Paul McCartney, MEN Arena 19/12/11

I sometimes think Paul McCartney can’t win. One of the big complaints I’d read from reviewers after the previous shows on this tour was “He’s doing too many hits. Why doesn’t he do some more obscure stuff? It’s just the obvious set.”

And yes, of the thirty-six songs in the set, twenty-five are the absolutely obvious choices that everyone would expect. But then, if you were Paul McCartney, you’d put Can’t Buy Me Love, Michelle, Penny Lane, My Love, Mull Of Kintyre, We Can Work It Out, Silly Love Songs, Coming Up, Let ‘Em In, Another Day, Drive My Car, Here, There And Everywhere, Love Me Do, Things We Said Today, I’m Down, I’ve Just Seen a Face, I Saw Her Standing There and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the set, wouldn’t you?

And that’s the problem, of course. Paul McCartney is the most commercially successful songwriter in the history of the world, and has as good a claim as any to be the most artistically successful. So much so that he didn’t have space to fit *any* of those songs in last night. Nor did he do Mary Had A Little Lamb, Hi Hi Hi, Listen To What The Man Said, With A Little Luck, Goodnight Tonight, Waterfalls, Ebony And Ivory, The Girl Is Mine, Say Say Say, Pipes Of Peace, No More Lonely Nights, We All Stand Together or Once Upon A Long Ago, all of which went top ten. Yet he’s *still* apparently doing too many of his hits!

What he did do was a perfect mix of songs – weighted, yes, towards the Beatles years (and frankly I’d have loved him to have dropped at least three of those songs for solo songs, as he did Ob-la-Di, Ob-la-Da, Let It Be and The Long And Winding Road, none of which I have any time for) but with a good mix of solo material – both hits like Jet and Band On The Run and more obscure tracks like Mrs Vanderbilt and Ram On. He even did Sing The Changes, from the third Fireman album. And while there’s no such thing as an obscure Beatles song, choices like The Night Before or The Word are as close as it gets, and it was wonderful to hear them live.

McCartney is a stunning live performer – I can hardly even believe he’s human, frankly. His voice is *very* slightly gone at the very top end, but the set was chosen well enough that this was not noticeable, and in the mid and low ranges he sounds a good forty years younger than he is, and he can still scream with the best of them. He also got through the whole two-and-a-half hour show without as much as a sip of water, which given the amount of dry ice and the vocal gymnastics he was having to do is nothing short of miraculous. This is, remember, someone who was at school with my grandfather, yet there’s no way I could perform even half this show without taking a break.

The only thing that showed McCartney’s age at all was that he’s taking less strenuous instrumental parts these days, playing rhythm guitar or second keyboard for the most part. While he plays bass on a few songs, he leaves the complex stuff like Paperback Writer to his guitarists, and his few lead guitar spots are mediocre. But if he can no longer play complex counterpoints to his lead vocals the way he could when he was twenty-three, the fact that he can still sing those vocals at all is more than enough for me.

It was one of those shows that are all highlights from start to finish – whether the expected sort,like the mass crowd singalong to Hey Jude or the fireworks in Live And Let Die, or the unexpected, like Sing The Changes, a rather arty track on record, turning out to be a wonderful chantalong arena-rock song in a live setting (sounding spookily like a cousin of Stay Positive by The Hold Steady actually). Even Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da wasn’t too horrible, thanks to some ska keyboards from Wix Wickens. But a few of the standout moments:

Dance Tonight, with drummer Abe Laborio Jr dancing with his hands. When McCartney put on his mandolin, someone in the audience shouted “Petrushka!” which McCartney misheard as “Red Rooster”. (Oddly, this didn’t look like a scripted bit).

Ram On – just beautiful, one of those lovely little fragments that McCartney does so well.

Junior’s Farm – a brave choice for second song, and it worked very well.

A Day In The Life – the orchestral build works surprisingly well as a garage-psych rock section, though it was truncated to only 16 bars. Wonderful to hear the man who co-wrote this perform it live. Instead of the last verse and orchestral build, they went from the end of the “woke up” section into Give Peace A Chance.

Something – not performed solo like on the Back In The World tour, but instead done as he did it at the tribute to George, starting as a solo ukulele performance, but the full band coming in for the solo and finishing the song in the same style as the record.

But there were two moments that for me made the gig, and rose above the slick professionalism of the show to something approaching great art. The first was Here Today, performed solo on acoustic guitar. I’ve always loved this song, McCartney’s 1981 tribute to John Lennon, because even though the latter half is too generic by far, the first verse is as good a tribute to the loss of a particular kind of friend as I could imagine (“And if I said I really knew you well, what would your answer be/if you were here today?/Well knowing you, you’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart…”). I don’t mind saying I cried.

