Dodger Dogs were doing a robust business Saturday night during Paul McCartney’s appearance at the stadium that shares the delicacy’s name. He is not one of those performers who tries imposing dietary restrictions on the venues he plays, if that were even possible on the rarefied stadium tour circuit. Nor did food or any kind of health regimen arise as a subject as he bantered with the crowd. Nonetheless, it was the best 170-minute commercial that going meatless ever had, implicitly, as 57,000 mostly younger attendees scratched their heads in shared wonderment at how they, too, might be able to pull off a pretty unassailable three-hour show — or whatever its commoner equivalent would be — when they get to 77, seeing the superstar in all his vegetarian fighting trim.
It wasn’t just McCartney that was paunchless. That could be said for the 38-song set itself, which flew by as if it were dashed off in a half-hour — something we promise to never say about anybody else’s 38-song set, should we ever come across another one, because it won’t be true. The food and merch lines were so ridiculously long ahead of showtime because anyone who’d done any kind of recon at all knew this would be three hours without potty breaks built in — that is, without any costume changes (McCartney joked, as he always does, that taking his jacket off constituted the only one), but also without any duff tracks. If anyone had written the equivalent to one of those “When can you go to the bathroom during the new “Avengers’ movie?” articles… well, they might have written in “Come On to Me,” or one of the five other 21st century songs sprinkled in among the classics, but they would have been wrong. When you have the fellow who is the singularly most multi-talented artist in the history of popular music passing through town, as Steven Tyler would say, you don’t want to miss a breezy thing.
There is an inevitable sense of disappointment that accompanies any McCartney tour, though, maybe especially now that we might reasonably wonder how many more he has left in him. That’s right, disappointment. (Put the pitchforks away.) He fosters it by populating the hours leading up to showtime inside a stadium with a DJ set of his other greatest (and some not-so-great) hits — literally hundreds of songs beloved by somebody, if not the world, that he is not going to play later that night. And so the hardcore fan sits there thinking, “Damn — I guess ‘Big Barn Bed’ over the PA means he’s not going to celebrate the recent deluxe re-release of ‘Red Rose Speedway’ in this show?” That is exactly what it means, and the odds of our ever getting the full-album “Back to the Egg” tour we’ve been waiting for also diminish by the day. The less hardcore fan may also notice that not only does McCartney’s show not have much room for truly deep cuts, but it also doesn’t leave space for some of the less deep ones that are being rotated out, like, on this tour, “Yesterday.” But they probably aren’t noticing till the next day. Three assaultive hours of pop greatness has a way of making you forget an expectation or two.
So much of the show did fall along the lines of what McCartney buffs have come to expect that, although big surprises aren’t necessary, it was a joyful occasion when they arrived. Nothing was deviated from in the actual set list, but McCartney is building up a pretty good track record now for who might show up to help out on “Helter Skelter” in the encore segment. In Las Vegas June 28, it was Tyler, taking a night off from Aerosmith’s residency to sit in. At Dodger Stadium, it was Ringo Starr, taking a night off from not being a Beatle so that he could help half-reform the band by playing drums on both that and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise).” It was difficult to actually hear whatever had been mic-ed up on the drum kit that was rolled in for Starr over the steady beat that tour drummer Abraham Laboriel Jr. was kicking up, but we could at least see Ringo, grinning up a storm and seeming to want to renew the blisters he’d worked up when first recording “Skelter,” despite his limited time to do so. There were at least a few folks on hand, going up into the eightysomething fan division, who’d seen Ringo and Paul the last time they played together at Dodger Stadium, in 1966, at what turned out to be the Beatles’ next-to-last show. You didn’t have to be there, then, of course, to find this reunion deeply sentimental — and to get a thrill out of the fact that it was expended on two rockers as unsentimental as the “Pepper’s” reprise and “Helter Skelter.” Bono stole (okay, borrowed) that song, and finally the freakin’ Beatles were stealing it back. (For more about Starr’s appearance, including video, read our account here.)
