Summer is concert season, and these past few months have brought out a variety of outfits that all fall on the scale somewhere between reinvention and nostalgia. I have been on a bit of a tear this summer, kicking off with the Hall & Oates/Tears For Fears double bill, bookending that with Violent Femmes/Echo And The Bunnymen double-play only last Sunday. In between, there have been some crazy anomalies, like when I saw Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, and Robyn Hitchcock at separate shows in a single week.
Obviously, there have been varying degrees of success throughout, especially for these bands and performers who have been touring for decades now. Nick Cave was probably the most transformative, somehow channeling his grief over the recent death of his son into a show that I can only describe as a religious experience, becoming a death-defying manic preacher leading a besotted crowd. The Violent Femmes surprised me, doubling down on their classic bare-bones three-piece to expand into a horn section with extra guitar players, losing none of their old fervor and gaining new admirers in the bargain. Some were not as fortunate; I don’t know if he was having a bad night or too many nights on the road, but Ian McCulloch’s magical voice in Echo And The Bunnymen has faltered, so that he had to go down an octave, losing the hooky feel of many of the band’s hits. Hall & Oates, for whatever reason, offered a paint-by-numbers set they appeared to play on auto-pilot, comparing unfavorably to the energetic Tears For Fears, who just seemed delighted to be on tour again. Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins reinvented their Tones On Tail and Love And Rockets selves into Poptone, transforming Metro into an ’80s-era arty dance club. And Elvis Costello also just seemed cheered to be back, adding unfamiliar and occasionally unsuccessful elements like female backup singers, still fearlessly shredding onstage in a windstorm at Northerly Island, while his meeker audience members ran for cover.
I’m not sure what else I’ll see this year, but I will likely always think of last night’s Paul McCartney show as the culmination of this summer of music, if not my entire concert-attending life. As an added bonus, I got to take my daughter along for her very first concert, which I honestly have been obsessing about. It’s such a common adult conversational topic that I snobbily despaired of a life where my kids would forever have to answer with something like “Skrillex” or “Pitbull” when their new dorm friends asked them that fated question. Unfortunately, not one of the three members of my immediate family stepped up to be my plus-one. My husband, a.k.a. Grandpa, protested the concert’s far suburban setting on a weeknight. So I put their names out of a hat so that the “winner” could go with me. I picked my son’s name, who crawled under the dining room table in protest. His sister gamely stepped in as tribute in his place, but wasn’t a 10th as excited as I had been hoping. I blame myself: As I’ve said, I have failed at trying to get the kids into the music I like, which they seem to be rebelling against just because I like it. Still, having her go reluctantly was better than having her not go at all.
I don’t usually do this, but I had peeked at the set list online, just to see how kid-friendly it might be. It seemed like a solid mix of Wings and many Beatles cuts from across several albums, and the last dozen or so, at least, were all gangbusters. My press seats got us into a VIP lounge (really trying to impress my date) and we procured some earplugs. Two pieces of pizza, a beer, and a Sprite (total: $37) and we were in business.
You see people surge when the artist finally invades the stage, but I’ve rarely ever seen a surge like the one Paul McCartney received. It’s probably one of the only shows I’ve ever seen people carry actual signs to. Of course, as one of two remaining members from the greatest rock band ever, he deserved all that praise and more, and could have sat on a bench with a kazoo and enraptured the crowd. But he came ready to play, and for the purest of reasons: He certainly doesn’t need the money, and, at 75, is well within his rights to retire. But it was obvious that there’s still nothing he loves so much as making music in front of a ginormous crowd. Especially while paying homage to the ghosts he appeared to be surrounded by. Whatever wobbliness his vocals may have possessed was swallowed up by the acoustics and a sing-along crowd.
My daughter was enthralled by the vintage footage that played in the background of an early Beatles classic like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” followed by a string of lesser-known hits. Ever the romantic, love-inspired songwriter, he played “My Valentine,” which he wrote for his wife Nancy, who was somewhere in the audience. Only a single Wings song separated that ballad from “Maybe I’m Amazed,” his ultimate tribute to his wife Linda. This led to the most effective part of McCartney’s set: He pared down his expert band, playing in front of a farmhouse backdrop, to play the first song the Quarrymen ever recorded, “In Spite of All The Danger,” followed by a spare but moving version of my own favorite, “You Won’t See Me.” With that bare-bones lineup that resembled the early Beatles, “Love Me Do” couldn’t have sounded much sweeter (exclamation from my young companion: “I love this song!”)
Paring down even further, McCartney then performed solo on a high riser that made him tower over us for an acoustic version of “Blackbird,” which he said he wrote as a message of hope for the civil rights movement. The towering stage could have been gimmicky, but instead was majestic, as “Blackbird” was followed by McCartney’s loving ode to John Lennon, “Here Today” (“Mom, why are you crying?”). He also started out George Harrison’s best song, “Something,” with an inspired ukulele version, then quickly kicked into the full band, giving the excellent song its proper due.
It wasn’t all a far look back: A cut from McCartney’s 2013 solo album New, “Queenie Eye,” was spirited enough to make me want to check that whole record out, and he also performed the 2015 song he wrote with Rihanna and Kanye West, “FourFiveSeconds.” As the show wound down, though, we were inevitably headed for showstoppers: “Band On The Run,” “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” and the “Hey Jude” giant sing-along (Sean O’Neal and his wife told me they saw us on the big screen. I was laughing; my daughter was hiding). The explosive pyrotechnics of “Live And Let Die,” frankly, scared the shit out of me, as fireworks and actual flames shot out from the stage. The last time I saw a stage with that much firepower was a KISS show.
Sure, there were some lower moments: As documented, I’m never going to like “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” no matter how many psychedelic graphics popped up on stage, and “Birthday” is one of those songs I never need to hear again. The absence of “Jet” in the set leaves a giant, never-to-be-filled hole in my heart, especially since he played it in Omaha a few nights before. The encore kicked off with McCartney and his band members walking out carrying four giant flags: U.S., England, rainbow, and one I couldn’t identify (“It’s the Illinois flag, Mom.”) Of course the encore was going to feature “Yesterday,” and “Sgt. Pepper’s (Reprise),” wrapping up beautifully with the “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” trio that closes Abbey Road.
As you might expect from someone who’s been doing this as long as he has, McCartney put on an expert show that captured everything valuable from every other show I’ve seen this summer. Poignant looks back, energetic looks ahead, tributes to the past without cobwebs, energy for the music that somehow seems to have grown over time. A few years ago I wrote about a Foo Fighters show I loved that reminded me of the unifying power of rock music; McCartney, who has been steeped in the history of so many of us, a part of our music vocabulary before we even knew what that was, reminded me of the bare emotionality of his music, and all music. Playing so many Beatles and Wings songs, with a band that almost perfectly sounds like his former outfits, you have to wonder if some nights he gets a glimpse of George somewhere, a note from John, a fleeting Linda behind the keys. Even better, he’s strong enough to share all that with a grateful audience.
After we trudged back to the car, I tucked my daughter into the backseat with a blanket, praying she would sleep for the majority of the long ride home. She murmured, “Mom, I feel like we just went on a vacation.” It had been a transcendent experience; she was absolutely right.