This review doesn’t matter. There’s absolutely nothing I can say that would dissuade a right-minded Beatle buff from basking in the religious experience that is bowing in reverence to the real-life Great Sir Paul. Even if McCartney YouTubed himself backing over a sackful of puppies in his SUV, thousands would still shell out hundreds to see the guy bang out ‘Hey Jude”.
At Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark (home of MLB’s Reds), Paul McCartney’s On the Run tour saw nearly 50,000 audience members. (Let’s pause for a second to think about how many people that is). I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my day, and I’ve never experienced a fraction of this event’s hugeness. But in spite of the monstrosity that comes with a former Beatle’s solo show, despite the communal joy present at every turn, this is — first and foremost — a personal experience, a life souvenir you can’t take home, so you’re forced to relish every nuance.
I arrive an hour early, stroll proudly to my seat, which is (to my complete and utter shock) 11 rows from the stage. But before that, I do all the typical stuff tourists do when they visit Mt. McCartney — I gaze around in awe, buy an overpriced hot dog, zig-zag awkwardly through all-encompassing lines of Sgt. Pepper t-shirts. I narrowly avoid walking into the ladies room (My bad, woman in the grey shirt), contemplate buying a $30 tour program and even get my picture taken with my mom (My +1).
It was sticky, ballpark temperatures approaching a mean 100 degrees. But it was all smiles, from the backpack-strapped grade schoolers to the ladies wielding hand-crafted “Marry Me McCartney” signs. The pre-show soundtrack consists of clever-to-awkward Beatles remixes (My favorite? The sped-up “Rain” complete with perfunctory laser blasts). Strangers happily take pictures of each other — the same strangers that, if they were to meet on a city sidewalk, would likely brush each other off. Two women in front of us ask to mail them a picture since they didn’t think cameras were allowed. My mom obliges.
When the moment comes for the Almight Macca to grace the stage, it’s beyond surreal. Looking around, the sea of faces is beyond overwhelming. It’s like a pointillistic painting — a mirage of previously disconnected dots and colors merging into focus. It’s also kind of like being at a Hitler rally, only fun. As always, the loudest a-hole in the whole venue was sitting right behind me (“Think of how many good songs he’s gonna play! I like ‘Jet!’ ‘Jet’‘s good!”) Normally, I would be pissed. But not tonight. Tonight is going to be different.
LCD screens project Beatles nostalgia: Rickenbackers, tiny yellow submarines. My stomach is in knots. A young boy who once studied the pages of The Beatles Anthology like scripture, now a matter or rows away from his hero.
Then the Macca Master arrives. At age 69, he bounces with the zeal of a Beatle a third that age. It’s frightening how well his voice has held up, only giving out on the highest of high notes. His bass playing is fluid and remarkable, as always, beefing up tracks like the air-tight Wings classic “Mrs. Vanderbilt” and the still awe-inspiring “Paperback Writer” (complete with spot-on harmonies from his backing band). Guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray (who also pulled double-duties on bass) do their best to steal the show, tossing off classic rock solos with ease. Keyboardist Paul Wickens quietly works his magic, also bouncing around to harmonica, synthesized horns, and, on a thunderous “Helter Skelter”, joining the boys for a triple-guitar face-melt. Ever the showman, drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. does more than keep perfect time, nearly matching McCartney’s charisma through a series of hilarious shouts and dance moves (His hula on the joyous “Dance Tonight” comes most happily to mind).
How could the show, barring an unexpected medical condition, have been a failure? Like the idiot behind me said, “Think of how many good songs he’s gonna play!” With a discography of such mind-numbing expansiveness and pure quality, he might as well have randomly grabbed tracks from a hat, just to see what would happen. But instead, Sir Paul eschewed recent solo tracks in favor of Wings and Beatles classics, ranging from the seldom played “The Night Before” to the sort of show-closing staples (“A Day in the Life”, a fireball-ridden “Live and Let Die”, and, yes, “Hey Jude”) whose absence would likely make any setlist feel incomplete.
But just as valuable as the tunes were McCartney’s patiently delivered segues between tracks, which included a variety of illuminating backstories. He pointed out that his Epiphone Casino was used on the original “Paperback Writer” recording. He noted the musical evolution of White Album acoustic highlight “Blackbird,” which originated from McCartney’s “showoff guitar” sessions with George Harrison. The coolest aside? Probably Macca dropping in extra info on the legendary “Jimi Hendrix playing “Sgt. Pepper’s” live story — when Hendrix’s guitar got all out-of-whack, he looked into the audience for Eric Clapton: “Eric, are you out there? Will you tune my guitar?”
What can I say? Hearing “Eleanor Rigby” with synth-strings is always slightly less impressive than what could have been with a string quartet. But if that’s your biggest problem, you must be doing something — no, pretty much everything — right. It sounds corny as shit, but some wise man once said that music has the power to heal, to burn bridges, to unite people. For the first time in my comparably meager life, I truly witnessed that power firsthand.
McCartney, the world’s most famous rock star, ended the evening not with a long, audience-absorbing gloat — not with an awkward and rushed stage exit after two jam-packed encores. Before taking his trademark gang-bow with the rest of his fine players, McCartney pointed out the dedication and hard work of his technical crew: the sound mixers and lighting experts who brought his wondrous vision to life. In a moment of appreciation, The Master meant to thank his crew but fumbled his words, saying (somehow poetically), “Let’s hear it for the best planet on Earth!”
Yes, Paul, let’s hear it.