The art direction and video imagery that dominated the stage during Paul McCartney and his quartet’s appearance Sunday threatened to swallow the musicians and their material whole, so consistently impressive and, pardon the flashback, mind-blowing are this tour’s visuals. With vivid colors, great footage of the Beatles and Wings and spectacular quality in the video of the performers, the bank of screens enhanced nearly every number in McCartney’s musically pleasant career overview. With an expertly trained band that did considerable justice to McCartney’s recordings, the old, cute Beatle, turning 60 on June 18, generally forsook emotion for perfection, which worked up to a point — it was the tunes that had a little extra kick that gave the show its identity.
The set list was designed to present him as a hitmaker, with the main portion of the show heavy on Beatles songs (15 of them). There also were six tunes from Wings, five from his solo albums and four off last year’s “Driving Rain.” The highlights, though, were rather surprising — “Fool on the Hill,” “Hey Jude,” “Band on the Run” and, of all things, “Vanilla Sky.” They were infused with a little something extra, with McCartney delivering effective, controlled diction on “Fool” or putting a little kick into “Vanilla Sky.”
The “Driving Rain” numbers, too, benefited from the live setting, though the audience reacted most strongly to numbers released in the 1970s — “Band on the Run,” a sharply rendered “Coming Up” and “Let It Be.” “C Moon,” a goofy B side from 1972, was the odd choice for this tour — but even presented in a different context, it’s just a goofy B side.
A nine-song acoustic segment, mostly just McCartney and a six-string, is the main draw on this tour — the one thing the man can show fans that they had never seen. Yet it, too, was delivered in the same fashion as the full-band segments — steady and measured so as not to burn out too early. “Every Night” was a gem, and his tributes to his late Beatle mates John Lennon, with “Here Today,” and George Harrison (“Something” on the ukulele) came just shy of striking an emotional chord. But “Blackbird,” which is now accompanied by a specious story about how it was inspired by the civil rights movement, got a wobbly treatment on the guitar and exposed the limits of McCartney’s voice, and “You Never Give Me Your Money” felt superfluous. Segment might have worked better if he had opened up a little, told a sentimental story or exposed a forgotten song from the 1980s.
Overall, though, there was nothing wrong with the performances per se, just a lack of energy on McCartney’s part as he opened the show by rolling through “Hello Goodbye,” “Jet,” “All My Loving” and the previously never-played-live “Getting Better.” He didn’t look enthusicastic, his stage banter was lame — “We have come to rock you tonight”? Puhleeze! — and most annoyingly, he raised his arms, sometimes with guitar or bass in hand, over his head in triumphant celebration after each song. Is McCartney telling his audience it’s tough for a geezer to get through these rockers? Or perhaps he wants every individual song to be recognized not just for the performance but for the baggage and accolades that each comes with. On this night at least, the audience wasn’t delivering.
Drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. was an amazing, hulking presence, even if his drumming is far busier than that of Ringo Starr and Geoff Briton. His personality was the winner on this night, projecting all the way to the back of the hall without the benefit of a bigscreen.