Paul McCartney Plays Surprise Valentine's Day Concert in New York

The Beatle plays two wild hours for just 1,000 lucky fans at Irving Plaza

Paul McCartney performs at Irving Plaza on February 14, 2015 in New York City Credit: Anthony Cruz

It was nearly 1 a.m. when Paul McCartney left the stage at New York's Irving Plaza last night, and as dazed fans streamed toward the exit and staff swept red confetti from the dancefloor, it almost seemed like it had all been a dream. It started early Saturday morning: McCartney announced a very special Valentine's Day concert that night, with a few hundred tickets available at the rock club's door, $40 each, first come, first served. 

That's a hell of a deal. Irving Plaza, with its 1000-person capacity, isn't quite the Cavern Club, but it's a vastly smaller and more intimate venue than you're likely to see someone like McCartney in on any normal night. (For comparison, the other artists playing there in the next few days include the U.K. dance act Gorgon City and former Gossip Girl actress Leighton Meester.) The smaller size of the stage meant that McCartney couldn't count on the video screens and pyrotechnics that usually juice up his stadium and arena dates. He made up for it by giving a wild, breathless, energetic rock & roll show without a hint of a dull moment.

McCartney and his band walked onstage at 11 p.m. and hit the first notes of "Eight Days a Week." Anyone who's caught McCartney on tour recently has seen him open with that song, and it's always a solid choice, but this was something else. He wasn't a tiny figure miles below us – he was right there, live and in color, earning every cheer from the crowd. For the first few songs, McCartney had to stop after each one for the applause to subside. There were plenty of famous people in the VIP section, from U.S. Senator Cory Booker to the E Street Band's Steven Van Zandt to Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels, Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph. But the floor was full of everyday fans who couldn't believe what they were getting to be part of.

Four songs in, McCartney noted a change from his usual set list: "We're going to continue with one of the first songs we wrote, a very long time ago, in Bethlehem," he joked. That meant "One After 909," which he and John Lennon wrote in Liverpool not long after becoming friends in the late 1950s, and which McCartney has performed only a handful of times in the last 20 years. Its rollicking drive fit perfectly in a rock-club setting. So did the next song, a cover of Carl Perkins' "Matchbox" with a mean rockabilly solo from McCartney, and, a little later, a cover of the Crickets' "It's So Easy." "We usually do these ones more at soundchecks," he said. It was clear how much fun he was having revisiting those early influences without the need to make them reach the nosebleed seats in a stadium.

That was the tone of the entire night: All the hits and charm of a McCartney show, but a little lighter and looser. Where else would you get to see him arguing with a would-be stage-crasher? "How about you stay there and I stay here," he countered when an over-enthusiastic fan tried to rush up after "We Can Work It Out." "I've got security, baby!" His between-songs banter was freer and sillier than usual. At one point he theorized out loud about the whereabouts of his original Hofner bass guitar, which was stolen many years ago (he imagines that a schnapps-sipping thief has it hidden away somewhere in the German countryside). 

The jam-packed ballroom space heightened the the harder-rocking parts of the set – "Let Me Roll It," "Jet" and "Back in the U.S.S.R." sounded absolutely huge – but it also left room for gentler moments like "Every Night," whose acoustic sweetness made for the night's romantic peak. And nothing could compare to the long "Hey Jude" singalong that closed the main set. There's power in hearing thousands of "na-na-na-nas" echoing through a basketball arena – but hearing that same refrain filling a room like Irving Plaza, where you can see everyone taking part in the communal celebration, was truly special. McCartney felt it, too. A little earlier, after getting the crowd to sing the "beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah!" from "Drive My Car," he smiled. "That's great," he said. "I'm loving this."

Set list:

"Eight Days a Week"
"Save Us"
"All My Loving"
"One After 909"
"Matchbox" (Carl Perkins cover)
"Let Me Roll It"
"Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five"
"My Valentine"
"Maybe I'm Amazed"
"I've Just Seen a Face"
"It's So Easy" (Buddy Holly cover)
"Every Night"
"Another Day"
"We Can Work It Out"
"And I Love Her"
"New"
"Lady Madonna"
"Jet"
"Drive My Car"
"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"
"Back in the USSR"
"Let It Be"
"Hey Jude"

"Golden Slumbers"
"Carry That Weight"
"The End"