Paul McCartney Found New Romance in Old Songs at Irving Plaza on Valentine’s Day


“That was great — and I don’t even like that song!” So proclaimed a thirtyish dude last night as Paul McCartney — Sir Paul, Macca, the Cute One, the One Who Once Was the Dead One But Now Blessedly Is One of the Two Still Alive — treated a crowd of 1,000 or so to a stellar, stirring “And I Love Her.”

McCartney invested this minor standard with wistful vigor and urgency. “Bright are the stars that shine/Dark is the sky” has accumulated significance over 50 years. Young Paul’s stately wisp of a song about romantic timelessness has sneaked into the firmament, now as fixed in our lives as stars and sky, but Old Paul’s treatment of it sounds far from settled: Savor those new “oooh”s he eases into at the coda.

When he wrote “And I Love Her,” he was a boy thrilled that he and his mates could so steadily knock out such sturdy hits. The man he is now seems to find fresh truth in what those kids created, which is a testament to their invention and the man’s willingness to let himself reel with the biggest feelings of all. “I know this love of ours will never die” means something very different from a man north of 70, and the feathery quaver in his higher register suggests he does know it.

The pleasure and miracle of McCartney’s Irving Plaza show wasn’t just the fact of his presence, as you might expect. It was how, throughout the first hour or so, these songs seemed to stir such emotion in him. The simpler the lyrics, the better: “All My Loving,” “Another Day,” “It’s So Easy to Fall in Love,” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face” received crisp, airy treatments, his vocals buoyant, his whooing still delicious. (Throughout the night, the cheery polymath played guitar, piano, and a sporty Hofner bass.)

By the time the Beatles got around to recording it, “The One After 909” seemed a nostalgic toss-off, a train song rocketing back from troubled 1969 to when the band, and the Sixties, had the whole world before it. (He wrote it, he has said, at seventeen.) But the joy and heat McCartney and company found in it last night felt not like old men looking back but like artists plunging into the very source of what they do. The guitars snarled and bit, more than you might expect, and the rhythm section edged encouragingly toward abandon. It felt, for a breath, like maybe something could go wrong, which is the most precious feeling a professional rock show can manage. As with “And I Love Her,” the song feels unsettled, like there’s still something to discover in it.

Sadly, some of his most inspired compositions no longer have that sense of possibility. McCartney closed the set with dutiful airings of “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be,” warhorses he feels obliged to trot out for the dudes who don’t think they like “And I Love Her.” On these, Paul the Pro takes over, Mr. Wings Over America, probably by necessity. Just like at Beatles shows you couldn’t really hear him, but instead of the squalls of teen girls, it’s everybody in the venue belting along, with many of the dudes making damn sure you know that they’ve memorized every ad-libbed Jude-y Jude-y WOW! OW!. Onstage, the performance becomes merely technical, with all the emotional dynamics of a fireworks display. This is ritual, our chance to join him in celebrating songs bigger than even he is, songs that he — like us — is singing along to, approximating the records that were a hit before your mother was born.

But for the first hour McCartney avoided arena-rock protocol, achieving instead something more beautiful: tearing into “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” as if this was the night he might unlock new secrets in them. “Maybe I’m Amazed” stands, to my mind, as his greatest solo achievement, and now that the top of his range is fraying he sings it a little closer to the way Rod Stewart used to: more growl, more bite, less virtuosity. That re-centers the song’s heart, making it feel more about the love he’s amazed by and less about how dazzling his voice is.

And I never thought I would say this, but rollicking piano rocker “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” beat the hell out of rollicking piano rocker “Lady Madonna,” for at least three reasons: First, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” is a love song, and McCartney was in a loving mood, even for him. (During “My Valentine,” his recent stab at being Rodgers and Hart, stagehands kaboomed rose petals over the crowd in honor of Nancy Shevell, his recent stab at remarriage.) Second, “Lady Madonna” is one of the five or so best-produced and -arranged of all rock ‘n’ roll records, giddy and eccentric and inimitable. But when it came to big, late-ish, aggressively meaningless Beatles hits — “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Back in the USSR” — McCartney’s band opts for re-creations rather than explorations, and in this case not one element locked cleanly into the others, so this trickiest of songs seemed to shuffle in four directions at once. Third: All that means it’s a lot easier for “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five,” a pretty good Wings song, to impress than it is for “Lady Madonna” not to disappoint.

