Better Than: Everything, ever.
I'll drop all pretense of "criticism" here and will preface this by saying it's written from the perspective of an unapologetically drooling fan.
I never thought I'd ever hear my favorite Beatle repeat the word Miami so many times live, but sometimes, miracles do happen. Endless thanks and praise are due to the scheduling gods who slotted in Paul McCartney's last of four U.S. tour dates in this city (and the ones who, magically, granted me front-row seats). Sir Paul proved this past Saturday at Sun Life Stadium that while he's spawned any number of musical progeny, the original is still the best.
It's a cliched sentiment, but McCartney truly performs with the energy of someone half his age, his voice and multi-instrument mastery still fully intact. Hearing his classic songs rendered live, so flawless and close to their recorded versions, is a goose-bump-raising experience. He's so untouchable, in fact, that there was no need for an opening act. He took the stage around 8:30 p.m. and didn't leave it until about three hours later, without taking a break.
For all his supermegastardom, McCartney kept things relatively simple, with a stage setup consisting of a screen for graphics along the back of the stage, one on either side for closeups, and a piano and drums on a riser. His backing band was pretty straightforward as well, with a drummer, a guitarist, a keyboardist, and another musically dextrous fellow who, like Macca himself, switched between guitar and bass. All were almost scarily talented, with whip-tight performances and vocal harmonies that perfectly mimicked the Beatles'. (But really, what else would you expect?)
The only other extravagance here was a head-spinning array of instrument changes, a visual orgy for guitar gear nerds. Most of the time, of course, McCartney played his signature viola bass, in his typical reverse left-handed fingering. But ever the virtuosic player, he swapped often among this, the piano, and a series of fancy guitars. At one point, it was some kind of Les Paul, painted in a multicolor pattern; at another point, it was a Les Paul gold-top; at yet another, it was an original Epiphone Casino used in most of the Beatles' '60s sessions. (Gibson should feel very proud.) That's not to mention the mandolin he brought out for his latter-day solo tune "Dance Tonight," or the ukulele he brought out in a tribute segment to George Harrison.
That latter bit was one of the evening's definitive showstoppers, during which McCartney reminisced about his late bandmate's fondness for the ukulele before launching into a ukulele-backed, sped-up version of "Something...." Which then duly gave way to the full, backing-band version, complete with epic, emotional solos. It was one of several poignant moments of the show. At 67 years old, McCartney's lost several of the most important people of his life: At one point, he dedicated "My Love" to his late wife, Linda, and at another, "Here Today" to John Lennon.
These were fitting passages of mass reflection, but the rest of the show tended toward the triumphant and buoyant. Nor did it wade too much in nostalgia. As I pointed out in this blog post last week, McCartney's stayed musically current over the years, constantly releasing new material and experimenting with new forms. It was evident that many fans -- at least those around me -- had followed along. His material released as the Fireman, the recent "Highway" and "Sing the Changes," was met enthusiastically. This was a killer set list for Wings fans as well, with 11 songs out of about 37 total coming from that era of McCartney's output.
But what was most endearing about McCartney is that for all his recent personal struggles and for all his years of doing this, he is still clearly elated to be performing for legions of adoring fans. And his Englishness comes across with self-effacing humor rather than aloofness. His stage banter is joking and easy, the type that one would expect from a performer in a club or theater. After the first couple of songs, he paused and said, "I'm just going to take a moment to drink it all in," stepping to the front of the stage and surveying the crowd. Clearly tickled, he launched into the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life," then stripped off his jacket to reveal some natty suspenders (or shall we call them "braces" in this case?). "That was the big costume change of the evening," he explained.
At other points, he easily shared personal anecdotes and recollections. These were mind-boggling, like stories of Jimi Hendrix seeking guitar-tech help from Eric Clapton, but were recounted in an off-hand manner, as though he were recounting a routine trip to the store. Then, toward the end of the show, he ran through a thank-you speech that included his band, of course, but also everyone down to the sound and lighting technicians and, finally, the fans. In other words, no prima donna behavior here from one of the few people in music who would be totally entitled to it.
The only rock-star flourishes came, appropriately, toward the end of the main set, which gained even more serious steam with a big chunk of Beatles material kicked off by "O-Bla-Di, O-Bla-Da," which then dipped back to Wings for "Live and Let Die." This started off calmly enough, with McCartney at the piano, singing sweetly until the beginning swell of the chorus and then... fireworks! flames! And more fireworks! And more flames! And a swell of synths and a group singalong!
So how did he top that? Oh, the only way possible: With a six-minute-plus version of "Hey Jude," which ended with the chorus sung by the crowd of tens of thousands. It was a moment that will forever remain a benchmark in my live music experiences and will likely forever go unmatched. The six (or seven, depending how you count) additional, late-period Beatles songs that followed in two encores were more sweet, sweet icing on the cake. It's only April, and this is the definitive winner for best concert of the year.
Personal Bias: Where to begin? Well, like the child of all good boomers, I grew up on a steady diet of the Fab Four since the womb... Paul has always been my favorite Beatle... For a few confused years, '60s Paul served as the style, hair, and musical standard for all would-be suitors... Paul inspired me in part to pick up the bass, and even my choice of a viola bass itself... Even though I don't play many videogames, I've played Beatles Rock Band until certain songs just make me think "red-yellow-red-yellow..." I could keep going...
Random Detail: Miami Dolphins majority owner Stephen M. Ross was seated about five rows behind me, dressed in a dapper uberpreppy outfit (blue blazer, flood-cut chinos, sockless loafers) and watched over by a bodyguard. He finally smiled during "Let It Be."
Random Detail #2: My style hero of the evening was a hip older lady near me wearing red suspenders to match the color of her bob haircut, over an all-white ensemble punctuated by strips of silver sequins on her sleeves, sweater, and even shoes. Awesome.
By the Way: Boos to the crazed late-50-something man who body-slammed me without apology in an attempt to rush the stage during "All My Loving," of all songs. Cheers to the awesome lady dancing near me who had apparently snaked a field access pass from a confused security guard and ditched her husband to enjoy it, alternately waving her arms to the music and yelling, "He's gonna frickin' KILL ME!"
By the Way #2: This YouTube user
seems to have uploaded live clips of damned near every song.
-"Venus and Mars" / "Rock Show" (Wings)
-"All My Loving" (Beatles)
-"Letting Go" (Wings)
-"Got to Get You Into My Life" (Beatles)
-"Highway" (The Fireman)
-"Let Me Roll It" (Wings)
-"Foxy Lady" (instrumental Jimi Hendrix cover interlude)
-"The Long and Winding Road" (Beatles)
-"Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" (Wings)
-"Let 'Em In" (Wings)
-"My Love" (Wings)
-"I'm Looking Through You" (Beatles)
-"Two of Us" (Beatles)
-"Here Today" (solo)
-"Dance Tonight" (solo)
-"Mrs. Vanderbilt" (Wings)
-"Eleanor Rigby" (Beatles)
-"Sing the Changes" (The Fireman)
-"Band on the Run" (Wings)
-"O-Bla-Di, O-Bla-Da" (Beatles)
-"Back in the U.S.S.R." (Beatles)
-"I've Got a Feeling" (Beatles)
-"Paperback Writer" (Beatles)
-"A Day in the Life" (Beatles) / "Give Peace a Chance" (Plastic Ono Band cover)
-"Let It Be" (Beatles)
-"Live and Let Die" (Wings)
-"Hey Jude" (Beatles)
-"Lady Madonna" (Beatles)
-"Get Back" (Beatles)
-"Helter Skelter" (Beatles)
-"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)" / "The End" (Beatles)