Midway through Paul McCartney's two-hour set at the Apollo Theater Monday evening, he paused for a few seconds before playing a gorgeous rendition of "Maybe I'm Amazed."
"I want to take a moment," he said, standing at the piano with his hand on his chin. "I just want to just soak in the Apollo." The huge smile on his face as the crowd roared seemed genuine. The 68-year-old icon has played just about every major venue in New York (Carnegie Hall, Shea Stadium, Madison Square Garden), but until now he had never performed at Harlem's most hallowed theater. Early on he even touched the fabled onstage log — which all Apollo performers touch for good luck when they go on. "This is very special for us British boys," he said. "The holy grail."
The concert was held by Sirius XM to commemorate their 20 millionth subscriber. Tickets weren't sold to the public and were offered mainly to Sirius XM listeners — though celebrities also comprised a substantial portion of the crowd. In the audience was Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Alec Baldwin, Jerry Seinfeld, Matt Damon, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, John McEnroe, Patti Smith, Rob Thomas, Kevin Bacon, Steve Van Zandt and Max Weinberg, among many others. (When we arrived I asked my friend if he knew how to find the staircase to the mezzanine. "Walk right past Howard Stern," he said. "Then take a right at Val Kilmer." He was exactly right.)
Towards the end of the night McCartney said, "Now I only want the celebrities in the house to cheer." They produced a mighty roar, though many of my fellow civilians screamed along with them.
Indeed, the entire crowd — celebrities or not — saw a stellar Paul McCartney concert. Last summer, when he came to Citi Field on a cold, rainy night, the show ran a bloated three hours and dragged in the middle, when he played selections from Flaming Pie and the latest Fireman disc. At the Apollo, stripped down to a lean two hours, the show's energy never dipped in the slightest. It also took on renewed power without the massive stage lights and video screens he utilizes at his regular arena and stadium gigs: This was just five men playing selections from one of the strongest catalogs in rock history.
It's a shame he so rarely does gigs like this. Bands like Pink Floyd and U2 were made to be heard alongside 50,000 people in a soccer stadium, but McCartney is perfectly suited for the clubs and theaters where he began his career.
As usual, the bulk of the set was devoted to Beatles classics. In the cramped, sweaty theater, even overplayed tunes like "Let It Be" and "Drive My Car" took on renewed power. He opened with "Magical Mystery Tour" and later played note-perfect versions of "The Long And Winding Road," "Get Back," "Eleanor Rigby" and "Hey Jude."
He also devoted a lot of time to Band On The Run, which was recently re-released. "Band On The Run," "Jet" and "Let Me Roll It" are staples of most Macca shows, but the hardcore fans in the back let out a huge yelp when he began playing the wonderfully obscure album closer "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five." "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" had the crowd singing along to every word, while an acoustic "And I Love Her" was perhaps the most tender moment of the night.
The only real kink in the night came when he began playing a cover of Marvin Gaye's 1962 classic "Hitch Hike." As six go-go dancers appeared from behind a scrim the vocals dropped out and piercing feedback rang throughout the theater. McCartney did his best to hide his annoyance. "Of course that happens when we're at the Apollo and on the radio," he said as the band started it up again — only to stop again after just one verse. On the third time they nailed it. "Now we've proven that the show is live," McCartney said.
McCartney is a walking advertisement for a strict vegetarian diet. It was easy to forget that he's pushing 70 when he threw his band into a smoking "I Saw Her Standing There" that led right into "Get Back." The encore also contained an inevitable (but still fun) "Wonderful Christmastime" and the standard show-closing medley of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band/Carry That Weight/The End."
As the crowd slowly filtered out onto the streets of Harlem and attempted to figure out which limo was theirs, every single person seemed to be smiling — even if it was partially because they were just sitting near Howard Stern and Keith Richards for two hours.