But “Lady Madonna” was the exception. The rest of the show split the difference between surprisingly scrappy bursts of personal expression and slick, give-’em-what-they-want Beatlemania. He loves the latter, of course, and he loves to please you with the Most Important Rock Songs Ever, but am I crazy to think he might secretly prefer “My Love” and “Ballroom Dancing”?

Other Thoughts:

  • My “That Was Great — And I Don’t Even Like That Song!” moment: “Let Me Roll It” unspooled with a lumbering elegance that bests the record. Also, recent ersatz Beatle-bounce ditty “New” was right at home in a setlist packed with actual Beatle-bounce ditties.
    • The best thing ever written about McCartney is Robert Christgau’s collected capsule reviews of his every solo and Wings record. Choice line: “Quite possibly the worst album ever made by a rock and roller of the first rank — unless David Crosby counts.”
        • Rumors before the show concerned not whether special celebrity guests would take the stage but how many would. Folks insisted Billy Joel was a lock, and some of them seemed to think that would be a good thing. But Paul McCartney needs Billy Joel the way Indiana Jones needs Shia LaBeouf. Have you heard Joel pig-grunt through “Maybe I’m Amazed”? He sounds like Bruce Willis impersonating Rowlf the Dog.
        • Many McCartney fans jeered the second most common guest rumor: Kanye. “He better not be here!” scoffed a white-haired guy standing near me just before showtime. “This is not his audience,” the woman beside him agreed, saying it with curious pride, like this audience is the way all audiences should be. Since I’m generous, and since McCartney was all about love on Valentine’s Day, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this had nothing to do with race, really, and was instead just another example of boomers’ deep conviction that it’s an affront that they’re expected to live in a world where some culture is not marketed to them.
        • That said, boomers sneering at Yeezy are exactly like their own grandparents back in ’64 saying “These moptops aren’t real music, like Dean Martin!”
        • There were no special guests, which was fine. Why would Paul McCartney need special guests?
        • Celebrity-spotting gave everyone something to do during the guitar solos. A Saturday Night Live party occupied one balcony. Meryl Streep resisted singing along, mostly, but she shook her head to the downbeats as “Golden Slumbers” kicked into “Carry That Weight.” Before the show, the crowd chanted “Joe Dirt!” at David Spade. Chris Rock sat right against the ledge, and the tips of his Converse All-Stars jutted out over the heads of the regular people. He never tapped his feet, but he made with the na-na-na-nahs on “Hey Jude.”
        • I once sat ten or so rows behind McCartney at Yankee Stadium. He was sitting with Alec Baldwin, Lorne Michaels, and Penny Marshall. In McCartney’s company, those other three were reduced to the scale of the rest of us: mere people who are notable only for not being Paul McCartney. Baldwin made pleasant small talk with fans waiting for the chance to talk to a Beatle, and nobody I was there with remembers who the Yankees even played.

      Eight Days a Week
      Save Us
      All My Loving
      One After 909
      Let Me Roll It
      Quick instrumental jam on “Foxy Lady”
      Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five
      My Valentine
      Maybe I’m Amazed (holy hell this was good)
      I’ve Just Seen a Face
      It’s So Easy to Fall in Love (McCartney finds it funny to change “so doggone easy” to “so doggone squeazy,” which I’m going to assume is a private joke with Yeezy)
      Every Night
      Another Day
      We Can Work It Out
      And I Love Her
      Lady Madonna
      Drive My Car
      Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
      Back in the USSR
      Let It Be
      Hey Jude

      Encore: Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight


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