to defy age and logic.
So Paul McCartney the artist sees no issue to dedicating large chunks of his show with songs that didn’t necessarily revolutionize the world, the way his first famous band did. But every song seemed to serve a purpose, crisscrossing his extensive body of work and serving as a living example of his accomplishments.
There were plenty of Beatles songs of course, carefully selected to paint with the broadest brush. “Can’t Buy Me Love” opened the proceedings each night. “Got to Get You Into My Life” kept the spirits high. A stripped down version of the band gave “Love Me Do” a reading faithful to its 1962 roots. He reached back to the Quarrymen for “In Spite of All the Danger,” the 1958 gem that marked the recording debut of three-fourths of the Beatles. He showed some love to his Wings days with “Letting Go,” “Junior’s Farm” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” all appearing in the first hour of the show. And he gave his new songs a go before starting to step on the gas.
I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see him jam, though. On the tail-end of “Let Me Roll It,” a knockout on its own, McCartney began to lead the band through what was clearly a jam on the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Foxey Lady.” And he started tearing out some quick solos on his lefthanded-strung, custom-painted Les Paul before bringing the band back to earth for a moment. And with that came a few words of admiration for Hendrix, and how that bit is in the show as a lasting tribute to him.
His thoughts were also with John Lennon for much of the night, as they were for much of the audience. After his solo acoustic performance of “Blackbird,” he stood alone on the stage for “Here Today,” his tribute and final, unfinished conversation with John from 1982’s Tug of War. And, staying within the bounds of good taste, he had Lennon’s isolated vocals from “I Got a Feeling” join the band during the encore.
But simply, nothing can compare with the gauntlet that makes up the final third of his show. Following his dual tributes to Lennon and George Harrison with “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “Something,” respectively, the audience is treated to a relentless barrage of some of the greatest songs in the rock and roll cannon. It begins in earnest with “Jet” and “Lady Madonna,” continues with a sample of the Abbey Road medley of “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and flows from there. Sitting back and being treated to “Get Back,” “Band on the Run,” “Let it Be,” “Live and Let Die” and “Hey Jude” in succession is a dizzying spectacle. And on the first night, nature got into the game and decided to aid in the pageantry a bit.
Maybe it’s age or post-shutdown euphoria, but I keep catching myself becoming emotional at the slightest things. It could be seeing someone, or catching a show, or just being outside doing some otherwise mundane activity for the first time in months. For these two nights at Fenway, that sensation was, at least, somewhat expected. I was ready for it.
But then the rain came. What had felt like a few drops during the prior couple of songs started to feel a bit more substantial by the time “Hey Jude” began, and when it reached it’s repeated mantra coda, it was a steady but soft shower, more than a drizzle but certainly short of a downpour. And with the heat of the day and all the pollen and dust in the air, it felt as though it was just washing away every care and concern in the world for five minutes. And it was so well timed it was natural to wonder — is this real? How can any of this possibly be real?
The rain disappeared just as quickly, but the feeling lasted for the remainder of the show. He dusted off his best rock screams for “Birthday” and “Helter Skelter,” while bringing the night to a close by returning to Abbey Road and the triumvirate of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry that Weight” and “The End.” And there’s a true gravity to the moment when he begins that medley, singing of a way to get back home and building in intensity before launching into the guitar solo triplets that will eventually land the plane and bring the show to completion. It’s at once wistful and celebratory, the culmination of a concert and summation of McCartney’s incomparable career in about six minutes.
I don’t know how many more opportunities I’ll have to see McCartney live, still spry and charming and utterly without peer. He still jumps from bass to guitar to piano with ease. If his voice is beginning to show some age, it’s still decades away from the 80th birthday he’ll soon celebrate. He’s still having fun up there. And he’s still helping me get through whatever hurdles and obstacles that need to be gotten through.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com