Friday, Aug. 9, 2013
Outside Lands Festival
Better than: Breakfast with the Beatles
Last night in Golden Gate Park, tens of thousands of people sang along to songs that are, in pop terms, ancient. The words, the melodies, and the voice carrying them arrived like a burst of long-captive air -- familiar, yet revelatory. Soul-stirring, even. These were Beatles songs, sung by Paul McCartney, who for the first night of Outside Lands 2013 took a sold-out San Francisco audience back to one of pop music's original supernovas, and let us bask in its incredible warmth for the best part of three hours.
At 71, Sir Paul can still sing, still play, and still charm (as two lucky, sign-waving ladies found out -- more on that later); just imagine impeccable, straightforward versions of "Hey Jude," "Back in the U.S.S.R.," "Daytripper," "Let It Be," "Get Back," "Eleanor Rigby," "Yesterday," "Something," "Blackbird," "Lady Madonna," "Helter Skelter," a bunch more Beatles and solo favorites, and "Live and Let Die" punctuated by gratuitous fireworks. Imagine that, and you've got a decent approximation of how it went.
So the question of whether or not it was a "good" show almost doesn't apply -- Paul McCartney playing Beatles songs was good in a way that no other show could be. (Inevitable nitpicking aside, of course.)
It is both tragic and convenient that the Beatles singer we're left with is the puppy dog-eyed, flirtatious, entertainer side of the leading duo. McCartney excels at the festival kind of spectacle, chatting up a polo field of probably more than thirty thousand people as if it were a half dozen friends in his living room. ("This is so cool, I've gotta just take a minute to drink it all in for myself, okay?," he asked early in the set, as if we might say no.) He is such a good showman that you forget he's being a showman.
His musical feel-good moments were absurdly effective. "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" felt like a zillion adults shouting along to the soundtrack of their very first memory formation. (I think it's a stupid song, and yet even I couldn't help but sing along and shimmy to it.) His "Helter Skelter" was a slow-mo strafe of heavy-blues gunfire, loose and shambolic and yet perfectly targeted -- one of the very best of the night. "Band on the Run" fought against Wings skeptics with crisp, proggy turns, before settling into that golden lope we all know too well. Sir Paul began unfolding George Harrison's No. 1 hit "Something" with a ukulele, then let his band fall into place one instrument at a time, building up to a bittersweet guitar solo that Rusty Anderson ladled out faithfully. A thundering version of Wings' "Let Me Roll It" melted into a loose jam on the "Foxy Lady" riff, and ended with a story about Jimi Hendrix.
Much has been made about the songs Paul is playing on this Out There tour that he hasn't played before. But while "Lovely Rita" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and a couple others were curiosities, they weren't among the better tunes of the show. Other decisions were odd, too: Paul brought out Kronos Quartet for the encore's "Yesterday," but not for "Eleanor Rigby," where the live strings really would've helped. ("Rigby" was pretty great anyway, but it could've been so much better.) The inevitable padding of later Paul solo tunes was expected, and mostly fine. But, sorry Paul, "We're Going to Get High High High" does not belong in an all-Beatles encore between "Daytripper" and "Get Back." It just doesn't.
And yet who are we to whine about lesser crumbs from this magnificent table? As if we hadn't heard enough greatness before, the night closed with a big chunk of the Abbey Road medley: "Golden Slumbers" into "Carry That Weight" into "The End" -- a trio of songs that's nearly 44 years old. Though released before Let It Be, Abbey Road was the last album the Beatles recorded, and thus its end is their end, the final burst of creative energy from the most important rock band of all time. It came out of Paul and Co. last night like a big, bright, bittersweet flash, an explosion of long ago just now arriving in San Francisco via the still-young voice of one of its architects. That light in the sky will always be out there, but last night Paul McCartney shined on it on Golden Gate Park. It's hard to imagine Outside Lands 2013 getting much brighter.
Paul the charmer: After noting that two young ladies in the crowd held signs asking Paul to give them their first tattoo, the Beatle brought them onstage, and signed their wrists -- while hugging them from the back, of course. His proximity drew a few "ooohs" from the crowd, but Macca feigned innocence: "It was the only way to get the angle!" he chirped.