The other guest was Ringo’s brother-in-law, Joe Walsh, who came out as one of the three guitarists recreating the part of “The End” where McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison took turns doing two-bar guitar solos. There was a bit of tentativeness in who actually was going to shred when, for, as McCartney admitted right afterward about the possibly unrehearsed cameo, “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing.”
That wasn’t something he could have said of any other moment in the show. McCartney’s Southern California fans who saw him at Desert Trip in 2016 or right here at Dodger Stadium had maybe an even better idea of what stories to expect that what songs to expect. At one point, introducing “Back in the USSR” with a recollection of meeting Russian military brass when he and his band played the country for the first time, McCartney even acknowledged that “some of you have heard this before” but he figured most were newcomers. You could debate those demographics, although certainly there was a strong “Take your son (or grandson) to Beatlechurch!” turnout. But if you’re a fan, you’ve probably learned to love the reiteration of these anecdotes almost as if they were 45s you want to put on again: the Russkie general who thought he’d learned “Hello, goodbye” as a real American greeting; how George’s love of ukulele led Paul to work up a uke-driven cover of “Something” for these contemporary tours as a tribute; how George Martin asked him to sing the refrain of “Love Me Do” instead of John and he can still hear “the quiver in my voice” in the recording; how he saw Jimi Hendrix cover “Sgt. Pepper,” and detune his guitar doing so, just a couple days after it came out; how “Blackbird” was a covert civil rights anthem; how “Here Today” was written as the I-love-you-man statement that he should have had the presence of mind to say to Lennon before his death. That last lesson really doesn’t get old, for an audience now old enough to have experiences a lot of loved ones pass away in less tragic circumstances than Lennon’s.
Some other things don’t get old, either, like the amusing brief history McCartney gave of “In Spite of All the Danger,” a song he recorded pre-Beatles with the Quarrymen (performed here as part of a mostly acoustic full-band interlude). He spoke of how there was one copy of the tape that had to be circulated among the band members, and the last guy to get it “held onto it for 20 years” and then finally sold it to McCartney at “a very inflated price.” Speaking, in these Swift-ian times, of a long history of not having control of one’s masters.
By the way: “In Spite of All the Danger” — now there’s a deep cut (recorded in 1958!). So maybe we were a bit misleading about the lack of less ubiquitous material in McCartney’s set. Although there was nothing else that could really half-count as an obscurity, Wings buffs had reasons to be pleased with how front-loaded the set was with ‘70s picks like “Junior’s Farm” and “Letting Go,” the latter of which brought about the introduction of a frequently used three-man horn section, spot-lit from a position way off in the rafters of the stadium before they were somehow herded onto the stage later.
“Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” gave McCartney another chance — besides “Lady Madonna” — to show how he can do that funky piano thing, in this instance putting Fats Domino through a minor-key blender. The two mid-‘70s “Let” songs — “Let ‘Em In” and “Let Me Roll It” — were nearly back-to-back highlights, although the most fun aspect of “Let ‘Em In” might have been the combination of marching-band footage and marauding silent-movie crowds on the big screens, whereas “Let Me Roll It” really sounded like a band in slow-jam discovery mode, working out the changes as if they were figuring out the tune in the studio for the first time instead of playing it live for maybe the 500th.
It’s nice, too, that McCartney hasn’t forgotten every other album from the current century besides the new one, as superstars of his ilk tend to do. And so we got “Dance Tonight” from 2007’s “Memory Almost Full,” maybe just because Paul really likes to bust out the mandolin, and who’d want to stop him? “Queenie Eye” and “My Valentine” more served as an opportunity to play back their respective MTV clips in full, and to make you wonder if Johnny Depp has actually been in more Paul McCartney videos than “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
As for the 2018 material, “Who Cares” was the strongest of the lot, with or without the anti-bullying message attached. (Not to be flippant, but does being bullied by Lennon and Harrison fans who insist their guy was the only really enlightened one of the Beatles count?) Let’s not talk about the ageist bullies who think “Come On to Me” is age-inappropriately sensual for a man of McCartney’s years; live, as on record, it was a charming lark in the loud “Hi Hi Hi” spirit. The Ryan Tedder-cowritten “Fuh You” will always be more polarizing for his fans, but he found a way to make it more special than it might have been. “We reckon we know what songs you like, because when we do an old Beatles song, your phones all light up,” McCartney said in introducing it. “It’s like a galaxy of stars. And then when we do a new song it’s like a black hole. But we don’t care, we’re gonna do ‘em anyway.” This was bait of the highest order, as a plurality of 56,000 fans lit up their phones during the song. “Okay, you fooled me. I got a galaxy of stars. Beautiful,” McCartney said afterward, not mentioning that this gambit has worked on tour nearly every night. We may be suckers, but it’s in a worthy cause.
