“There’s granddad up there, rockin' away,” jokes Paul McCartney, addressing the crowd at London’s O2.
The sprightly 69-year-old, who bounds on the stage with all the zest of a newly-wed (he married for the third time in October), reveals that his grandchildren, who are in the 20,000-strong audience, want to hear “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
The blistering version that follows is a memorable moment of a 2½-hour, 35-song set. McCartney also sings three Beatles-era tunes for the first time at a U.K. concert, covers Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and runs through an indulgently scuzzy rendition of “Get Back” with grizzled Rolling Stone Ron Wood.
The star the U.K. tabloids have nicknamed “Macca” will be playing Stockholm, Helsinki, Moscow and Manchester before a hometown show in Liverpool on Dec. 20. A ticket would be a perfect pre-Christmas treat for anyone remotely interested in music.
It’s difficult to imagine him doing a poor show. Together with John Lennon, McCartney’s responsible for arguably the greatest collection of songs ever written. Having a repertoire that includes “Drive My Car,” “Paperback Writer,” “Let It Be” and “Yesterday” (all of which McCartney and his four superb band members play) would benefit the most mediocre of performers.
McCartney is dressed in an exquisitely cut dark suit with a cut-away collar, as one would expect from the father of a leading fashion designer. When not singing, he’s chatty, amusing and sweetness incarnate. Taking off his jacket to reveal a white shirt, he quips it will be the night’s only wardrobe change.
Following “Mrs. Vanderbilt,” he notes, with eyebrow raised, that the song has been voted “the No. 1 McCartney song in the Ukraine.” He follows it with “Eleanor Rigby,” as if to emphasize the point.
There are a few imperfections. Songs earlier in the set are laden with a weightier rock sound than they can bear. The use of keyboards is mawkish and graceless. A loose connection somewhere spoils the otherwise excellent sound with a high-pitched whine.
There are many perfect moments to make up for that. “Blackbird,” played solo with acoustic guitar, is rendered even more exquisite by McCartney’s explanation of how it was written to inspire those involved in the 1960s civil-rights struggle.
“Here Today”, written in memory of Lennon, captures the personal, prosaic grief for a man mourned by millions.
“Helter Skelter” is a wild rock ride; “Sing the Changes,” a song from the recent Fireman project, an understated alternative-rock anthem; “The Night Before,” “The Word” and “Come and Get It” are treats for dedicated fans who lapped up the luxuriously expensive “Beatles in Mono” boxed set.
McCartney takes to a grand piano and plays “Live and Let Die” for every ounce of its bombast. Each chorus comes with enough pyrotechnic explosions to fuel a James Bond finale. It’s a bigger showstopper than offered by many arena rock tours. McCartney, after complaining that the bangs are too much for his aging ears, follows it with something bigger.
“Hey Jude” is still the greatest singalong ever written.
“Oh, you know the words,” he quips, smiling broadly as 20,000 people “na-na-na” to their hearts’ content, overjoyed at the opportunity to see this master of the popular song happily at play.
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(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)