Greg Dennis: Paul McCartney’s long, winding road

I always liked John best.
He had the most irreverent sense of humor. He wasn’t afraid to make the kind of brutally frank social commentary that we heard from so few public figures back then.
John once said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” and he might have been right.
George was inscrutable, and Ringo was for girls — except for the girls who like Paul best. He was the cute one.
Today he’s still cute. And now that John and George are dead — and Ringo a relatively minor figure — McCartney carries on the legacy of the greatest musical group ever.
Many of us held a small torch for John over the decades, especially after his tragic martyrdom outside the Dakota. He was the biting edge of the Beatles, a brave warrior for peace and the world-changing power of rock and roll.
But even hardcore John Lennon fans have had to grudgingly admit that Paul McCartney was at least John’s musical equal.
Paul’s songs are less profound but more lyrical, and he is an accomplished rock vocalist.
Many songs attest to that. There’s “Drive My Car” from the “Rubber Soul” LP — I got through endless hours working in the college dining hall, thanks to that album — to “I’ve Got a Feeling,” to “Get Back,” to…
Well, there have been dozens of them over the past 50 years.
Even as his solo and Wings albums slid by and sometimes slid into mediocrity, Paul could still reach stratospheric heights. If you doubt that, go listen to the “Flaming Pie” album and tell me it’s not a great piece of work.
But Paul is 72 now. So when we learned he would be playing a show in Albany over the Fourth of July weekend, I had to wonder how good it would be.
The stupefyingly high ticket prices made me wonder even harder.
Nonetheless, it was a chance to see a legend near our own backyard — he’ll never be coming closer to Vermont — so we jumped on StubHub and paid scalper prices to go see the legend.
Forget that “legend” label, though.
Yes, he’s that. But he’s also still a terrific performer — engaging, rocking, stomping, touching, playful. As genuine as any superstar can be, and clearly still loving the game.
Paul and his crack four-piece band — he’s been with them longer than the Beatles or Wings — played nearly 40 songs over more than three hours last Saturday night in Albany’s Times Union Center.
I’m 10 years younger than he is, and I can’t come anywhere near that kind of physical stamina. He didn’t even stop for a drink of water as he alternated among six- and 12-string guitars, the piano, plus a ukulele to open “Something” in a tribute to George Harrison. 
Even after all these years, I learned new things about the songs. He said, for example, that he wrote “Blackbird” as inspiration to civil rights workers.
We all expected to hear the Top 40 hits, and there were plenty of those: opening with “Eight Days a Week,” then “Paperback Writer” a few songs later, along with “We Can Work It Out,” “Lovely Rita” and  “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
Here’s the power of music for Baby Boomers: Just think about those songs and your brain starts singing them. That’s how ingrained McCartney is in our culture.
Even the best of songs suffer from the poor acoustics of arenas. But the arena setting does make for spectacular visuals.
Two vertical video screens had live images from the stage. A giant horizontal screen behind the band featured a panoply of visual images and video to fit each song.
The fireworks explosions that rocked the stage during “Live and Let Die” were a scary thrill. And when the platform on which Paul was singing “Blackbird” ascended 30 feet in the air — as video of a waterfall played around the sides of the rising platform and Paul picked that amazing acoustic part — well, that alone made it worth the effort to get there.
McCartney played somewhat more obscure numbers, too: “All My Loving” from a 1963 LP and the humorously majestic “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” off “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
We expected to hear “Eleanor Rigby.” But “Back in the USSR” was a revelation, as fresh as it was when it opened the White Album with that sly reply to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” (Though the media played up the Beatles-Rolling Stones rivalry, it was the Beach Boys who inspired the Beatles to new sonic and musical heights.)
There was a generous helping, too, of cuts from “New,” McCartney’s latest album. While it’s a typically uneven offering, “New” has several cuts worth replaying. It’s also got the compelling “Everybody Out There,” which 350.org and the climate change movement should adopt as their anthem.
Ultimately, though, we return to McCartney’s music for memories.
It’s a testament to the power of his artistry that he can still make it fresh — a half-century after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” woke up a generation, and decades after we learned that as long as we can go back to yesterday and let it be, it’s gonna be a great day.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. His favorite Beatles album is “Abbey Road.” Twitter: @greengregdennis. Email: [email protected].

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