Paul McCartney at the United Center, April 2002

Daily Herald Music Critic

The magic of Beatlemania will always be connected to what preceded it three months earlier — the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

If that hadn’t happened, the Beatles still would have arrived in the United States and still would have written the rules for pop music to come.

But would the fervor that greeted them have been so extreme? Americans were wounded after JFK’s murder, and they knew times were changing — probably for the worse.

So when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan — with their absurd British humor, wide smiles and impeccable tunefulness — the nation’s thirst for escapism was quenched. No wonder teenage girls screamed, cried and fainted.

That famous film footage rolled during Paul McCartney’s show Wednesday night, the first of two sold-out nights at the United Center. While McCartney sang the Beatles 1964 hit “All My Loving,” images of sobbing girls, shrieking girls and Fab-obsessed teenagers flashed in black-and-white overhead.

That extra touch was nostalgia, but it also had topical relevance, too. The deep bond between the Beatles and its fans is unlike any in this history of pop music. And after the horrors of Sept. 11, McCartney has re-emerged as relevant as ever, still a figure the nation looks to, desperately to be told (in song, at least) it’s getting better all the time.

Indeed, McCartney performed “Getting Better” for the first time since the Beatles recorded it in 1967. In the 2 1/2-hour show, he once again wrote the rules, this time on how a rock icon gracefully ages. By staggering his touring by a decade, McCartney obviously had time to develop a fresh approach to his famous songbook. He also selected songs, that weren’t the obvious hits; instead he forged for those that had deeper resonance over the years.

But braver still, McCartney dismissed his four-member band early in the show. Standing alone before almost 23,000 people, he played 11 songs solo. They ranged fro his sweetest melodies (“Mother Nature’s Son,” “Blackbird,” “Here, There and Everywhere”) to tasteful tributes to his fallen bandmates John Lennon and George Harrison.

Playing the Harrison ballad, “Something,” he fingerpicked a ukulele (who knew Harrison was a fan of Hawaiian music?), but for Lennon, he turned to “Here Today,” a song he wrote soon after Lennon’s murder in 1980. “We didn’t understand a thing/but we could always sing,” he sand, stepping away from the microphone at song’s end, blinking away a tear.

Turning 60 this June, McCartney was as spry as a teenager, with a voice that remains freshly exuberant, striking the high notes of “I Saw Her Standing There” without having to fake it.

His band – Paul “Wix” Wickens on keyboards, Rusty Anderson on guitar, Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums and Brian ray alternating between guitar and bass – looked like the refugees from the Goo Goo Dolls or System of a Down. But even if they were slick, they effectively reproduced the ambitious songcraft of his 35-song setlist, covering from the Beatles to Wings to his post-band years.

McCartney couldn’t have played a show without his staple anthems, “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude” and “The Long and Winding Road.” As gratuitous as they felt, they were not as nearly so during his recent Oscar contender, “Vanilla Sky,” which was accompanied by film clips of Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz.

That’s called showbiz, which stood out only because this show had hardly a trace of it. Early on, one of the ’60s film clip showed a fan waving a poster that read, “never leave us.” McCartney showed once again what we’d miss.

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