With the most tried-and-true oldies, a McCartney show offers the chance to find something new in them — and it’s always there to be found, for students of pop. Like, did you ever think about how pretty the bass part is in the quiet opening stretch of “Band on the Run”? Maybe you did for the first time, seeing his hands at work on the big screens. And there were plenty of moments to admire his particularly melodic turns on his trademark Hofner. But mostly, of course, it was his vocals that were going to come up for scrutiny. Has he still got it? Could any rocker who modeled so much of his early style on Little Richard, but who also aspired to the heights of the great pre-rock balladeers, possibly still have it at 77?
No one really wants to grade a McCartney show — or, correspondingly right now, a Rolling Stones show — on the age curve, or to offer a senior citizen discount when it comes to handicapping performing greatness. But some of that, or a lot of that, is inevitable, as we head into new territory for how long into the years when any reasonable person of wealth has retired it’s possible to still carry off ridiculously energetic and epic shows. We’re getting more accustomed to the bar being moved now, but it doesn’t hurt to remember that, having just turned 77, McCartney is just two years away from the point at which the leading contender for greatest singer of the 20th century, Frank Sinatra, had to quit the stage because he could no longer remember or carry the tunes. And with that bygone standard in mind, what we’re seeing is a miracle. A miracle fueled by whatever vegetables the world’s greatest chefs and dieticians have to offer, maybe, but a miracle nonetheless.
So it pleases the court to find that McCartney remains a show-stopping entertainer of the highest order without any “well, for a man of his years…” qualifications. At Dodger Stadium, when it came to his performance level, the crowd was in the ‘70s, not his 70s. You could seek out signs of the vocal thinning that is inevitable at a certain point and find it, in isolated spots. But he also sounded better than he did at Desert Trip three years ago. And even if you had that radar on for how he might be protecting his voice at the end of a tour, there was very little sign that McCartney was half-assing anything, as a singer who likes to get on stage and howl. There were growling asides and upper-register coos that he could have left out without anyone complaining… and instead he just seemed to add more. Detractors of his live presence can point to the silly mannerisms he favors between songs in concert as he waits for the applause to die down. (What the hell ishe miming with those little goofball, go-go moves? All these decades later, we still can’t figure it out, either.) But his dominant performing personality is above all a generous one — from being generous with his set lists, probably to the point of paying for curfew overtime once things stretch past 11, to his refusal to give it anything less than his all as a singer, while making it look effortless in the process.
You had to love the simple little moment in “Maybe I’m Amazed” when McCartney’s longtime keyboard player, Paul “Wix” Wickens, moved his hand through the air as if he were conducting his boss’s vocals through a “whoo-whoo-oo” falsetto passage, which he probably does for fun every night. Maybe some night Wix will “conduct” McCartney’s falsetto and a croak will come out. But that night wasn’t Saturday, and it sure seemed a lot of years far off.
Let’s face it: tickets were probably at such a premium for this long sold-out show (on Saturday, the very worst seats in the stadium were going for $300, and anything in the front sections for $4,000 apiece and up) in part because fans believe it could be the last time he can tour at this level with this much gusto. That wouldn’t be an unreasonable hunch, historically speaking. But leaving Dodger Stadium, it was hard not to believe that McCartney won’t be back in three or four years, being the first pop great to continue being great in a massive, high-energy setting into his 80s.
If the passage of time over the next few years should demand he cut his set time to two and a half hours, so be it. In the meantime, we’ll all be eating our vegetables.