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Thursday, July 18, 2013

McCartney in Milwaukee

After fifty years of singing, listening to, loving Beatles music but thinking of them as an iconic abstraction of nearly unapproachable magnitude, I finally got to see a Beatle in real life. Paul McCartney at 71, with his gifted band of four musicians, played at Miller Park Tuesday night. Terry and my kids bought two tickets to the show, and so we went. Fifty years after watching them on our black-and-white TV on the Ed Sullivan show that Sunday night, I saw Sir Paul with my own eyes and heard him with my own ears. Gee, we've both really changed.

But gee, he looks fantastic.

The evening began inauspiciously. We arrived around 5 p.m. at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers. We refer to Miller Park as "Wrigley North," since so many Chicagoans commute to Cubs-Brewers games there, it being more accessible to many of us than Wrigley, and though less charming and historic, it is all-weather dependable, with a retractable dome. Terry and I casually walked and joined into one of the lines forming to enter the arena. Of course, it was on the opposite side from our seats, but no whup. McCartney and the band were doing their soundcheck, and the production company was testing the sound for the pre-concert videos, so it was festive enough, and HOT. Nearly 90 and humid. The gates were supposed to open at 6, the concert to start at 8. The gates finally did open around 7, and the concert began more like 8:45. I'm not an avid concert-goer, and this did not make me want to become one. Nor did the time it took to exit the parking lot and the city, getting us home after 2 a.m.

But holy Moses, what happened between 8:45 and 11:30 or so was pure magic. I still haven't stopped smiling.

With youthful energy and virtuosic musicianship, the band of five played for over two and a half hours, including six or seven encores. Paul opened the show with a sparkling version of "Eight Days a Week," and things just rolled on from there, including tributes to George and John, really new songs (like his "Valentine" song from 2011) and songs from early Beatles albums, like "Yesterday" (one of the encores) and "I've Just Seen a Face." He started off a tribute to George by singing "Something" with just a ukelele George had given him, but by the time the guitar solo kicked it, it was full band playing a soaring homage in one of the greatest pop songs ever written. The band launched early into an instrument tribute to Jimi Hendrix, too, playing a long improv on "Foxy Lady." Paul indicated that four songs in the set list were new to this tour. Two of them were "All Together Now" from Yellow Submarine and "Lovely Rita" from Sergeant Pepper. There was a great performance of another Sgt Pepper cut, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," which McCartney said that, until this tour, they had never played since they recorded it in the studio almost 50 years ago. 

A number of great Wings hits were in the playlist too, and in addition to the Valentine tribute to his current wife, Paul sang a great version of "Maybe I'm Amazed" in memory of Linda. "Band on the Run" was a highlight of the show, and the White Album cut "Helter Skelter" blew the house away as an encore with an incredible performance and an eye-popping red, white, and black color schemed animation. The band managed to pull off all three of those great McCartney ballads without sounding repetitive: "The Long and Winding Road," "Let It Be," and of course "Hey Jude." He played at least a dozen guitars, at least one of which was his studio guitar for Rubber Soul in the 60s. "Eleanor Rigby" was very satisfying to me, with his excellent keyboardist somehow managing all the lines of the great George Martin string arrangement the only accompaniment to McCartney's acoustic guitar. 

Two more things from the set list I have to mention: the pyrotechnics and performance of "Live and Let Die" were a huge surprise to me! 12-foot jets of flame and sparklers leaping out of the stage, and fireworks shooting out of the top of the Miller Dome on cue, it was just spectacular, the pop equivalent, maybe, of Music for the Royal Fireworks or 1812 Overture. Just thrilling! And then, in what must be a fairly common occurrence for his shows, he ended the evening with the end of Abbey Road, with complete and soul-stirring performance of "Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End" that just seemed the perfect way to close the concert, with what amounts to the Beatles' anthemic summary of the 60s, "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." They could have done a lot worse.

For me, I was just trying to take it all in, trying to connect with all the music in that baseball arena, people of all ages, many older than I, but lots and lots of teens and young adults, and people who brought their young children. I couldn't get over the amount of memory connected to all those songs, life and death, the history of three generations, the joy, the dancing, the weddings, everything for which the Beatles provided a soundtrack since the 1960s. How the John Birch Society said that Communists had written the songs for them to undermine order in the United States. How they became the subject of excellence in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and the subject of new art in Cirque de Soleil's Love and the movie Across the Universe (among others.) As a church musician, someone who has tried to connect people's public singing voice with their heart of faith, I was taken by the spontaneity with which thousands of people just sang these great little songs without having to be asked, without needing permission or a reason. They sang, in the words of Music in Catholic Worship, because they had something to sing about—life, joy, hope, love, summer, memory, children. Yes, not all the dots are are connected, but it is what I strive for, and wish I had just a sliver of the success that McCartney has had in achieving that connection with people.

Finally, in the only somewhat negative feeling I had, I thought as I looked around Miller Park that the Beatles may have indeed caused a revolution in the world, or at least been a significant part of the catalytic formula that caused it, but it was a revolution in this country anyway of the white middle class. We were on the floor of the arena, and there were thousands of people who were too far away to see, but my overwhelming sense was that this was a really white assembly, not the cosmopolitan mix you might expect to see at any venue so heavily populated by Milwaukee and Chicago people. People of color and even Hispanic people were not visible (to me) in any great numbers, and I was looking for them. What I saw means nothing; I could even be completely wrong, but it did occur to me that the revolution might have ended up being a turn of 360°, which is both too far, and back to the beginning. I hope not. And no matter where we are, those songs are a legacy of wonder, teeming with vitality and joy. Looking at Sir Paul Tuesday night, it's not just nostalgia in that music. It apparently really does keep a person young.