DETROIT — There’s something reassuring, even quietly comforting, about a Paul McCartney concert.
It’s not just his own perpetually cheery optimism. It’s just that seeing the ex-Beatle on a concert stage, Hofner bass in hand, is a sign of Things Being in Their Place, of all rolling along as it should.
McCartney, after all, has been a public fixture for nearly half a century, a towering presence on the world’s cultural landscape. He’s part of who we are, what we are, when we are — and finding him onstage drives that home.
But a year shy of his 70th birthday, some hard-core fans are starting to ponder what lies ahead, as the pop-rock icon wraps up this latest 17-month round of touring.
Could this be the last time we see McCartney in concert? It’s not as if his tour buses roll this way so often to begin with.
It’s not that McCartney is touting this as a final tour, or even broaching the topic of retirement. Indeed, the past decade has found him busier than ever, involved in projects from the “Love” show in Vegas to “The Beatles: Rock Band” videogame to his coming production with the New York City Ballet.
But lingering around the romance of the tour is the reality of a 69-year-old McCartney in 2011.
“I feel that the number of times I’m going to be able to see Sir Paul McCartney are pretty limited now,” says Carey Denha, 41, of Royal Oak, Mich. “I want to be able to get this in.”
Doug Podell of Detroit radio station WCSX, a certified Beatles fanatic who hit Las Vegas for a McCartney show last month, says that amid the star’s recent burst of activity, hints of a final bow are emerging.
“It seems to me that he’s trying to close all the circles,” says Podell. “He’s saying everything that has to be said, playing everything that has to be played.”
Podell points to moments like McCartney’s performance for Ringo Starr last year , where he jumped onstage to sing the Beatles song “Birthday,” and a 9/11-related documentary that will provide a rare one-on-one glimpse of McCartney behind the scenes, to debut on Showtime on Sept. 10.
And this summer’s stadium shows, Podell notes, “may be Paul’s way of saying, ‘It’s time. Let’s go out on a high note.’ If he goes out, he’s not going out like some ragtag old rock star.”
Podell says he can envision scaled-back acoustic performing for McCartney — perhaps a solo storytelling tour that would play smaller venues.
You get the feeling that a sense of duty has accompanied much of McCartney’s activity in recent years, particularly when it comes to the Beatles — a recognition of the band’s stature and a commitment to the proper shepherding of its legacy.
It was a long journey that saw him making peace and at last enthusiastically embracing the group’s contributions. Where McCartney’s shows in the 1970s often avoided Beatles material altogether, he spent subsequent decades increasingly working it into his repertoire. He has even begun to dip into some less-visited corners of the catalog, plucking out Beatles album cuts — songs like “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “I’m Looking Through You” on this tour — to go with live staples such as “Hey Jude.”
When McCartney turns 70 next summer, Starr will be turning 72. Fans who have grown accustomed to the careful, protective supervision of the Beatles’ name and catalog are becoming conscious of the question: Who will be minding the store in the long run?
Podell is confident that the Beatles’ heirs — particularly the children of McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison — will handle it with the same tastefulness and quality that have kept it looming large.
“And there’s still so much there,” he says. “Unreleased outtakes, concerts, video. I think we’ll continue to see Beatles projects coming out through the family organizations. Not a flood, but periodic releases that still maintain the high quality.”
McCartney’s long, winding road through Michigan runs back to September 1964, when Detroiters got their first glimpse of him during a pair of scream-drenched Beatles shows at Olympia.
Tickets were $3 and $4 apiece and the band earned a fee of $30,000 for the date, according to a Detroit Free Press report at the time.
Seats had gone on sale five months earlier, shortly after Beatlemania broke out stateside, because the Olympia manager feared the band’s popularity might cool off by the time September rolled around.
Forty-seven years later, “what does it say about the Beatles when 25 percent of them can still pack a stadium?” says Denha, who fronts the popular Detroit band Mega 80s. “That’s when you know you’re witnessing one of the greats.”
Young fans who impatiently counted down the days in 1964 have a modern ally in Molly Jean Schoen, a 25-year-old Detroiter who made sure to grab her McCartney tickets the minute they went on sale last month.
“I tell people that this is the last thing on my Beatles bucket list,” says Schoen, who has attended a Ringo show, visited the John Lennon memorial in New York’s Central Park, and trekked to Liverpool and Abbey Road Studios in London.
Schoen, a singer and bassist who has played in area bands, echoes untold numbers of musicians before her: “The Beatles are really the reason I play music in the first place.”
A fan since age 3, Schoen can rattle off Beatles chronologies and factoids from the top of her head, eloquently expounding on the musical legacy of the band and McCartney. The idea that he’ll be in her town, seeing her skyline, fills her with pride.
And she knows that you just never know.
“I feel like it’s now or never,” she says. “You don’t know if he’ll ever come back to Detroit, and that makes the night more special.”