Monday, August 1, 2011

Concert review: Paul McCartney at Wrigley Field

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Paul McCartney could not just let it be Sunday in the first of two concerts at Wrigley Field. He played for nearly three hours and broke into a James Brown-worthy sweat, wringing new rivers of passion from songs he’s played hundreds of times.

The takeaway moment for this concertgoer was “Maybe I’m Amazed,” with McCartney at the grand piano, bringing the song to a simmer and then taking it higher and harder, with some improbable falsetto notes. The beat at times suggested the sunniness of reggae, with rhythm guitar chopping against the melody, before a flourish of drums and McCartney's fevered vocal nearly tore the song loose from its foundation.
It was indicative of the sure, confident rapport McCartney has developed with his touring band over the last decade, and the quintet ranged across five decades of songs like a really good bar band on a hot July night. There weren’t many gimmicks, and when there were McCartney made fun of them. A Guns N' Roses concert broke out in the middle of “Live and Let Die” with pyro and fireworks, prompting the bassist to crack jokes at the excess while waving away smoke like an annoyed landlord putting out a grease fire in an apartment.

It was a steamy night, but McCartney didn’t take any breaks, his bandmates pushing him hard. Drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. was, as usual, the key. In 2002 at the United Center he was jacking up the tempos and McCartney put on one of his best shows in recent memory. In 2005 at the same venue, things had settled into an easy cruise. But on Sunday, Laboriel was again making his larger-than-life presence felt, his giddy-up fills putting an atomic bounce in “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Day Tripper” and “Helter Skelter.”

McCartney switched among his trademark violin-shaped Hofner bass, acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, ukulele and piano. His band mutated around him into whatever shape the song needed: a ska beat in “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” a triple-guitar British Invasion attack in “All My Loving,” a soul slow-burn in “Let Me Roll It.” The vocal interplay of Laboriel, keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, and guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray closely approximated the intricate Beatles counterpoint harmonies in songs such as “Paperback Writer,” “I Will” and “Hello, Goodbye.”

McCartney leaned heavily on decades-old classics, both from his most famous band (you know who) and the runner-up, Wings, whose 1973 album, “Band on the Run,” was showcased. Even "Mrs. Vandebilt" was rolled out, its pogo-inducing beat ratcheted up into a twice-as-fast coda.

The bassist played only a smattering of more recent material, bypassing some of his strongest work in decades perhaps because it wasn’t widely played on commercial radio. But what he did single out – particularly the anthemic “Sing the Changes” from his Fireman side project with the producer Youth and the buoyant mandolin-driven “Dance Tonight” – went over well enough to suggest he should include more from such recent albums as “Memory Almost Full” and “Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard.”

McCartney didn’t just settle for easy nostalgia, though. He could’ve played audience sing-alongs such as “Hey Jude” all night. But instead the moments of a totally engaged rocker in top form kept piling up: a Jimi Hendrix tribute on “Foxy Lady,” including a string-bending McCartney guitar solo; a scrappy and raucous “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which evoked the Beatles’ earliest garage-band days; and a thundering triptych of songs from “Abbey Road” to close things down, with three guitarists, including McCartney, swapping solos after Laboriel’s Ringo-esque drum fill.

In what has become a standard piece of his concerts in recent years, McCartney also paid tribute to his late Beatles bandmates John Lennon (in “Here Today”) and George Harrison (performing Harrison’s “Something” on ukulele). McCartney reminded himself as much as his audience to say “something nice” to those you love while they’re still around to appreciate it. There’s a second part to that advice, though. To receive the compliment, it needs to be earned. On Sunday, McCartney played like he wasn’t taking anything, including his place in rock history, for granted.


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