There was a moment in the middle of a vicious reading of Helter Skelter, half-way through the encore — the half-hour encore to a show whose main set had lasted two and a half hours — when I realised: this is a seventy-five-year-old man playing with more energy, more passion, having more fun on stage and putting on a better show, than anyone else, of any age, I’ve seen all year.
Paul McCartney played to a sold-out Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland last night. Opening with a strum of his Hohner bass and the clanging, chiming first chord of A Hard Day’s Night, he played a three-hour set that was simply outstanding. That he’s a star performer is obvious — he’s a bloody Beatle. But then, so was Ringo, and I can’t imagine Ringo packing stadia around the world and pleasing crowds in the same way. But then, McCartney is something special. He’s musical royalty, part of the most fabled and successful songwriting duo in history, an author on his own of some remarkable songs. But last night’s show was much more than simply a trot through one of the most remarkable back catalogues any singer has access too. It was a hell of a set, mind — Can’t Buy Me Love came third in the show, right before Jet, and when you can toss out songs of that calibre so early in your show then you’ve got some heavy artillery to come later — that built such momentum that even the more obscure, recent McCartney solo material, songs that “we play because we like to, and they give the alcoholics a chance to go and get more beer,” still engaged.
And that’s down, primarily but not entirely, to McCartney’s effortless stage presence and charm. In stark, cruel and harsh contrast with Stevie Nicks, who bored and frustrated with her self-endulgent ramblings before almost every song in her recent Spark Arena show, Paul — I feel like I can call him Paul now; even in a stadium, he managed to make every single member of the audience feel like he were talking directly to them — dropped in a few little anecdotes, a choice handful of tales of, for example, how he was terrified at having to record George Martin’s new ideas for the arrangement of Love Me Do, and his stories felt honest, warm, self-effacing, as did all of his audience interactions. He’s been doing this for well over fifty years, but he still looks like he started last week, and he genuinely gives the impression — it’s too convincing to be an act — that deep inside he’s still a Scouse teenager thinking to himself “Oh, wow…I can’t believe we’ve made it.” He’s also an aware enough performer to remember to toss in a quick “Tena koe katoa” at the start of the show, or a “Ka kite ano” at the end, and to fly not only a Union Jack and a rainbow flag at the start of his encore, but also a New Zealand flag, and a Tino Rangatiratanga. He knew his audience, and he pleased them.
And he sounded superb. Helter Skelter was as ugly and angry and fantastic as it ever was, played with urgency and power and enough fire to prove, as it was intended to, that McCartney could write more than just ballads. He played his ballads, too — singing solo, with just his acoustic guitar for accompaniment, standing on a raised platform in front of the stage, he played Blackbird with tenderness and delicacy such as only comes with age and maturity. But Yesterday, or Let It Be, or Hey Jude — they all had the sweetness of youth combined with the mellowness of the years he’s put in perfecting his trade, and his voice was as strong and clear as you’d hope. He moves like a man a third of his age, the trademark Beatle bounce that he and John Lennon — “Can we get a cheer for John!” — made they own at the Cavern Club and in Hamburg still in evidence. And, let’s face it, he has the songs. The Beatles choices were obvious favourites — a rolling Lady Madonna, an exquisite Eleanor Rigby, a fierce Back In The USSR which was prefaced by a quick memory of playing the song in Red Square and talking to Kremlin apparatchiks backstage. The Wings songs were carefully selected — Band On The Run is more fun than it’s given credit for, Mull Of Kintyre remains cheesier than a lifetime’s supply of cheddar, but when the Auckland And District Pipe Band came on stage, it was impossible to do anything but cheer. And, of course, Live And Let Die, the greatest Bond theme song for possibly the worst Bond film, it was played with ferocity and flamethrowers and utter abandon.
None of this would have mattered, though, without a superb backing band. Rusty Anderson handled the guitar lines in a way that, one likes to think, George Harrison would have approved of. Brian Ray handled right-handed bass duties when McCartney took the piano for Let It Be and the like, and did a fine job. Paul Wickens played most backing instrumentation on his keyboards, down to the strings on Eleanor Rigby. And in Abe Laboriel Jr, McCartney finally has a truly outstanding drummer (no, he hasn’t had one before).
It’s impossible to review a show like last night’s without gushing just a little bit. McCartney called out “See you next time” as he left the stage at the end of the encore, and I dearly hope he has another tour left in him. In the meantime, this was without any doubt the finest concert I’ve seen all year.
Thanks to Chris Zwaagdyk for photography