The other real highlight was Come And Get It, the song McCartney wrote for Badfinger in the late 60s. With McCartney banging away at the piano, for a moment he seemed to transform into the man he was when he wrote the song – a cocksure lad in his mid-twenties, able to turn out classic pop songs without even thinking about it, discovering the song as it came out of his fingers and mouth, and grinning a stupid grin at his own cleverness.

I really can’t recommend McCartney’s show highly enough. While I’ve seen better gigs, and certainly cheaper ones, he really is astonishingly good, and given that he’s nearly 70 and has had heart trouble in the past, I can’t imagine he’ll tour too many more times, so go and see him while you can.

If nothing else, when else are you going to get a chance to see the late lamented Liberal MP Clement Freud projected on a screen the size of several houses? (During Band On The Run they show footage from the album cover shooting, featuring Freud, Michael Parkinson, Christopher Lee and others).

There are only two complaints I could make about the show. The first, which McCartney couldn’t really do anything about, is the Everton supporter who was sat next to me. He confirmed my opinion of footballists (which some would call a low opinion – I prefer the term ‘accurate’) by deciding that what delicate, thoughtful ballads like Eleanor Rigby really need is a drunk moron bellowing along to them with no attempt to either keep his voice down or have any idea of the tune or the words. He even managed to sing the wrong words to the ‘na na na nanana na’ section of Hey Jude, which is impressive. Luckily, he also didn’t seem to know anything that wasn’t on the Beatles’ red and blue albums.

What McCartney *could* do though is augment his band. Wix Wickens is a fine keyboard player, but when you’re playing to 21,000-seater arenas, with audiences paying up to a hundred and fifty quid a ticket (not mine, I was in the nosebleed seats), there is no possible excuse for not having real strings and horns. If Brian Wilson or The Monkees can do it playing theatre venues with lower ticket prices, there’s no reason to skimp on the musical side of things. Leave Wix to play the piano and organ parts, but get some real cello and violin players for Eleanor Rigby, and real horns for Got To Get You Into My Life. Those songs deserve better than tinny synth patches.

Magical Mystery Tour
Junior’s Farm
All My Loving
Got To Get You Into My Life
Sing The Changes
The Night Before
Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady
Paperback Writer
The Long And Winding Road
Come And Get It
Nineteen Hundred And Eight-Five
Maybe I’m Amazed
I’m Looking Through You
And I Love Her
Here Today
Dance Tonight
Mrs. Vanderbilt
Eleanor Rigby
Ram On
Band On The Run
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Back In The USSR
I’ve Got A Feeling
A Day In The Life/Give Peace A Chance
Let It Be
Live And Let Die
Hey Jude

First Encore
The Word / All You Need Is Love
Wonderful Christmastime
Day Tripper
Get Back

Second Encore
Helter Skelter
Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End

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18 Responses to Paul McCartney, MEN Arena 19/12/11

  1. I saw McCartney on the first tour he did with this band, and it’s just as remarkable now as it was then.

    I always thought that some of the more orchestrated songs could benefit from a rearrangement that showcases the lean rock and roll lineup and brilliant players he has. For example, I think that opening Got To Get You Into My Life with a variation of the tremolo guitar interlude (that more or less restates the horn intro anyway) could be powerful and breathe life into the arrangement instead of sounding like a karaoke version with the synths. On that first trip, he did a breathtaking arrangement of Here, There and Everywhere with acoustic guitars, brushed snare drum, and Wix on accordion; I wished he would have taken a similar approach to things like Eleanor Rigby. Fake strings diminish the gravitas of a song like that somewhat, don’t you think?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I absolutely agree. I know the arrangement of Here, There And Everywhere you mean (he did it with the Hamish/Robbie band too, in the 90s) and it works really well. If he’s not going to pay for the string/horn players, he should rearrange the songs to get rid of the worst of the synthiness.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Actually, *a* footballist is evil (or, at least, tone-deaf and inconsiderate).

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I know – as a good Liberal I should not judge anyone by membership of a group, but by their personal qualities.

