“Live strings,” marveled Paul McCartney after introducing the Kronos Quartet with his trademark thumbs-up at Outside Lands last night. “Wooh!” It doesn’t take much to get McCartney excited onstage, but clearly this was a special event even by the standards of a man who’s sung “Yesterday” hundreds if not thousands of times. He was about to sing his most popular ballad with a string quartet renowned for collaborating with and interpreting the work of major modern composers and performers, from Philip Glass and Pat Metheny to Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie.
Kronos Quartet’s appearance with McCartney might be considered appropriate, given they were termed “classical music’s own Fab Four” by Rolling Stone back in 1987. The group is known for edgier collaborations when they hook up with rock musicians, as when they contributed to David Byrne’s True Stories. When they’ve tackled rock classics on their own, most famously Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” they are not exactly known for straightforward interpretations. Yet they’re nothing if not versatile, and when the occasion demands, they can play it fairly straight, as they did Friday night on “Yesterday.”
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McCartney was with the Beatles, of course, when he first performed “Yesterday” in public on British and American television programs in the summer of 1965. The other three gracefully left the stage to McCartney and his acoustic guitar, making do with off-screen strings to emulate the just-released record. As McCartney told the crowd in Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields, his first US performance of the classic was on The Ed Sullivan Show, where a member of Sullivan’s staff asked the singer if he was nervous. “No,” McCartney lied. He really got nervous, however, when that staffer reminded him that 73 million people were watching.
About a year later, the Beatles played their final official concert on August 29th, 1966 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. As at Outside Lands, “only” tens of thousands of people were watching, though the Beatles’ equipment was positively antediluvian compared to the stories-high system that boomed through the Polo Fields. The Beatles did play a full-band “rock” version at Candlestick, George Harrison supplying the laconic introduction: “This was a single as well, and it features Paul singing a very nice song called ‘Yesterday.'” Even with modestly amplified electric guitars and drums, the foursome had a hard time projecting Paul’s showcase over the masses of teenage screams, as a bootlegged tape of the performance verifies.
But nothing gets the tears ducts flowing – or, at Outside Lands certainly, the crowd singing – as well as an actual string quartet faithfully reproducing the sound of the original Beatles record, the first by the band to use strings, skillfully overseen by producer George Martin.
Kronos Quartet’s guest spot wasn’t a total surprise, given their San Francisco base and their appearance with the National at the slot just before McCartney’s. We might not have seen the last of them at Outside Lands, either. Headlining Saturday night’s show are Nine Inch Nails, whose 2007 album Year Zero Remixed featured Kronos on “Another Version of the Truth.” A Kronos collaboration with NIN tonight? Stranger things have already happened on the Polo Fields stage.