Mystery is missing magic in McCartney's tour


October 20, 2005


Hey, Paul, you let me down. You took some great songs -- and made them boring.

From the opening fanfare of "Magical Mystery Tour" to the pairing of "Hey Jude" and "Live and Let Die" that closed the set proper on Tuesday, the first of Paul McCartney's two sold-out shows at the United Center was only slightly more energizing than a warm glass of milk and a sleeping pill.

When Sir Paul performed at the same venue in April 2002, he rose above the mediocrity of his most recent release, "Driving Rain," and delivered an inspiring set that, though heavy on decades-old tunes by the Beatles, seemed vital and of the moment.

It's hard to say exactly why Tuesday's performance was such a letdown in comparison. This time, Macca is supporting one of his strongest solo albums in "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard." He is traveling with the same five-piece band and playing many of the same songs, with a few more unexpected gems. He's still in fine form vocally, while personally he is happy, content and proud to be a new dad. Yet he was just going through the motions.

The star long has vacillated between flashing a self-effacing, "regular guy" charm and a rampant ego almost as large as Bono's. The show opened with an unimpressive techno DJ remixing McCartney's songs for the rave tent -- at 63, Sir Paul still likes to pretend he's cutting-edge -- and a laughably hubristic film that began with his birth during the blitz and recapped his career to such recent non-accomplishments as his performance at "The Concert for NYC," his gig at the Super Bowl and his appearance with U2 at Live 8. But the nadir in the self-importance department came when he went on and on about how NASA recently used "Good Day Sunshine" to wake up the astronauts on the damaged space shuttle the day they could finally come home.

The implication was that the Beatles' music remains the most important not only on Earth but in the entire universe. Apparently, Sir Paul never stopped to consider that the guy working the outer-space cell phone that morning just happened to be a fan. Or maybe "Revolver" was the only CD he had handy in his car.

Having grown entirely too comfortable backing One of the Most Important Voices of His (and Every) Generation, lead guitarist Rusty Anderson, guitarist-bassist Brian Ray, keyboardist Paul "Wix" Wickens and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. indulged in as much shtick as musicmaking. Sir Paul foolishly gave each of them a turn to chat with the fans and tell us how much they love Cleveland -- er, Chicago -- which was only a bit more inane than the boss' own chatter. "We have come from many miles away to rock you, and rock you we will!" McCartney actually exclaimed at one point.

Wickens worked overtime to provide the George Martin orchestrations for "Eleanor Rigby," "For No One," "Penny Lane" and other tunes, but the digital samples were so uniformly cheesy and canned that they ruined the performances. For more than $250 a seat, Macca could have sprung for some real strings and horns. Or better yet, he could have updated the arrangements to veer away from the recorded versions, giving us a hint of freshness and spontaneity.

As in 2002, the best moments came when the star stood alone with his acoustic guitar or sat solo behind the grand piano, hypnotizing 22,000 people with renditions of stripped-down but gorgeous songs such as "Blackbird" and the new "Jenny Wren." The possibility of an entire tour in this mode or one that focuses on the new album remain enticing prospects, but neither is likely to happen.

Stratospheric ticket prices have become such a sad fact of life that readers now ask why I even bother mentioning them, but in an interview last week, McCartney himself said he was reluctant to play more of his new songs because the people who pay the big bucks to fill the arenas expect the hits. The fault lies not with them, but with the artist for pandering and refusing to play smaller venues at a more reasonable cost so he'd have more freedom to perform the music he is most passionate about.

Then again, there is always the chance that McCartney's passion is pandering, or at least reveling solely in craftsmanship. Rock critics have been having this debate for decades, but there was a revealing moment Tuesday when Macca introduced "Blackbird" with a story about how he lifted the main riff from a piece by Bach.

When the song first appeared on "The White Album" in 1968, it was heard in the wake of the riots on the streets of Watts, Detroit and Newark, N.J., as a quiet anthem in solidarity with the struggle for racial equality. That fight continues today, yet McCartney made no reference to it, or to any other pressing problem in the world around him. Instead, he simply played his songs as if they were created and continue to exist in a vacuum, absent of meaning, and nothing more than trifling entertainments. At the United Center, this was indeed the sorry truth.