      However, as a rather strange-looking bloke living in a city with a couple of major football teams, I have learned from unpleasant experiences over several decades now that a healthy prejudice against anyone wearing any kind of football clothing, and getting as far away from them as I can as quickly as I can, is the only way to avoid (at the very least) verbal abuse and (more often than not) physical assault. I’m sure there are good, decent people who wear football stuff, but I’ve spent most of my life seeing that kind of clothing as the uniform of the people who want to beat me up for merely existing…

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Hmm. This makes me really uncomfortable. I can hardly imagine anyone less likely than yourself to write a letter to the editor of the Daily Mail, but this form of works is so disturbingly familiar … “as a good Liberal I should not judge anyone by membership of a group, but by their personal qualities. However, as a rather strange-looking bloke living in a city with a couple of ethnic minorities, I have learned from unpleasant experiences over several decades now that a healthy prejudice against anyone with any kind of non-white skin colour, and getting as far away from them as I can as quickly as I can, is the only way to avoid (at the very least) verbal abuse and (more often than not) physical assault. I’m sure there are good, decent people who have dark-coloured skin, but I’ve spent most of my life seeing that kind of colouring as the uniform of the people who want to beat me up for merely existing.”

        To be absolutely clear: I am not saying that because you feel the former, you necessarily feel the latter, or even have the slightest tendency to. It’s just the form of the rhetoric that makes me nervous.

        But anyway. I shouldn’t be talking about this nonsense. I should be talking about what an absolute genius McCartney is. Feel my jealousy: I would have loved to be at that gig.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I know, it makes me uncomfortable to type. The difference is, of course, that people choosing to wear football clothes are doing so in order to associate themselves with a group, and the default behaviour of that group has always been, as far as I can see, to be violent towards anyone who looks different. From my perspective, it’s closer to being in the position of a black person who saw someone wearing a Klan uniform. They *might* be a nice person, but…

          But yes, I don’t like that I think that way, at all. And footballists are the only group against which I have any kind of prejudice.

          And yes, McCartney *is* an absolute genius. It was one of the best gigs I’ve been to this year (and I’ve been to some *extraordinarily* good ones).

          • Mike Taylor says:

            You’re right: that “footballists” actively choose that group identity makes them different in kind from ethnic groups. Which means my initial analogy is broken. (To my relief!)

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              It’s still not great, because some bigots use the same argument about choice to justify hating, e.g., Muslims, gay people and trans people. But I do think it’s a real distinction. Right now I’m wearing a Monkees T-shirt, because I like the Monkees. If at every Monkees gig, gangs of thousands of drunk Monkees fans filled up the city, vandalising it, urinating in the streets and beating people up, and if the reputation of British Monkees fans was so bad that many countries considered banning them from travelling to foreign gigs, and if Monkees fandom were the biggest recruiting ground for fascist organisations like the EDL, I’d still like the Monkees, but I wouldn’t wear the T-shirt because I wouldn’t want to be associated with the other people wearing the same T-shirt.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      (Note here that I am distinguishing between ‘footballist’ – someone who wears team colours on a regular basis and goes around in gangs of similarly-dressed people – from ‘someone who likes football’. My wife likes football, and even has a favourite team and so on, but she’s not a footballist. Nor am I extending this prejudice to the supporters of any other sport, none of whom have ever done anything to me that I know of.)

      • Holly says:

        She only had that favorite team for a season and will probably gravitate as her Minnesota blood compels to her to, to some team cozily near the bottom of a league no one pays attention to. But thank you for making this distinction.

        All I really came here to say is that “sounding spookily like a cousin of Stay Positive by The Hold Steady actually” warmed my little heart. I didn’t know you knew the songs that well, or by name or anything.

        • Just because I’m not as much of a fan as you doesn’t mean I don’t know the songs ;) . Both songs have similar ‘oh oh oh’ bits, and similar-ish melodies, but only the live version of Sing The Changes really sounded much like the Hold Steady track…

  3. “Ram On – just beautiful, one of those lovely little fragments that McCartney does so well.”

    fantastic! this is like th’ Beach Boys tossing in “Little Pad.”

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Exactly. And of course I’d kill to hear that…
      He said it was “at the request of someone who’s come over from Finland” and that might be the case, because he’s only done it live twice – last night and in Helsinki.

  4. Jealous. Well apart from shouty bloke.

    There was a period between 1970 and some concert or other when Paul steered clear of the Beatles back catalogue, then there was a concert where he sang a medley including Hey Jude. Great stuff even on the TV.

  5. Mike Taylor says:

    Yay! Today, I got a ticket to see McCartney on 23 May this year! So pleased to have nabbed this (even at the extortionate price) before the chance to see a Beatle live is gone forever! I thought immediately of your review when I got the ticket, which is why I’m back here.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Got a ticket myself for the Liverpool show. That’s going to be a busy week for me — Beach Boys on the Wednesday in Manchester, McCartney on Thursday in Liverpool, Beach Boys again in London on the Sunday, and Robyn Hitchcock on the Tuesday.
      In fact the whole month of May, between the election and various gigs, is going to be hectic.

  6. Pingback: Paul Actual McCartney | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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