Independence Day may have passed, but skyrockets took flight inside the AmericanAirlines Arena approximately two and a half hours into Paul McCartney’s marathon set Friday night. Embracing the thunderous “Live and Let Die” in all its Queen-evoking theatricality, McCartney performed the anthem complete with sparks—both real with digital—and honest-to-goodness pyrotechnics. From our plum seats on section 2 of the floor, we could feel the heat on our cheeks, each burst of rhythmically timed fire slamming us like a furnace blast.
It was just one of an endless series of highlights—some might call it an embarrassment of riches—over three mostly nonstop hours, and a set list of nearly 40 numbers. The show swung from epic rockers to solo ballads, pioneering pop to contemporary electronic, soul and disco to folk and country. Through it all, McCartney, garrulous and spry on the first night of the new leg of his “One on One” tour, made good on his promise to play “some old songs, some new songs and some in between.”
Flanked by a pair of video towers projecting live close-ups of himself and his band, and performing in front of a larger video canvas behind the stage, McCartney and his four-piece rhythm section opened graciously with “A Hard Day’s Night,” following it up two songs later with “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Less successful was the song in between—“Save Us,” from his 2013 solo LP New—which came across as MOR rock in the Bon Jovi vein, big enough to fill the arena but lacking both hooks and heft.
But McCartney deserves dogged credit for trying to stay relevant as a contemporary recording artist. Well distributed between Beatles, Wings and solo cuts, his set list revealed an artist resisting the temptation to become a nostalgia act, a la the Beach Boys. And it certainly enhanced the spectrum-spanning variety of musical styles on display, from the piano ballad “My Valentine” (spacious and sweet, if not exciting), written for his wife Nancy, who was in the audience; to “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five,” with its disco flirtations; to the rhythmic electro-pop of “Queenie Eye,” which evoked the possible influence of acts like Moby and Elbow.
His comeback chart-topper “FourFiveSeconds,” with Paul on vocals instead of Rihanna and Kanye West, came off rather like a chillaxed southern-pop beach anthem. It would not sound out of place on a Zac Brown Band album.
But there’s a reason he still sells out arenas, a fact that he cheekily acknowledged mid-show: “I know what songs people like the most, because when we play an old Beatles song, the room lights up with your phones like a galaxy of stars. When we play a new song, it’s like a black hole.”
This was true, and expected: As one of the Fab Four’s two giants of songwriting, he helped compose the most impressive and influential canon in the history of popular music, and his Beatles selections were nothing short of bliss. “Let it Be” and “Hey Jude” were flashlight-waving, sing-along hippie love fests. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” submersed the stage in psychedelic vibrancy, from the kaleidoscopic colors on the video wall to motley lasers splicing the audience. “Back in the USSR” was the night’s best pure rock tune, and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” with its calypso pluck and direct audience engagement, was three and a half minutes of pure joy.
I’ve seen some sensational Beatles covers bands—the Fab Faux springs to mind—but there’s nothing like hearing these songs performed by the man who wrote them, in an electric atmosphere of die-hard fans. This remained true without the bells and whistles, the fire and the confetti.
McCartney was never better than during the stripped-down segment of the show, performing acoustic renditions of “We Can Work it Out,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Love Me Do” and others, supplemented by stories surrounding the writing and recording of these classics. It was a kind of set within a set, with the video backdrop of an old house complementing the rustic, intimate vibe. The set even included the first song the Beatles recorded together, the Quarrymen’s “In Spite of All the Danger,” performed here as a lovely country tune.
Then came a moment that literally took the show to new heights: Paul, alone on a riser, ascending toward the ceiling with his guitar, playing the folk ballad “Blackbird,” the plaintive poetry and lyrical urgency of this civil-rights anthem captivating the arena.
After the flames died down, this was the quiet majesty I remembered most.
A Hard Day’s Night
Can’t Buy Me Love
Let Me Roll It
I’ve Got a Feeling
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
Maybe I’m Amazed
We Can Work it Out
In Spite of All the Danger
You Won’t See Me
Love Me Do
And I Love Her
The Fool on the Hill
I Wanna Be Your Man
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Band on the Run
Back in the USSR
Let it Be
Live and Let Die
Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Hi, Hi, Hi
Carry That Weight