Paul McCartney returns, 2005

By David Watts Barton,  The Sacramento Bee, November 18, 2005

For a man of extraordinary accomplishments – no other rock musician can lay claim to a legacy equal to his – Paul McCartney live can come off as quite an ordinary guy.

Playing to an adoring sellout crowd of 16,000 Wednesday night at Arco Arena, McCartney performed with a comfort few would feel in the same situation. Dressed in black jeans, a long-sleeve turquoise T-shirt and sporting the same mullet he’s had for 35 years, McCartney has earned his casual style.

With the four-piece band he’s been leading for an ongoing series of tours that started in Oakland in 2002, McCartney has become one of the hardest-working classic rockers on the road. Still at the top of his game musically at 63, he looked and sounded a good 20 years younger as he worked through 37 songs in 21/2 hours.

Despite his years, McCartney is still in control of his voice, his greatest musical gift. Throw in fluent work on electric and acoustic guitars, fine self-accompaniment on the piano and his peerless bass playing, and you’ve got a complete musician.

With all of that in hand, McCartney again made an irresistible case for his legacy.

He did that in part by sticking with the songs that have long formed the backbone of his show and career, particularly in the closing third of the show, which featured an oh-my-God run of no-argument classics: “Band on the Run,” “Penny Lane,” “Hey Jude,” “Live and Let Die,” “Yesterday,” “Get Back,” “Let It Be,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)” and the climactic jam that ends the Beatles’ 1969 swan song, Abbey Road.

While those classics were as impressive as they were inevitable, what made Wednesday night’s show endearing was the way McCartney dug into his catalog of songs for gems that we haven’t heard quite so much. Nearly half of the show consisted of songs he skipped the last time around, songs that gave the set an element of surprise, even when they weren’t all slam-dunk classics.

“Drive My Car,” which heralded the Beatles’ turn to more complex music when it opened the band’s pivotal 1965 Rubber Soul, is a lighthearted throwaway. But it’s funky and harmonically adventurous in a way the group hadn’t been before that point, and it is a great live song in 2005.

Similarly, songs such as “I’ve Got a Feeling” from the Beatles’ last days, “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” and an exuberant pair of Revolver tracks, “Good Day Sunshine” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” just bounced off the stage, courtesy of the first-rate band driven by ace drummer and singer Abe Laboriel Jr., guitarist-singers Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson, and keyboard player Paul “Wix” Wickens.

Despite the band’s expert skills and significant touring experience, the show had a charming, freewheeling quality. Other highlights were quick takes on early Beatles songs such as “I’ll Get You,” “Please Please Me” and what McCartney introduced as the “smoochier,” “Till There Was You.” The similar-vintage “I’ll Follow the Sun” was lovely, and so short that McCartney repeated the closing phrase – and then did it again – and again – and again – and yet again. The effect was both comic and musically exciting, egging the crowd on and making the experience feel unique, whether or not he does that every night.

Ditto “For No One,” his often-overlooked 1966 ballad, which he performed nearly solo, as well as “Eleanor Rigby” and the sweet “I Will” from 1968. Even more impressive was the band’s blistering, guitars-blazing take on “Helter Skelter” from the 1968 album The Beatles (a.k.a. “The White Album”).

McCartney dug so deep into the Beatles catalog that he even essayed the first thing the band recorded, when it was still a pre-Ringo quintet: “In Spite of All the Danger.” This bit of rarely heard Elvis-inspired fluff was a delight.

While the songs are great, McCartney may be leaning a bit heavily on the Beatles at this point. Certainly, Beatles songs are the core of his legacy, but of the 33 songs that weren’t from his most recent album – he did four songs from the new “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” – just seven weren’t Beatles songs.

That sells his Wings and solo catalog short, and adds to the sense that the Beatles’ legacy weighs on him, at least in this way: As the more significant of the two surviving Beatles, he’s getting the final word. He’s a relatively trustworthy narrator, but there are points at which it seems that he’s focusing a bit too much on retelling The Story. The most obvious example of this was the 12-minute video biography that opened the show. In the manner of a political nominating convention video, it told the 16,000 people present what they already knew.

Likewise, McCartney on stage sometimes seemed to be milking the crowd for every bit of adoration he could get, mugging and dispensing endless thumbs-up, doing the rock-star equivalent of an end zone dance after nearly every song.

But for every line of cheesy stage patter (“Do you want to rock some mo’? We want to rock some mo’!”), McCartney would dig into his history to illuminate a song’s origins. At times, that seemed almost compulsive, as when he finished playing “Yesterday” and blurted out, “That’s the actual guitar I played on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’ ”

But we care about that sort of thing. This isn’t just some rock star, and that isn’t just some guitar. When he played that song on that guitar on that TV show, it made musical and cultural history. Most of the people at Arco Arena knew it, because that song, and so many others he wrote, changed their lives.