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Paul McCartney @ Hollywood Bowl 3/31/10

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Paul McCartney came to the Hollywood Bowl with a stacked deck. Certainly the man’s written an improbable number of memorable songs on his own in the last fifty years. But advance news that he’d expanded his horizons to include a John song AND a George song among his selections (sorry, Ringo) suddenly increased the possibilities for the set list to near-infinity. Would he stick to the tried and true piano ballads that have anchored his live shows for twenty years? Would he blow all our minds and break out weird favorites from the catalog like “I Want To Tell You” and “Sun King”, or garage stompers like “I’m Down” and “Bad Boy”? Revive his saccharine MTV staples like “Spies Like Us”? Expectations were running high, not surprising for an event with a top ticket price of $2000 and only the farthest-away seats in the Bowl’s upper reaches available for less than three figures, if you could get them.

What the big spenders got for their hard-earned was a show lasting nearly three hours that touched on McCartney’s entire history, though neatly slicing out all of the sugary eighties pap. (He did make us suffer through “Say Say Say” at least three times in the hour spent waiting for him to hit the stage though. Q: Who else plays his own Greatest Hits as the lead-in music to his own shows? A: Van Morrison!)

He did play material from his last three solo albums, which are all pretty strong in a Wings-y kind of way, and his 2009 Oscar-nominated tune “(I Want To) Come Home,” accompanied by big-screen projections of a bleary Robert DeNiro, all bummed out at the train station, probably the only part of the program that didn’t really work as intended. When it was time to play a song we all knew, he kept hitting the spot. His current band are, naturally, accomplished professional musicians, but they’re also capable of playing this stuff with real balls, which McCartney hasn’t always had on stage. And to his credit, at 67, he’s still singing with power and emotion, high notes, screams and all. He is probably as compelling as a live performer today as he’s been since Wings' first tour; see what clean(ish) living will do for you?

Wings’ early period was especially well represented, with about half of the Band On The Run album and the opening setup/ punchline of Venus And Mars’ title track and “Rock Show”. A canny choice, not only because it’s a rockin' song but of course, you also get to sing along to the line “You got rock and roll at the Hollywood Bowl”, AT the Hollywood Bowl! It was one of those classic moments of serendipity, presumably much like when Huey Lewis performs “The Heart Of Rock And Roll” in Detroit, but better. “Let Me Roll It” was the early high point of the set, McCartney playing its anguished blues lick on a Les Paul, letting it evolve into a snippet of “Foxy Lady”. Rarities “Mrs. Vandebilt” and “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five” gave me intense childhood flashbacks, the kind where you smell or taste something you haven’t smelled or tasted in a really long time, but you know instantly what it is. The last time I heard that album must have been 1979, but I was singing along to the choruses by the second line.

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And then, there’s the Beatles. As Chuck Klosterman pointed out in his review of the 2009 box set for The Onion, “more than any other group, their sound can be described as ‘Beatlesque’… akin to a combination of Badfinger, Oasis, Corner Shop, and every other rock band that’s ever existed.” And as my friend Jim Mills pointed out, “Paul is the only musician in the world that never does Beatles covers.” Some, like “All My Loving” and “Got To Get You Into My Life”, were played straight, replicating the LP versions as much as possible. His mates’ selections were radically altered: Harrison’s “Something” began quietly with McCartney accompanying himself on ukelele, with the band kicking in just in time for that magnificent guitar solo, beautifully rendered by Rusty Anderson. Lennon’s “A Day In The Life” was played faithfully up to the “Woke up, got out of bed” part, but then broke into a hand-waving singalong of “Give Peace A Chance” without ever returning to ponder how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.

More satisfying were takes on “Paperback Writer”, “Back In The USSR”, “Get Back”, “Helter Skelter” and “I’ve Got A Feeling” that came later, part of a non-stop hourlong Beatles blitz (excluding the fireworks-enhanced “Live And Let Die”) that also included the inevitable “Let It Be”, “Hey Jude”, “Lady Madonna” and “Yesterday”, all given concise but committed readings.

But the real emotional killer was wholly unexpected: the childlike "White Album" nugget “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”. Never one of my favorite Beatles songs, I nevertheless found myself very moved as I noticed how many very young children were in the audience, as young as four or five years old, now out of their chairs and dancing with their parents. Beatles music was certainly one of my favorite things as a little kid, and it was just a terribly heartwarming sight to behold, against the backdrop of this silly but highly effective earworm of a song. And that kind of momentary pure joy at a rock show is an increasingly rare thing at any price.