Paul McCartney at Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids. 8/15/2016

16 Aug

Mr. Kite

LOWDOWN: Drawing on Beatles, Wings and solo classics interspersed with lesser-known album tracks from throughout his career, Paul McCartney and his crack four-piece backing band played a 38 song,  2:45 minute set at Van Andel Arena Monday night.

THE SHOW:McCartney led the band on stage at 8:20. Dressed in a simple blue blazer over a white shirt and jeans, he was about as low-key as major rock stars get.  Starting off with perhaps the most famous chord in music history, he launched into “Hard Day’s Night” and the show was off and running with fans singing along to every word.  In keeping with Sir Paul’s attire, the stage was about as unadorned as you’ll find as well.  A video tower on either side of the stage provided close ups of the band while a video wall behind the stage alternated between colors, McCartney/Beatle footage and landscapes. The only real departures were the psychedelic carnival lighting that accompanied “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and the explosions and laser show that provided visual highlights during “Live and Let Die.”

In the first third of  the show, McCartney mixed classics with lesser-known tracks from his solo career.  Although the solo stuff paled in comparison, the band seemed energized by playing them and if that’s what it takes to keep things fresh, it was more than worth a few dead spots.  Starting on his iconic Hofner bass, Paul switched to electric and acoustic guitar and two pianos, a grand on a riser above stage right and a psychedelic-painted upright that he played from the front of the stage. This lent a bit of variety.

Mid-show the full band came up front for a short acoustic set and then left Paul alone atop a mechanical riser 10 feet above the crowd for heartfelt readings of “Blackbird” and “Here Today” a tender 1982 tribute  to John Lennon.

In that moment and in many of the montages on the video board, Lennon was a constant but understated present as was fellow ghost in the room George Harrison.  One of the show’s most poignant moments was McCartney breaking out Harrison’s Fab Four classic “Something,” playing the first verse solo on a ukelele George gave him.

The show’s last hour was all killer, no filler, culminating with “Let it Be”, “Live and Let Die” and “Hey Jude. with its obligatory audience sing along on the “Na Na Na NaNa Na Na” coda.  After a short break, the band returned for a six-song encore that featured “Yesterday” and ‘Birthday” sandwiching “Hi Hi Hi,” an energetic but decidedly lesser Wings track, before ending with the closing Abbey Road suite “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry that Weight” and “The End.”

THE BAND: Unlike almost any of his contemporaries, Paul works without an army of orchestration, backup singers and extra instrumentalists.  It’s just the core band that’s now been with him longer than the Beatles or Wings: Rusty Anderson on guitars and high harmonies, Brian Ray, switching between guitar and bass depending on what Paul is doing and powerhouse drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.  The key player is multi-instrumentalist Wix Wickens who does a bit of everything: Keyboards to simulate orchestration, accordion and harmonica when subtler shadings are required.  It may not be the most spontaneous outfit ever to hit a stage but it’s tight, professional and always suits the songs and, like their leader, they give the impression that they’re loving every minute of what they’re doing..

HIGHLIGHTS: When you’ve got the guy who wrote and sang the greatest songs anybody ever wrote or sang, highlights are plenty, but a semi-acoustic set of lesser-known classics really stood out.  Starting with “We Can Work It Out” the band gathered in a semi-circle at  the front of the stage in full on Hootenanny mode including Laboriel on a stand-up drum kit.  From there, McCartney introduced a fun version of “In Spite of All The Danger” a simple country western tune that was the first song the Quarrymen (Beatles v 1.0) recorded.  This led to a lovely reading of RUBBER SOUL’S “You Won’t See Me”  and gorgeous takes on “Love Me Do” (featuring a mournful harmonica from Wickens) and “And I Love Her.”  It was quiet, nuanced and Van Andel Arena’s top notch sound system captured every pick scrape, stick click and subtle shading in absolute clarity.

Equally fun were Macca’s frequent breaks to tell stories about how songs come about or recount memories from recording sessions.  At one point he even brought fans on stage  and even let a member of his AARP fan base touch his hindquarters.  None of this felt particulary unscripted and it probably plays out the same way more or less every night, but the man radiates so much charm and good will that it was irrepressible nonetheless.

THE VERDICT: A McCartney show almost defies criticism.  The songs and the collective history behind them are such that it’s going to make it almost impossible not to be charmed.  If you’re not feeling the goosebumps when singing along to “Hey Jude” or “Let it Be,” there’s really something wrong with you.  That said, if we’re being honest, these days McCartney’s  voice is somewhere between“not really what it used to be” and “flat out shot”. Also, while the show never lagged and it’s hard to complain about getting nearly three hours of music, there was a bit too much lesser material–does anybody really need to hear “Temporary Secretary” again?  Still, it was hard not to ignore the fact that Paul and co. gave the fans far more music and far more of themselves than they need to get by.  He could easily tour behind an army of backup singers to hide the imperfections.  He could easily sleepwalk through 90 minutes of rote renditions of the hits rarely engaging the crowd beyond standard cliches as the Rolling Stones have done for most of the last 20 years.  Instead, he’s out there carrying the show all night, engaging in banter and generally acting like a guy who’s doing this for no other reason than he genuinely enjoys entertaining people.  In many ways, it’s that generosity of spirit as much as the music that drew the world to the Beatles in the first place.

Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ legendary producer once said that when they auditioned for him, he didn’t really  like their music, but he agreed to work with them because they had a special ability to make everybody in the room feel better about being alive.  That’s still true today.  There probably hasn’t been a human in the history of history with more power to physically transmit pure  JOY on the level that Paul McCartney has done for the past half century. That he’s still doing it in doses far larger than necessary is some kind of miracle and more than enough to make up for any slight musical flaws.  The man remains a global treasure.  GRADE A-.

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