By Mark Guarino
Try tying the strings between songs on Paul McCartney’s supersized setlist Tuesday and there will be knots. Of the almost 40 songs performed during his show at the United Center, a raucous howler (“Jet”) sat nearby a classy Broadway standard (“Till There Was You”), a power pop gem (“Drive My Car”) followed a more opaque pop arrangement (“Follow Me”), and a rocker McCartney wrote in 1958 as a 16-year-old teenager (“In Spite of All the Danger”) was accompanied by a rocker he wrote as a 62-year-old adult (“Fine Line”).
The widely different tiers of McCartney’s career are unprecedented. Today at age 63, he is enjoying another new tour (his last, in 2002, followed an absence of nine years) that gives him another chance to step into the role as one of rock’s few elder statesmen who hasn’t run from a challenge. Although this tour’s ticket prices ($85-$250) and luxury car sponsorship reflect an artist ready and eager to take advantage of what the market will bear, the show at least had a semblance of not following the boilerplate expectations of your average Beatlemania maniac.
Album sales “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” (Capitol) have not been steller, even though it is his most inspired and vulnerable albums in years. He worked some of those new songs into the mix, demonstrating they had a place in the long (and yes, winding) road to now. Despite being typecast as an upbeat pop cheerleader, McCartney has long produced songs with themes of isolation and confusion at their core. The jewel of Tuesday’s show was “Jenny Wren,” a new song McCartney performed with acoustic guitar, aided by the accordion of Paul Wickens and drummer Abe Laboriel’s tense, low beat. With McCartney’s falsetto vocals, the song was laced with sadness that hung over the crowd.
Unlike his last outing, the majority of songs McCartney chose to play didn’t follow convention. They included “Too Many People,” one of the few and less known Wings songs played, “Fixing a Hole,” stripped to piano, and “I’ll Get You,” a 1963 Beatles rarity (“we reckon if you remember this one — you weren’t there,” he assured the crowd”).
As much as those were pleasures, what were not were the songs his four-man band tried replicating to a fault. This duty was mainly put upon Wickens who tried the best he could delivering horns (“Got to Get You Into My Life”), strings (“The Long and Winding Road”), the signature French horn solo of “Eleanor Rigby” and other well-known arrangements that are intricate to the Beatles songbook. His synthesizer recreations sounded corny at best, garish at worse. Would hiring a small horn and string quartet have cost that much?
McCartney rotated between performing solo with guitar and piano and recruiting his band once again for a closing parade of Beatles hits. His casual swagger, corny jokes, stylish posturing and many anecdotes throughout the night were reminders of his showmanship — how making people feel they’re there in his living room — is still a rare art.