It wasn’t the Cavern Club, or some Reeperbahn dive. And the year was definitely not 1962. But after Paul McCartney finished off his semi-secret Manhattan club show Wednesday night with a blazing, garage-y take on “I Saw Her Standing There,” it was possible to imagine — just for a moment — that you finally had an idea what it was like to see him and his old bandmates play rock & roll in a packed, tiny venue. “Well, here we are in a small club,” he said earlier in the evening, sounding as surprised as anybody.
McCartney’s performance — at Chelsea’s brand-new, upscale Highline Ballroom, which holds only 700 people (in this case, that meant press, VIPs who included a beaming Whoopi Goldberg, and ultra-giddy contest winners) — was meant to promote his strong new album, Memory Almost Full, which just debuted at No. 3. And while he skipped the album’s best tune, “My Ever Present Past,” the four new ones he did play held up: the strongest were “Only Mama Knows” with its heavy, winding guitar riff, and “That Was Me,” which had McCartney finding his “I’m Down” growl for the first time of the night as he sang about his own unlikely life story: “That was me” sweating cobwebs in the cellar/ On TV/ That was me.”
The bulk of the set was made up of Beatles songs, performed with McCartney’s usual, stripped-down touring band (except for a substitute keyboardist), in arrangements that were mostly identical to the ones he played at Madison Square Garden last year. Some elements, such as the synth strings on “Long and Winding Road,” felt particularly out of place in a club setting. McCartney seemed to have the most fun when he swapped his bass for a guitar and picked out the signature riffs on an extended, super-funky “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which still feels like it’s missing something without John Lennon on hand to sing his”Everybody’s had a wet dream”part. McCartney acknowledged that absence and two others a few songs earlier, dedicating the aching ballad “Here Today” to “our fallen heroes: John, George and Linda.”