Live Review: Paul McCartney at the Hollywood Bowl
[Ed's note: We sent star rock photog Timothy Norris to document the Tuesday show. See the rest of the pictures in our awesome Slideshow section.]
During the first concert of Paul McCartney's sold-out, two-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl, it was sometimes hard to tell who was having the better time. Was it the fans, who were delirious to see their hero in this historic, relatively intimate amphitheater (albeit at a steep ticket price)? Or was it Macca himself, who seemed visibly delighted to return to the Bowl for the second time (including a stop on his 1993 tour) since the Beatles played three shows there in 1964 and 1965?
The worshipful crowd of all ages sang along throughout the chilly evening, waving flags and banners ("THIS IS MY BIRTHDAY PRESENT," "I'M JUDE," "YOU'RE STILL THE CUTE ONE," etc.). A woman sitting near me cried out plaintively, "We love you, Paul!," at the end of every song -- at least 38 times, which was also the number of tunes (not including several medley fragments and mini-jams) McCartney and his band tucked into at the nearly three-hour concert.
"They've got rock & roll at the Hollywood Bowl," he declared with wonderful obviousness during the opening combination of "Venus and Mars" and "Rock Show." McCartney wasn't necessarily pandering -- those are the original lyrics, after all -- but it was an early hint that he considered the gig a special occasion.
Another Wings song, "Jet," followed, adding to the festive vibe with its brassy, show-bizzy pomp. The innocent simplicity of the ancient Beatles hit "All My Loving" provided an affecting contrast, and the ensuing "Letting Go" showed a little bit of restless soul.
Not that it takes much to make him sentimental, but the former Paul Ramone was especially nostalgic because of the setting. "This takes me back, as you can imagine," he told the crowd. "I just want to take a minute to drink it all in."
This gave the fans another chance to applaud and whoop it up, which may have been the singer's intent, but the moment felt more sincere than manipulative. In the early days of the Beatles' fame, he tended to babble nervously onstage, saying little of importance but taking a long time to say it, in contrast to John Lennon's cooler, quicker sarcasm. McCartney talked a lot Tuesday night, but he seems wiser, wittier and more at ease these days, whether sharing stories about his former band mates or half-seriously mulling over a request to trade one of his guitar picks for a fan's wife.
After a slightly sluggish version of "Got to Get You Into My Life," in which keyboardist Paul Wickens attempted to replicate the original's horns with synthesizer, McCartney had another flashback. "There used to be a pond here," he said, recalling the pool that once separated the audience from the stage. The apparently ageless front man looked slim and bright-eyed, dressed formally in black pants and a black coat with diagonal red stripes.
"That deserves a scream," Sir Paul joked. "Was it really 70 years ago?"
He brought things back to the present with a glittery run down "Highway," from his 2008 album as the Fireman, Electric Arguments. Although McCartney and his tight four-piece band later played the charming pop-folk tune "Dance Tonight" (from 2007's Memory Almost Full) and the soaring, optimistic plea "Sing the Changes" (from Electric Arguments), they largely focused on old favorites. Granted, some of those oldies, such as the reggae-accented "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," have rarely been performed live, but it would have been nice to see Paul challenge his audience with more new material.
Taking off his coat, McCartney revealed that he was wearing black suspenders over a white long-sleeve shirt. He strapped on a sunburst Les Paul guitar and squeezed out the obsessive hammer-on licks of "Let Me Roll It," which segued into a credibly groovy instrumental jam on Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady." Moving to piano, McCartney crooned "The Long and Winding Road" and an urgent rendition of Wings' "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five."
The next song, Macca bragged, was nominated for a "Golden Globule." He said, "I think it even won the Oscar," until drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. comically interrupted him, giving McCartney the bad news that "(I Want to) Come Home" (from the 2009 film Everybody's Fine) didn't really win an Academy Award. Son (and namesake) of the renowned jazz bassist, Laboriel was especially impressive, belting out perfectly sympathetic high harmonies all night while simultaneously hammering down precise, powerful drum fills.
McCartney's voice cracked once or twice in the dry night air during "My Love" and "Blackbird," but his pipes were generally melodious and in fine form, especially for a 67-year-old man doing a three-hour show. He looked like he was having fun, switching from bass and piano to acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin. His versatile guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray and keyboardist Wickens picked up the slack on bass when needed while also casting out seamless harmonies.
After strumming acoustic guitar on "I'm Looking Through You," McCartney reminisced again, describing how he could barely hear himself above the crowd noise at those old Beatles concerts. This time when he said the word "scream," thousands of girls, women and grandmothers spontaneously began to scream in unison, sending out an eerily fearsome wail that buzzed like a swarm of high-pitched locusts. The sound came out of nowhere and died down, as if out of embarrassment, almost as quickly as it began, but it was a fascinating echo of what the Bowl must have sounded like during those chaotic, hit-&-run Beatles mini-sets in the mid-'60s.
Though it might seem corny, the most moving moments were Paul's homages to his late friends George Harrison and John Lennon. He chatted disarmingly about how he and George used to hang out and practice together, trying to figure out how to play chord progressions by J.S. Bach on guitar. Clutching a ukulele, McCartney plucked a minimal, lovely adaptation of Harrison's "Something," backed at first by nothing more than Laboriel's bass drum. Halfway through, the rest of band kicked into the song's traditional arrangement to equally stunning effect.
He admitted once again that "Here Today" was his belated attempt to express all of the things he wished he'd said before John Lennon was murdered in 1980, shading the polite, gentle song with endless amounts of poignancy. Near the end of the show, he paid further homage to his former songwriting partner with an interesting medley of "A Day in the Life" and "Give Peace a Chance."
Beyond the emotional heavy-handedness of the set-closing ballads "Let It Be" and "Hey Jude" and the literal fireworks and fire bursts that punctuated "Live and Let Die," the highlights were usually the harder-rocking songs, such as "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Day Tripper." "I Got a Feeling" featured an extended funky-glam coda, which was a nice twist. Radiant harmonies and fuzzy guitar riffs fused gloriously together on "Paperback Writer." It was thrilling to hear the doomy, momentous riffs of "Helter Skelter" bouncing off the Hollywood Hills, but the guitars needed to be louder. A flurry of classic Beatles melodies ("Lady Madonna," "Get Back," "Yesterday" and the reprise of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band") flew by quickly, almost casually, like it was no big thing, before culminating satisfyingly with the aptly titled "The End."
And, in the end, what did it all mean? Did the love Paul McCartney take equal the love he made? With such expensive tickets, he's not exactly a working-class hero. But, on the other hand, his well-chosen set list was deeper and more generous than ever. It's hard to hate a guy who has still shows so much joy in performing, especially when he doesn't have to and seemingly has nothing left to prove.
It's not McCartney's fault he's not John Lennon or that Lennon isn't around to take the piss out of him. Of course, the real tragedy is that we don't know what would've happened. That's the sad part. That's the huge, whole, unfair, tragic void that hangs in the air. But you can't blame him. Give Paul a chance. And give him some credit. His musical tributes to Harrison and Lennon were creative and heartfelt, with the added grace of being communally cathartic for fans.
"And what's wrong with that?/I'd like to know/'Cause here I go again!"
It's not like he performed "Silly Love Songs" Tuesday night. Now that would be a serious crime.