A sight nothing can prepare you for: Paul McCartney onstage, just the man and his guitar, doing "Blackbird" or "I've Got a Feeling" or "Here Today." Merely the greatest of rock & roll performers, in the middle of his usual marathon show. Last night he was in Newark, New Jersey, to kick off the first night of his eight-show New York City-area stand, and – as always – he held nothing back. He played nearly three hours, from the opening guitar crash of "A Hard Day's Night" to the piano ripples of "The End." There's something downright savage about how he works so much harder than he needs to, giving away so much more of himself than it would take to send everyone home happy. But that's why seeing McCartney is an exaltation unlike anything else in live music.
At 75, he refuses to coast – his enthusiasm and vigor and humor are slightly terrifying to behold. He's not just a master at the top of his game – he's on top of a game he invented half a century ago. Unlike peers like Springsteen or Dylan, McCartney doesn't tinker with the setlist from show to show, but what he shares is that mad determination to re-earn the legend every night from scratch. Last night he crashed through nearly 40 songs – Beatle hits, Wings deep cuts, oldies that remind him of absent friends, new tunes that remind him of here and now. The audience wasn't holding back either, representing Maccamaniacs from all different cultures and generations. The ladies a couple rows ahead of me held up a sign that said "Friends Since Shea" – I felt as awed in their presence as I did in McCartney's.
As always, he kept the show spare and efficient, with no show-biz glitz to get in the way of the songs – just his four long-running henchmen, who've played beside him since the early 2000s, taking their place in history as his second-greatest band. (The only dubious gimmick: way too much pyro exploding during "Live and Let Die," making you fearful for Paul's puffy shirt.) Surprisingly, he didn't dip deep into Sgt. Pepper – just "Mr. Kite" and the title-track's reprise – despite all the worldwide celebrations this summer over the album's fiftieth anniversary. "Fifty years – what's that about?" he quipped. "That was before my time." He began "I Wanna Be Your Man" with an anecdote about running into Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on Charing Cross Road, where he and John gave them this tune as the Stones' first hit. As Paul said, "The story went that we were rivals and we really hated each other – but that was just fake news."
Since he was in Newark on the 16th anniversary of 9/11, he dedicated the show to the victims. "We are against the oppression and prejudice and violence," he announced. "We are for love and friendship and freedom." At the end, he appeared onstage with a "9/11 Never Forgotten" banner, along with the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack and a rainbow flag.
The show leaned surprisingly hard on the legacy of Wings – shaggy Seventies rockers like "Let Me Roll It" or "Letting Go" or (especially) "Hi, Hi, Hi" are the arena-crushers he designed them to be, back when he was conquering the American "long hair at Madison Square" audience. He did the 1980 synth-pop oddity "Temporary Secretary" ("We'd like to carry on now with a song that's got an electronic kind of thing"), which sat unnoticed on McCartney II for decades until hipsters discovered it. As a tribute to old friend Jimi Hendrix, he played an instrumental guitar jam on "Foxy Lady."
He also did newer gems like "Queenie Eye" – one of his finest solo tunes ever, goosing the ornate stoner majesty of Ram – despite joking that the audience only gets the phones out for Beatles hits: "It lights up like a galaxy. Then when we do a new one, it's a black hole." (For a moment, it sounded like he was dipping into Ram with the acoustic intro of "Too Many People," but it turned out to be a delightfully languid "You Won't See Me.") He did an excellent sing-along of his Kanye/Rihanna hit "FourFiveSeconds," maybe not a career highlight for anyone involved – it's doubtful Ye or Ri are still singing it – but a song that sums up the essence of Paulness, the pride he takes in continually re-challenging himself to face up to the right-here-ness and right-now-ness of pop life.
In one of the highlights, he played "Love Me Do" in honor of the late George Martin, noting that it was Mr. Martin's idea for Paul to sing the hook in the studio. ("You can hear the terror in my voice.") He sat at the piano for a disarmingly emotive "Maybe I'm Amazed," with the discreet intro, "I wrote this one for Linda." He did "My Valentine" for his wife Nancy, who was in the house – "she's originally a Jersey girl" – and "Here Today" for John Lennon, calling it "a conversation we never got to have." "Something" became as beautiful tribute to George Harrison ("Let's hear it for Georgie!"), playing it on a ukelele his old mate gave him. That's a lot of history to drag around – moments like that remind you that part of the challenge for a veteran performer has to be living up to all those demanding memories, carrying the weight of so many dead friends. But like everything else Paul McCartney does onstage, he makes it seem like that's just part of the fire that keeps him burning brighter than anybody else.
"A Hard Day's Night"
"Can't Buy Me Love"
"Let Me Roll It"
"I've Got A Feeling"
"Maybe I'm Amazed"
"We Can Work It Out"
"In Spite Of All The Danger"
"You Won't See Me"
"Love Me Do"
"And I Love Her"
"I Wanna Be Your Man"
"Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!"
"Band on the Run"
"Back in the U.S.S.R."
"Let It Be"
"Live and Let Die"
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"
"Hi, Hi, Hi"
"Carry That Weight"