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Concert Reviews

Paul McCartney Live

Everyone’s Cup of Tea

Paul McCartney Concert Review

Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Oct. 10, 2005

How fortunate we are that the most successful songwriter in pop history is also one of the best. In an age when faceless producers sonically engineer chart-topping songs for series of one-hit wonders, Paul McCartney has a rare mix of universal accessibility and unmistakeable personality.

McCartney has been widely accused of allowing a degree of mediocrity to seep into his oeuvre since the end of his tenure with the Beatles, but the songs he plays over nearly three hours to a worshipfully attentive crowd at the Air Canada Centre are, almost without exception, exceptional.

It’s a testament to McCartney — and to his new quality-control inspector, producer Nigel Godrich — that the material from his new album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, holds its own with songs hand-picked from throughout his back catalogue. On disc, Godrich’s expansive production lends the songs a degree of gravitas which de-emphasizes McCartney’s whimsical side; even a droll number such as “English Tea” becomes stately. In concert, McCartney’s amiable folksiness inevitably comes to the fore, as he mimes making a “proper cuppa” and delights in his use of the word “peradventure.”

It’s odd to find oneself at a show where the ovations seem almost as long as the songs, but brevity is one of McCartney’s virtues, and Beatles gems such as “I Will” and “For No One” each deserve their extended accolades. McCartney comically tacks on two false endings to “I Follow the Sun,” claiming the song is “so short, you don’t want it to finish.” Other than this, the inevitable audience-participation marathon “Hey Jude,” and a short jam at the end of “The End,” McCartney keeps a tight rein on his arrangements and runs through a remarkable 37 songs.

His wide range of music has been famously covered and reinvented by artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin and the Dead Kennedys, but McCartney constrains himself by playing it much as he did on record. Clearly he has been interested in reworking his music — see this year’s “Twin Freaks” collaboration with DJ Freelance Hellraiser, who opened the show by spinning a short set of McCartney samples crossed with big, funky beats.

All the same, he’s clearly instructed his four-piece backing band to recreate well-loved performances, which they do enthusiastically and as expertly as possible; still, it’s somewhat jarring to hear Paul “Wix” Wickens’ synthesizers attempting to fill in for absent horns and strings. McCartney has shelled out for a huge lighting rig with 50 retractable screens, flashpots, and fireworks, but none of this sparkle can replace a real trumpeter for the solo in “Penny Lane,” or a string section (heck, even just a cellist) to back up “Eleanor Rigby.” Only on “Mull of Kintyre” does he welcome additions to his quartet: the entire Peel Regional Police Pipe Band marches on stage in full regalia. Alas, their presence can’t save the dire, plodding dirge which, tonight, represents the only chink in McCartney’s musical armour.

Throughout the concert, McCartney and his bandmates declare their intention to rock, ask the crowd whether we are prepared to rock, and then seek to ascertain that, having rocked, we remain eager to continue rocking. A degree of politeness offsets the band’s testosterone until at last, 26 songs in, they burst into “I’ve Got a Feeling” with a dirty groove as video images of bumping speaker woofers appear behind them. The version of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” that follows is storming, and the set-ending, ear-shattering pyrotechnics on “Live and Let Die” are impressive, but the concert’s finest moment is the band’s gloriously noisy encore rendition of “Helter Skelter,” during which hulking drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr., who was earlier striking incongruous rock poses during “Eleanor Rigby,” finally erupts in a bruising display of percussive fervour. Some fans seem shell-shocked — maybe they’re amazed — but McCartney, 63 years young, grins as he screams.

McCartney, a tad jowly now, retains an exuberant youthfulness. His self-deprecating humour offsets the often grandiose nature of the proceedings (including the furiously edited self-congratulatory video we’re forced to sit through before the concert begins). Overall, his voice has worn well — apart from a bit of growling in the low end and some strain in the highest notes, he sounds remarkably similar to how he did in his “Cute Beatle” days.

In his finest single in ages, the urgent “Fine Line,” McCartney declares, “It’s a fine line between chaos and creation.” A little more inspired chaos wouldn’t hurt, but if McCartney’s creation continues intact, we’ll still be needing him (and our $300 ticket purchases will no doubt still be feeding him) well after he’s 64.

— Originally appeared in The National Post

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