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