Back in Boston: McCartney Shines Again

“When I said ‘see you next time,’ I didn’t realize it would be so soon!”

Paul McCartney could have been referring to either last April’s performance, or Monday night’s performance when he expressed his surprise at having performed at Boston’s Fleet Center so many times in such a short span on Tuesday night. Obviously, he was happy to be there, being that the crowd received him with much warmth and excitement.

Tuesday night’s performance was the sixth time I had attended a Paul McCartney concert this year. The other five shows I saw took place in Hartford, Toronto, Boston, Uniondale and New York City. After six times, it was still an exciting event from start to finish, even though I knew exactly what to expect. If you passed on all your opportunities this year, here is what you missed:

Paul doesn’t do the ‘opening act’ thing. On past tours, rather than having another band play first, he has shown short films before taking the stage. This year, however, he opted for something a bit more elaborate.

Ensuring that everyone in the venue had something interesting and colorful to look at, a sort of silent play begins the evening. The lights dim, with blue lights at bottom edges of the stage providing a soft, ethereal atmosphere as dreamy electronic music plays through the PA.

The music, composed by Paul under his ‘The Fireman’ moniker, provides a dramatic backdrop for the many costumed dancers, minstrels and various other characters that enter from all points of the venue, some carrying oversized white balloons. Men are in suits, women in overflowing dresses, and circus-like characters take the stage to walk on spheres, fence, or carry out a clear box with a girl folded up inside.

Watching the girl unfold herself and climb out of the small box elicited oohs and ahhs at all shows I attended, and the minstrel doing repeated back flips also drew much applause.

After about 20 minutes of this and similar activity taking place on and around the stage, suddenly the lights go down, a guitar chord is struck, and a silhouette of Paul McCartney is seen behind a white screen at the center of the stage. Paul is holding his trademark Hofner bass in the air with arms outstretched as the crowd lets loose a deafening roar. He straps on his bass, the screen rises, and he appears with his band – guitarist Rusty Anderson, guitarist/bassist Brian Ray, keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, and drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. All stepped forward and launched into a most appropriate opening tune – the Beatles’ classic Hello Goodbye.

Though Paul’s touring band of ’89-’93 were consummate professionals (and the various line-ups of Wings had an exciting rawness about them), this new band has an edgy, joyful attack that makes even the oldest songs in the set sound new all over again. They waste no time early on in the set, barely pausing to speak as they soar with the perennial Wings hit Jet and the cutesy Beatles favorite All My Loving. Perhaps hearing the studio renditions back-to-back would be strange, but on stage it all makes sense in the context of one man exploring his idea of what his audience’s favorites are in his repertoire – and enjoying it.

The more than two-hour show included many more Beatles hits, along with stories and commentary that brought a feeling of intimacy to the large arena. The Sergeant Pepper tune Getting Better was introduced as a song Paul had never performed live until this year. The title track of the 2001 album Driving Rain was described as a song inspired by a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway in a black Corvette on rainy day off from recording sessions. Your Loving Flame, the latest of Paul’s irresistible love songs, was dedicated to his new wife Heather (“the first song I wrote for my lovely lady,” explained Sir Paul). The solo acoustic middle portion of the show gave Paul a lot of room to tell more detailed stories, such as the genesis of Blackbird, a song about a black woman living in the racially divided southern United States of the 1960s. There were also funny little anecdotes about massages in New Orleans and Tokyo, and Paul in his teens feigning sophistication at a party by pretending to be French, which tied in to the composition of Michelle.

The most emotional moments of the concert undoubtedly occurred during Paul’s touching tributes to John Lennon and George Harrison. For John, Paul exclaimed “let’s here it for John!” before performing 1982’s Here Today, an obscure Tug of War album track written as an imaginary conversation with John, and easily one of Paul’s most poignant songs.

“While we’re in this mood,” Paul half-jokingly said, he told of the late
George Harrison’s affinity for George Formby and the ukulele, Formby’s instrument of choice. Against a backdrop of photographs assembled into a tasteful video montage, Paul performed George Harrison’s classic Something on a ukulele George had given to Paul.

As the portion of the show following the acoustic segment kicked in, driving rockers like Band on the Run and Back in the U.S.S.R. revved up the crowd to near-feverish levels. The classic love songs Maybe I’m Amazed and My Love (the latter dedicated to his late wife Linda), led into the moving trio of Freedom, Live and Let Die and Let it Be – a grouping which observers like myself saw as the musical reflection of Americans’ collective emotional responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11.

She’s Leaving Home and Let ‘Em In were two new additions to Paul’s set list; the former featured faithful reproductions of George Martin’s string arrangements by Wix on his trusty keyboard as Paul nailed every note perfectly, while the latter’s bouncy upbeat mood had many in the audience clapping along to the 1976 Wings hit.

Paul and his audience were in their glory during initial set closer Hey Jude, in which Paul called on the crowd to sing along with the song’s memorable coda. Returning to the stage for encores, Paul and band executed the best live arrangement of The Long and Winding Road one is likely to hear, with Rusty Anderson playing one of the memorable string riffs on his guitar. Rockers Lady Madonna and Saw Her Standing There followed. Before the final closing medley of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise) and The End, Paul explained that it was time for him to go, as the crowd shouted “NO!” in response. However, after all the great music and stellar performances witnessed that evening, one hardly had any reason to moan or groan.