Friday, July 11, 2014

Maybe I'm Still Amazed: At 72, Paul McCartney Delivers a Superlative Celebration of Beatlemania, but Could Use a Few More 'New' Wrinkles -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Paul McCartney
United Center, Chicago
July 9, 2014

Although I am too young to have witnessed--or even known of--them in an extant state, I have always worshiped the Beatles.

And yes, worship is the right term, as the legendary band's music and message have been more important and impactful to my life--and, as I see it, the world--that any religion or religious figure.

But reasons for reverence--or simply excuses to celebrate the unrivaled greatness of the Beatles--have been particularly robust this year.

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first hit in America ("I Want to Hold Your Hand"), their initial arrival in the United States, their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and--just this week--the release of their first movie, A Hard Day's Night.

In addition to hosting a Beatles Night on the Feb. 9 Ed Sullivan anniversary, watching the restored version of A Hard Day's Night and, as always, listening heavily to their music, so far this year I have seen The Beatles LOVE Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, two stellar Beatles tribute bands--American English and the Cheetles--and a concert two weeks ago by Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band.

This week Ringo celebrated his 74th birthday, and on Wednesday, Sir Paul McCartney came to Chicago for a concert just six weeks after being hospitalized for a virus for nearly a week.

Such is my regard for McCartney, the music he has created--not just with the Beatles--and his outstanding
concerts I've attended in the past that his United Center show was pretty much an automatic @@@@@ so long as he showed up in good health, good voice and delivered one of his now-standard nearly 3-hour shows.

All three were true, and Wednesday's concert was, in itself, phenomenal and genuinely deserving of my highest rating.

Over the last few weeks I've unabashedly awarded @@@@1/2 to highly enjoyable, musically-stellar concerts by Barry Gibb, New Order and Ringo, and this one by Sir Paul was definitively better--not just due to its duration or the inclusion of 26 brilliant Beatles songs (and highlights from his Wings and solo oeuvre) but because Paul and his band sounded terrific.

"Eight Days a Week" was a great opener, "All My Loving" reminded that it was the first song the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan, "Paperback Writer" rocked as did Wings' "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five, "Maybe I'm Amazed" was superb and a string of gems with Paul playing acoustic guitar--"I've Just Seen a Face," "We Can Work It Out," "And I Love Her," "Another Day" and "Blackbird"--was simply sublime.

And at that point, Paul was only 15 songs--actually 16 including an instrumental romp through Jimi Hendrix' "Foxy Lady"--through a 2 hour, 45 minute set of 39 (or 40) songs.

The show would proceed to include many more Beatles and Wings hits--you can see Paul McCartney's full Chicago setlist on four songs from 2013 New album.

That "Save Me," "New," "Queenie Eye" and "Everybody Out There" sounded so swell among a plethora of stone-cold classics is a testament to how gifted McCartney remains as a songwriter.

Though it's hard to say which, if any, of the oldies I would have replaced, I certainly would've been happy hearing a few more New songs, as well as more than just "My Valentine" from Paul's rather strong output over the past 20 years.

But as Paul himself noted, when he plays new songs he hopes the fans like them, but when he starts an old one, "the cell phones come out; I just see a sea of twinkling lights."

So I understand why Paul feels the need to keep his setlists stacked with "Back in the USSR," "Get Back," "Let It Be," "Hey Jude," "Live and Let Die"--complete with the same over-the-top pyrotechnics since Wings Over America--and other proven crowd pleasers.

It's also worth noting that this one-off arena show in Chicago--his first gig in the city since two at Wrigley Field in Summer 2011--comes amidst playing stadiums around the world and a U.S. tour that will hit some less-visited markets like Fargo, Missoula and Lubbock.

So my "But..." isn't that big, nor detracting, especially given that after reports surfaced--somewhat obliquely--in May that McCartney canceled several Asian dates and was admitted to a Tokyo hospital for a viral infection, I was worried about his well-being and whether he would cancel the UC show, or even be precluded from performing ever again.

Hence, I feel more lucky and blessed that I got to see Sir Paul for the 10th time--six in the past 5 years--than concerned about what what may have made this show just a bit better.

And though it was just cooler to see him for two nights at Wrigley, last year at a sweltering Miller Park in Milwaukee, in late 2011 at Le Bercy in Paris and in 2009 in Tulsa on a road trip built around him, I can't honestly say that Paul and his crack, long-standing touring band--Rusty Anderson (guitar), Brian Ray (bass), Paul "Wix" Wickens (keyboards), Abe Laboriel, Jr. (drums)--didn't sound just as good on Wednesday, nor was the setlist markedly different or worse.

But in remarking that he saw faces in the crowd he recognized from past shows, Paul himself noted that "many of you have heard this story before" as he relayed how Jimi Hendrix had performed the entire Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band album in London just two days after its 1967 release, and that from the stage Jimi had asked Eric Clapton if he could tune his guitar.

Anyone who has see Sir Paul live since 2009 also has heard him speak--as if scripted--about the difficulty he has concentrating on lyrics and chords when he notes signs in the audience, his impetus for writing "Blackbird" and his interactions with Russian leaders upon playing a show in Red Square.

Even his "Let's hear it for John" introduction to "Here Today"--written in memory of Lennon, who he first met 57 years ago this past Monday--and his story about George Harrison's love of ukeleles leading into a version of "Something" felt a bit rushed and rote, if moving nonetheless.

With Mark Caro's somewhat similar Chicago Tribune review saving me from having to count, I also can tell you that I heard 35 of this show's 39 songs played last year at Miller Park--the New songs being the only newbies, as the album dropped in October--and 26 of the same songs at Wrigley (and also in Paris) in 2011.

So, more as critique than criticism, I find it a bit of a shame that one of the most innovative musicians of all-time seems all-too-reluctant to shake things up, even in knowing that he legion of loyal, longtime fans keep coming back.

As with Ringo at his recent Chicago Theater show, Paul made no mention of this being the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America.

Certainly this doesn't merit much hand-wringing, but McCartney has almost 60 years worth of some of the best stories in rock history, yet he keeps retelling the same ones.

Perhaps he could have remembered how the Beatles first played Chicago--at the International Amphitheatre in 1964--or how he and the band had eaten at Margie's Candies (still at Western & Armitage) between a pair Comiskey Park shows in 1965. (Yes, back then, the Beatles would often play two concerts on the same day!)

I respect that he keeps the setlist much the same because it works wonderfully and should satisfy any newcomers, and I welcomed not only the quartet from New but songs like "Lovely Rita," "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "All Together Now" that were played in Chicago (by an actual Beatle) for the first time ever, after being sprinkled into the standard setlist framework last year.

Yet not only do I think Paul could stand to do some more, or just other, New and newer songs, I don't know why it's been years since he's opted to include "Penny Lane," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Drive My Car," "Hello, Goodbye" and other wonders, let alone most any Beatles song that wasn't his lead vocal (excepting "Something").

Especially given the 50th anniversary commemorations this year, it would have been an absolute joy to hear McCartney harmonize with his current bandmates on "She Loves You," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" or "A Hard Day's Night."

Suffice it to say, though I've seen him several times, every Paul McCartney concert is memorable and wonderful.

And so was this one.

But it would be nice if the next one--if and when--is even more so. 

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