Rock Steady

Paul McCartney proves he hasn't lost any of the charm or musical ability that fans have loved since his Beatles days.

April 22, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Seeing Paul McCartney in concert will make you believe again.

In the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll. In the curative value of visiting with old friends. In the pervading wonder that comes from seeing your heroes up close. In the simple magic that, as a child, made all things seem possible, and in the insistent faith that, as an adult, keeps that dream alive.

That may seem a lot to ask of a 59-year-old guy who sings what he once acknowledged were little more than silly love songs. But Sir Paul handles that burden -- carries that weight, to borrow a phrase from his Beatles days -- with joyous aplomb and unwavering dignity. He's a legend comfortable with the label, a cultural giant who accepts the responsibility while shrugging off the pretension. He's a knight of the British realm who's still a Liverpool lad at heart.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's Today section included an incorrect birthday for singer Paul McCartney. He was born June 18. The Sun regrets the error.

Oh yeah, and he still knows how to rock.

At Philadelphia's First Union Center Tuesday night, McCartney and his four-piece back-up band -- two guitarists, a keyboard player and a drummer -- spent better than 2 1/2 hours entertaining some 20,000 screaming, clapping, smiling fans. Sure, some had come to relive the Beatlemania of yore, but not all. Plenty of twenty- and thirtysomethings, born after the Beatles' premature demise, cheered just as loudly as their older brothers and sisters.

And then there were fans like 10-year-old J.T. Milne, who came not because his dad made him ("He's the fan who told me to come," said his 45-year-old father, Jack), but because both the Beatles and Wings are among his favorite groups -- along with old-school favorites AC/DC, Pink Floyd and U2.

Such was the eclectic nature of McCartney's audience. And it's a safe bet no one went home disappointed.

First, however, a word of caution to anyone planning to attend the show at Washington's MCI Center either tomorrow or Wednesday night: Take that 8 p.m. starting time seriously. (Tomorrow's concert is sold out, but there are a limited number of seats left for the second show.)

In Philly, those with seats in the lower portion of the arena who were not in them by 8 had to cool their heels until nearly 8:30. True, they only missed the opening act: a bunch of costumed ladies and gents cavorting onstage to electronic music by The Fireman, an alias adopted by McCartney for a couple CDs in the '90s (the effect was akin to seeing the cover of Sgt. Pepper come to life, to the tunes of Kraftwerk). But keeping people from their seats -- whoever heard of a rock concert starting on time? -- seemed a shabby way to treat fans who had spent up to $250 per ticket.

Any resentment faded quickly when Paul took the stage and launched into a faithful, energetic rendition of "Hello, Goodbye," from the Magical Mystery Tour album. Right away, the important ground rules were set: Yes, Paul was glad to be here. Yes, he would be playing Beatles songs. Yes, the crowd was welcome to sing along. And yes, those two women next to you, despite being well into their 30s, were squealing and crying like the teen-age girls in every extant piece of black-and-white concert footage from the Beatles' heyday.

McCartney always has seemed the most genial of the classic rockers, the most comfortable in his own skin, and his onstage demeanor does nothing to alter that impression. He spends a lot of time waving at the audience -- heartily, not mechanically, with an exuberance that suggests he knows you're glad to see him, and the knowledge makes him happy, too. Plenty of nice things were said about Philadelphia, and he added to the feeling that there was something special going on -- as if seeing him live weren't special enough -- by noting how good it felt to be performing some songs live for the first time ("Getting Better," for instance).

There were a few nuggets of new information, things even longtime fans may not have known. Before an acoustic rendition of "Blackbird," McCartney explained how the song was written in response to the American Civil Rights movement, and how he envisioned it as describing "the plight of a young black woman." After the trifling "C Moon," he tried explaining how it somehow had been derived from Sam the Sham's "Wooly Bully." (I didn't quite understand, but if he says so ...)

And, as befits the elder statesman Paul has become, he gave tribute to old friends no longer with us. "This is a song I wrote after my dear friend John passed away," he said as an introduction to "Here Today," a song about friendship surviving differences.

He followed that with the only song of the evening he didn't write: George Harrison's lovely "Something," during which McCartney played a ukulele his longtime friend had given him.

But best of all, McCartney spent the evening not simply acknowledging his past, but celebrating it. Of course, he performed "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be"; he also sang "Fool on the Hill," "Here, There and Everywhere" and "Back in the USSR."

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