BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Paul McCartney told a familiar tale about his song “Blackbird,” that it was intended to reflect the individual struggles of the Civil Rights movement. He explained the simple origin of the even simpler song in a rather grandiose way: while levitating high above the audience on a riser, a LED screen below him showing the image of nothing less than the entire planet.
At age 72, McCartney is very comfortable standing on top of the world. The victory laps that comprise his ongoing “Out There” world tour are packed with many reasons why: A songbook that is a foundation of the pop music canon. At the United Center Wednesday, McCartney powered through two hours and 40 minutes of only a portion of those songs —the winsome piano ballads, the chugging power rockers, the upbeat pop fare, the solo acoustic song, the silly nonsense sing-alongs. You know their names, no need to look up their numbers. The performances were strict in adhering to the original versions, with every strange quirk of the recordings — the orgasmic-sounding breathing of “Lovely Rita,” for one — dutifully recreated by the band.
Such artifice might feel more natural in a mausoleum, but with McCartney, there was reason to celebrate: This show is soon after a stay in a Tokyo hospital in May, where he both canceled and postponed dates in East Asia and the U.S. due to a virus. There were not too many signs during Wednesday’s performance his health was a hindrance and, in fact, his breezy demeanor and commitment to keeping the audience engaged remained obvious. On “Let Me Roll It,” he stepped out with several impromptu guitar flourishes and he slapped, pounded, and otherwise annihilated the piano keys on “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five.”
The rotation between instruments, musical settings, and decades from his past — The Beatles, the solo years, Wings, and more recent albums — appeared to invigorate the man as always. The setlist, containing nearly 40 songs, was mighty, if just a little redundant compared to recent tour stops. There were several recent songs, including one (“My Valentine”) that was accompanied by a video of Johnny Depp performing sign language while leaning on a guitar that mercifully was not picked or strummed.
(Besides jobbing as an actor, Depp now finds work as a frequent video prop for McCartney, appearing in three of his videos. Could it be the actor’s soulful stare, ragamuffin couture, or hats? Let’s wish a 2014 remix of “Say Say Say” with the actor is not on the horizon.)
McCartney’s band — guitarist Rusty Anderson, guitarist-bassist Brian Ray, keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. — ripped through the new songs, particularly the thumping “Queenie Eye” and speed-rocker “Save Us,” making them sound like natural additions to the classics. This is a group of musicians that McCartney has now worked with the longest, however there were obvious gaps whenever Wickens was tasked to replicate string sections (“The Long and Winding Road”), horns, and even a honking saxophone solo (“Lady Madonna”) on his keyboards. Shortcuts like those are expected of a Beatles cover band, but when an actual Beatle does it, it feels a little thrift shop.
Presented with nearly five decades of music in a single night is an overwhelming proposition and may have represented the greatest iTunes playlist ever. But cramming so much pioneering work together meant for some inevitable standouts. On Wednesday, those were the two “Sgt. Pepper’s” songs McCartney included: “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “Lovely Rita.”
No surprise that the songs sounded dense with bursting sounds and complex musical ideas. Although McCartney paid tribute to former musical partner John Lennon through a newer song (“Here Today”), “Mr. Kite” may have been more enduring, considering the original featured Lennon’s lead vocals. So many years later, it was no less sublime. When Henry The Horse dances the waltz, violet-colored lasers swirled through the stadium as if inviting all to join in.
Eight Days a Week
All My Loving
Listen to What the Man Said
Let Me Roll It
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five
The Long and Winding Road
Maybe I’m Amazed
I’ve Just Seen a Face
We Can Work It Out
And I Love Her
All Together Now
Everybody Out There
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Band on the Run
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Let It Be
Live and Let Die
Hi, Hi, Hi
Carry That Weight