Paul McCartney’s Nationals Park concert hits home for one lifelong fan.
My mom used to say that I listened to the Beatles even before I was born. She said she danced to them while I bounced around in the quiet, gentle womb in her tummy. Well, that would’ve been kinda hard given the Beatles didn’t record their first record until about 15 months after I was born.
But suffice it to say, the Beatles’ music was definitely the first music I remember actually hearing and absorbing. I was learning to talk and walk and run and exist as a human amidst the strains of “Love Me Do,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” I still have a copy of “Love Me Do” on the obscure Tollie Records label that my folks must have bought soon after it came out, as well as other Beatle 45s and albums they played the grooves off. As long as I can remember, the miraculous music of John, Paul, George and Ringo has been permanently woven into my psyche, invoking pleasure, peace, happiness and comfort. It mostly reminds me of my late parents, and their unconditional love and nurturing presence. Beatles music still makes me feel like I am going to be OK, that all will be well.
Fast forward over 50 years to last Friday night, July 12, 2013, Nationals Park, where I finally saw a Beatle perform right before my eyes, with another 40,000 rabid fans along for this magical mystery moment. The long and winding roads Paul McCartney and I have been on for five decades met at a crossroad. It was an experience I have never had and will likely never have again.
It began with the familiar building guitar strains of a Beatles hit from 1964’s “Beatles For Sale” album, a song title inspired by a Ringo malapropism, “Eight Days A Week.” It was a great start, right into the Beatles catalogue. Paul’s voice was strong, the band was dead on, though the sound overall was a bit muddled. But that’s what happens at these vast stadium shows; it sometimes takes a couple songs to adjust, and it did. But it was unmistakably Paul — “Ooo I need your love babe, guess you knowww it’s true.” Next up was the Wings FM radio nugget “Junior’s Farm,” a minor surprise to some diehards and one of eight Wings tunes he would roll this night. Back to a very early Beatles standard, “All My Loving,” and it made sense — love was surely in the air. The adoration this man has gained through all these years was dripping from the farthest stanchions of this vast venue.
The next two, “Listen To What The Man Said” (1975) and “Let Me Roll It” (1973) — both excellent Wings tunes — reminded us what a stroke of both skill and luck it was for Paul to go from the biggest band in the world to a damn good band featuring one of the guys from the biggest band in the world. Can you imagine trying to go out and play after being with the Beatles? Leave it to Paul for striking gold with Wings and sustaining it for years to come. Next up was one of my favorite Beatles tunes, 1966’s “Paperback Writer,” for which he tossed off his main bass and donned the one he wrote the song on — nice touch. “My Valentine” followed, one of two originals on his covers-heavy 2012 release “Kisses On The Bottom” and it showcased Paul’s infamous crooning, his smoky jazz-rock sensibilities. Sweet, syrupy, yes, that’s part of Paul, too. Least he didn’t play “Silly Love Songs,” but even that is such a period piece, its sappy goofiness is still Paul’s sappy goofiness, and somehow that’s OK.
The show really hit its stride with the rollicking Wings tune “Nineteen Hundred Eighty Five,” which closes 1973’s “Band On The Run.” The band really began to gel here with everyone taking solo turns and getting this McCartney-driven engine up to speed. Paul then said a few words, sat down at the piano, and launched into “The Long and Winding Road” from “Let It Be.” It is said that he wrote this about the troubles the Beatles were having at the time, but it can also be easily transposed as a desperately touching love song. It was gorgeous, true to the original, Paul’s voice in superb form. I hoped he would do this, knew he probably would, and was in awe as he glided through it. The sweet yet powerful Wings tune “Maybe I’m Amazed” followed, a song that appeared on his first solo album “McCartney” and was written to his wife Linda, thanking her for helping him get over the breakup of the Beatles. This two-song arc made sense in a pretty profound way. Possibly my favorite song of the night overall, “Maybe I’m Amazed”‘s frenetic “yeah yeah yeah” vocals in the song’s final crescendo blasted through the stadium, and must have echoed off the U.S. Capitol dome just up the street.
The next section included “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Another Day” and “And I Love Her” — all performed exceptionally, true to the originals but with that Macca live flair. Then he donned the acoustic, and you just knew … “Blackbird” — no band, just Paul and guitar. Dedicated to “those who struggled and continue to struggle,” it still resoundingly trumpets the trials of those that are discriminated against, but also urges them to “take these broken wings and learn to fly.” “Here Today,” another sweet love song from “Tug of War,” was followed by a nice nugget from “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Your Mother Should Know.” “Lady Madonna” and “All Together Now” preceded another gem, “Lovely Rita” from Sgt. Pepper’s. Many folks didn’t expect this.
Then he began one of the greatest song runs in my almost 40 years of concert-going: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” (unexpected, plus the psychedelic calliope part was really great), “Something” (a big surprise dedicated to George that started with Paul on ukelele), “Ob La Di Ob La Da,” “Band On The Run,” “Back in The USSR,” “Let It Be,” “Live and Let Die” (complete with fireworks that rocketed up from behind the stage) and then “Hey Jude” to end it. These nine tunes were a miraculous brushstroke of Paul’s whole career, from “Revolver” to James Bond, from “Sgt. Peppers” to “Abbey Road,” from “The White Album” to “Let It Be,” from the four lads to the band on the run, a brilliant whirling dervish of music from across his career. The “Na Na Na Na-Na-Na-Na” chorus in “Hey Jude” brought the main set to a rousing singalong finish. Five minutes of cheers brought Paul back for encore number one — a ripping version of “Day Tripper,” the then-controversial Wings tune “Hi Hi Hi” from 1972, and then a dead-on version of “Let It Be’s Get Back.” Paul and the band joined hands, bowed in unison kinda like the Beatles used to, and walked off.
But wait, he didn’t play IT yet. My father’s favorite song of all time, the song that evokes so much about his life, and eventually also my life, a song so stunningly honest and tragic, yet beautiful and real. He HAS to play it. And he did. For encore two, Paul came out alone, thanked the crowd for their love, and played “Yesterday.” This was a crystallizing moment — deep in my mind, my Dad left his eternal sleep, joined my hand on the trip down that winding road, then kissed my cheek and walked back off into the ether. Amazing to hear Paul do this so perfectly live. It was probably the emotional highlight of a deeply emotional show. After a head-bangingly mesmerizing version of “Helter Skelter,” Paul left us with the classic trilogy that ends “Abbey Road”: “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End.” There ya go.
“And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love…you make.” So true. Especially so on this profound night, when my lifelong love of the Beatles came full circle. Paul and I slapped an imaginary high five, and headed back down that road on very different courses, but both somehow better off for this once-in-a-lifetime night.
Steve Houk writes about rock luminaries here and on his blog. He is also lead singer in a local classic rock cover band, Second Wind.