Review by Ross Bonaime, Photos by Jason Dixson
Guys, I saw a freaking Beatle.
By the end of the night, that’s all I could think of. There are two people left in the entire world who were in the greatest, most important and most influential band of all time, and on my birthday no less, I got to be only a few yards away from Paul McCartney and see him perform for three hours at the Nationals Park. You know how whenever you think of The Beatles, and they’re surrounded by screaming girls and it’s ridiculous? Well after seeing McCartney myself, I TOTALLY get it.
I almost missed McCartney come out as I shuffled to my amazing seat in the twelfth row (only a dozen rows of people between me and SIR PAUL MCCARTNEY). For the first ten songs or so, McCartney balanced between Beatles classic, Wings favorites and some of McCartney’s own solo material. “Eight Days A Week” started the evening, followed by “Junior’s Farm,” and on the third song, “All My Loving,” McCartney and his great band were in front of a screen showing footage of The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. After “Listen to What the Man Said,” McCartney took off his jacket in the muggy night, proclaiming that this would be his only costume change.
McCartney took another Wings song “Let Me Roll It,” adding a little bit of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” to the end of it as a tribute to Hendrix. Then after this little jam session, Paul had a story to tell about Hendrix because OF COURSE HE DOES! He said that Hendrix used to come see The Beatles in England, and that when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out on Friday, Hendrix took the album, learned the title song, and played it by Sunday in concert. Then when Hendrix knocked the guitar out of tune, he asked Eric Clapton, who was also in attendance, to come up on stage and tune his guitar. These are stories a human being has. I can’t believe it. After blowing my mind for the first time of the night, McCartney then grabbed the guitar he played on Sgt. Pepper and went on to play “Paperback Writer.” I mean….c’mon.
It would’ve been enough to have McCartney on a bare stage playing his greatest songs over an incredible career, but every song has a different stage presence. There’s different lights or videos or lasers or all sorts of crazy things going on. It’s almost hard to focus on just McCartney. For example, on one of his newest songs of the night, “Valentine,” you have a video of Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp signing the entire song as Paul plays along behind the piano. Or with the next song, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five,” it becomes almost a battle between Paul on piano and his band on guitar and drums. Every song has its own set up and visuals.
From there, the set sticks mostly to solo material and Beatles songs. After “The Long and Winding Road” and “Maybe I’m Amazed,”McCartney pointed out how hard it is to focus on the song and chords when he’s also trying to read everyone’s sign. He points out that one sign says “Paul Please Sign My Butt,” to which he responds “No…well let’s have a look at it.”
It’s fascinating to watch McCartney because you can tell he still loves to be on stage. I mean, I guarantee he’s not there because the merch tables are making him money, the man surely doesn’t need more money. He’s been doing this for decades. He knows what he’s doing and he just constantly proving that he’s having a great time. You really get the sense he’s there because he wants to be there, not because he has something to sell. Someone in the audience pointed out that throughout the entire set, he never even takes a water break at any moment. Sir Paul is a machine.
McCartney also has incredible recall. After playing one of my personal favorite Beatles songs “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” he points out that the last time they played the next song, “We Can Work It Out,” in DC was at The White House, then said that “Another Day” would then be played for the first time ever in Washington.
For “Blackbird,” McCartney was lifted up on a platform, as he played a beautiful acoustic version of the song. He then played “Here Today,” which he performed as a tribute to John Lennon, since he had written the song as if he were still talking to Lennon, as the platform brought him back to the stage.
A multicolored piano is pulled out and he gets into “Your Mother Should Know” and “Lady Madonna,” then playing what he jokingly called one of their more intellectually challenging songs “All Together Now.”
“Lovely Rita” and “Mrs. Vandebilt” are followed by a slowly building version of “Eleanor Rigby,” with instruments gradually being added throughout to create a very effective version. After “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” which he also states this tour is the first time this song has even been played, it becomes pretty much the greatest hits and it’s wonderful.
Paul pulls out a ukulele in tribute to George Harrison and plays a simple yet gorgeous version of “Something,” then comes a fantastic sing-along to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” During “Band on the Run,” the background is taken up with the picture from the album of the same name, which then comes to life to show the entire Wings crew messing around during the photo session.
“Back in the U.S.S.R” is a flurry of Russian-looking images, with a “FREE PUSSY RIOT” message thrown in the applause from the audience. Paul tells how he played the song in the U.S.S.R. and how the Defense Minister learned English from Beatles records.
McCartney gets back behind the piano for “Let It Be,” which of course brings out plenty of lighters in the packed audience. This goes right into “Live and Let Die,” which starts off innocently enough, yet with the first utterance of the title, fire, explosions and fireworks are going everywhere. All hell breaks loose. I’m not talking dinky little fireworks, but like full-blown light show. There’s smoke everywhere and it smells like sulfur, but it’s insane and awesome.
As the final song of the set proper, Paul gets back behind his multicolored piano to perform “Hey Jude,” and I don’t know what happened, but a wave of emotions hit me, leading me to just start crying like crazy. I had had a pretty rough week, but The Beatles could make it all just feel…better, which is one of the many reasons their music has resonated so well. As I looked around and saw the entire audience in unison, not a care in the world, I thought about how only a few feet away from me was a man whose music had literally changed the world. One man did so much that the world would never be the same. And just the idea of how important this man and this music had been and how great the effect it was having on me at that moment, at that time, well it was almost too much.
With the first encore, Paul and his band came back on stage, each waving a different flag, ones from the US, UK, DC and a tiny pirate flag, as they knocked through “Day Tripper,” “Hi, Hi, Hi” and “Get Back,” to which they left the stage, but then came back for their second encore.
Paul came out by himself this time with an acoustic guitar for another gorgeous solo interpretation, this time of “Yesterday.” The band rejoined him as Paul asked if we wanted to rock. Well, of course we did. So then “Helter Skelter” came on and everything went insane. “Helter Skelter” is by far my favorite Beatles song, and seeing it live was just as great an experience as I imagined it would be.
Unfortunately, McCartney said at some time, they would have to say good night, to which the audience appropriately booed at him. Paul incredulously went “Yeah!” hilariously. The night was ended with a beautiful combination of some of the final songs from Abbey Road, starting with “Golden Slumbers,” going right into “Carry That Weight,” and finally into an extended and perfectly suited finale of “The End,” which was about twice the length as behind them played the breathtaking opening sequence from Beatles:Rock Band which celebrates The Beatles history in a perfect way that also encapsulated the evening as a whole.
Of course you’re going to go into seeing one of the last surviving Beatles with some hella high expectations. This is one of the greatest musicians and songwriters to ever live playing some of the most incredible songs ever recorded. But my god, Paul McCartney puts on one of the best concerts I have ever seen. The man is incredible in every way. And on the inside, I am now one of those screaming girls.