There was an undeniable rush watching Paul McCartney playing Wrigley Field on a warm Sunday night in a show that ran over 2.5 hours and included three dozen songs [complete set list at setlist.fm]. Reading the countless bios and books, watching movies and footage, perusing pictures and other documents, it’s occasionally tempting to buy into the idea that the Beatles are somehow old news, a fading echo from a bygone age. Then, like clockwork, along comes another reminder —a reissue campaign, a cover song, a commercial—of just how young, how vibrant that music remains. But nothing compares to seeing the man himself, the wax museum dummy come to life, a prime mover of modern culture not just still moving but moving like he hasn’t missed a step.
Of course, rock and roll itself remains a remarkably young, if not always lithe, form. Progenitors like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis are all still alive, and so are many of the slightly younger pop savants that followed their leads. But with the exception of Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, at 69, may be the world’s greatest living, breathing, original document, a walking, talking fragment of history whose meaning to the lives of millions, and whose place at the fulcrum of pop culture, cannot be overstated.
At the same time, we often take McCartney for granted. Like his fellow septuagenarians or near septuagenarians Dylan, Paul Simon or Brian Wilson, McCartney’s never really slowed down. Yet unlike those peers, he’s never faced a particularly fallow period, either, let alone struggled for relevance; McCartney was writing dopey songs back in the Beatles, but even they connected like few others. The smile, the voice, the energy, the hair—McCartney’s never not been on, and because of that we presume it must come automatically to him.
Which of course it may, and likely does, but watching McCartney in action at Wrigley Field Sunday night, the voice a little hoarse but the man spry, made one realize what an important role many of those even frivolous elements all play in the composition of the total package: the player of hits, the pointer of fingers, the proud papa of so many familiar songs that an offhand introduction of “here’s one you might recognize” elicits chuckles. If no one expects McCartney’s current output to match his formative works, who in their right mind ever would? What makes McCartney on stage such a particularly rewarding spectacle is just how much life he injects in his past triumphs (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Paperback Writer”) and hoary war horses (“The Long and Winding Road,” “Live and Let Die,” “Let Me Roll It”) alike, songs whose overexposure would have long ago leeched them of their ability to move, to thrill, to entertain if not for the fact that, hey, it’s Paul fucking McCartney standing in the outfield singing them like he means it.
McCartney seems to realize his life has been a blessed confluence of luck, talent and timing, and while that gives him the right to, well, pretty much do whatever he wants, there’s something honorable about his decision to use his unique powers to entertain rather than challenge. He starts the set with “Hello, Goodbye” not because it’s an especially strong song in his canon, but because it’s simply a great way to start a show, and whether rollicking through the cheesy fun of “Jet,” dusting off a track from his alter-ego the Fireman or powering through “Maybe I’m Amazed,” McCartney approached each song like he doesn't make many distinctions between his perceived highs and lows.
In fact, some of the best moments of a show full of reliable best moments came from contrasting these various contradictory components of McCartney’s art. How could a guy who could, with the help of his crack four-piece band, blaze through “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Helter Skelter” show equal sensitivity performing “Blackbird,” “Yesterday” (those not singing along pindrop silent) or George Harrison’s “Something?” How could that same guy be responsible for the beloved but daft “Ob-La-Di,” Ob-La-Da,” the ever-inexplicable pop schizophrenia of “Band on the Run,” the eerie disco of “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” or the oddball “Let ‘Em In,” and play them all like he meant it? How could Paul McCartney in 2011 muster enough enthusiasm to perform “Let It Be” or “Hey Jude” for the umpteenth time?
Maybe it’s that all those songs aren’t old news in McCartney’s mind, either. Just because the man aims to please doesn’t preclude him from deriving a little pleasure himself. After all, if it’s fun to see Paul McCartney, imagine what it must feel like to be Paul McCartney.