Has Paul McCartney been borrowing Bruce Springsteen's trainer? At 67, the former Beatle seems determined to suddenly turn his gigs into E Street-style marathons. When McCartney did an American mini-tour last spring and summer, fans (and, at the Coachella Festival, some curious acolytes) were astonished by shows that stretched out to the two-and-a-half hour mark. Returning to U.S. shores with a slightly revamped revue that he's dubbed the "Up and Coming Tour," McCartney now has an even longer set list that brings his concerts up to a plentiful two hours and 45 minutes. In other words, Rosalita ain't got nothing on Eleanor Rigby.
After a kickoff show in Arizona, McCartney chose to bring his 2010 tour to the Hollywood Bowl, site of the Beatles' legendary 1964 and 1965 appearances. He'd been back to the Bowl once as a solo artist, in 1993, but naturally got ruminative about this latest return Tuesday night, in the first of two shows at the historic venue. "The first time we came here, we were little kids," he told the crowd. "It looks like that now. Then, we thought we were great big men… You couldn't hear anything we were singing because of the girls screaming." If he was fishing for a swell of girlish screams, he got it. "Yeah, like that! But nowadays, we are louder."
And longer. The Beatles' sets in the mid-'60s usually lasted barely a half-hour and consisted of just over a dozen songs. At Tuesday night's Bowl show, out of 38 songs that were played in full or (in a few cases) in part, no fewer than 22 were Beatles songs — almost twice as many as the screaming girls would have heard (or at least seen) at the Fabs' own shows back in the day.
The essentials of the set list were familiar to any southern Californians who made the trek to Coachella a year ago, or who caught up with the 2009 tour via a live CD set and DVD that were filmed at last summer's New York Citi Field shows. But he's mixed it up enough in the new year to please even frequent flyers. The show now begins — as it did on the "Wings Over America" tour, McCartney's one concert trek of the 1970s — with "Venus and Mars" and "Rock Show," though there was just enough of the latter number to get to the line about "rock & roll at the Hollywood Bowl" before the opening medley kicked over to the more familiar "Jet." Another "Wings Over America"-era number, "Letting Go," is being reintroduced as a staple for the first time since 1976.
But this tour also features several premieres that have never been part of a McCartney (or Wings, or Beatles) tour before. "This is a song we have not performed on American soil," he said by way of prefacing "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," such a crowd favorite that it's amazing as dedicated a crowd-pleaser as Macca has never gotten round to it live. John Lennon famously hated the tune, but you had to wonder if even if he might've approved of this arrangement, which de-emphasized the piano in favor of an organ part that slyly established the 1968 oldie as an actual ska song.
Also making their tour debuts: the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You" and the once prescient, now nostalgic "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five." The latter brought the tally of songs performed from 1973's Band on the Run to five making it even better represented than Let It Be and the White Album, each of which contributed four numbers to the show.
As with last year's shows, McCartney covered two of his fellow Fabs, doing a version of George Harrison's "Something" that started as a solo ukelele rendition before kicking into a familiar full-band arrangement, and appending a singalong of John Lennon's non-Beatles "Give Peace a Chance" to the mostly Lennon-penned "A Day in the Life." His '80s elegy for Lennon, "Here Today," described as being "in the form of a conversation I didn't ever have with him," further cemented the decidedly Beatles-centric tone of the show. If you hate the Beatles and think Paul didn't really hit his stride until he hooked up with Denny Laine, be sure to go home early: Once the show gets into its last 14 numbers, only one — the fireworks-laden "Live and Let Die" — is not a late-1960s chestnut.
Is Paul pandering to nostalgia in his old (or at least post-"When I'm 64") age? Possibly. But for the tiny percentage of attendees who might think that's a bad thing, there are more than enough signs of ongoing vitality. McCartney's last two albums, Memory Almost Full and Electric Arguments (the latter released under the name the Fireman), were his two most invigorating works since the early '90s. Memory is now represented in the set only by the mandolin-driven "Dance Tonight," and is more of an interlude than a highlight. But Arguments' "Highway" and "Sing the Changes" would do a rocker one-third McCartney's age proud. (As on last year's tour, the latter number was accompanied by a spacey filmic backdrop that had a computerized visage of President Obama morphing into and out of a 2001-style starfield.)
Moreover, McCartney has had the wisdom to stick with a terrific four-man backing band that — seemingly paradoxically — mostly replicates the original Beatles and Wings arrangements, yet still brings a slight garage-band flair to those duly faithful arrangements.
And Macca himself? He never once avoided any of the night's repertoire's hundreds of high notes (except for a slight downward deflection at the end of each chorus of "Two of Us," which seemed to be an artistic choice, not a vocal mandate). And he doesn't shy away from his classic Little Richard-influenced howls any more than he does his falsetto. When, more than two and a half hours into your show, you're able to slate "Helter Skelter" as your penultimate number, you're making a better argument for the benefits of veganism than the PETA booth out in the lobby ever could.
One other completely superficial note: Macca may be rocking the suspenders look like no one this side of Larry King… But, at 67, still no sign of a gut! We should all be "Letting Go" this much.
After a second night at the Bowl, McCartney is set to play Miami April 3rd, followed by trips to Puerto Rico, Ireland, and the U.K. in April and June. Further U.S. dates are promised but yet to be announced. Expect some real Fab Four-style screaming from fans if he fails to bring what is widely considered his best set list ever back to the States for a full tour.
The Hollywood Bowl, March 30, 2010:
"Venus And Mars/Rock Show (excerpt)/Jet"
"All My Loving"
"Got To Get You Into My Life"
"Let Me Roll It" (with "Foxy Lady" coda)
"The Long And Winding Road"
"Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five"
"(I Want To) Come Home"
"I'm Looking Through You"
"Two Of Us"
"Sing The Changes"
"Band On The Run"
"Back In The U.S.S.R."
"I've Got A Feeling"
"A Day In The Life (abbreviated)/Give Peace A Chance (excerpt)"
"Let It Be"
"Live And Let Die"
"Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)/The End"
• Video: Paul McCartney Performs "Let Me Roll It" From "Good Evening New York City"
• McCartney Makes History at Citi Field With Billy Joel, Beatles Hits
• Paul McCartney Pays Tribute to Lost Beatles at Coachella