When Paul McCartney strolls into view at Nationals Park on Friday night, don’t go wasting your precious singalong voice yelping for the man to play his hits. Unless your favorite McCartney song is “Wonderful Christmastime” — and there’s nothing wrong with that — he’ll probably get to it.
Sir Paul doesn’t aim to please. Pleasing is a reflex. Since launching his planet-spanning “Out There” tour in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in May, the 71-year-old tutelary of the Beatles legacy has been cramming his set lists with all the life-affirming goodness that the human race is willing to pay big bucks to hear. (Tickets for Friday’s gig went for $49.50 to $255.)
At the annual Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee in June, McCartney’s Beatles tunes outnumbered his recent solo and not-so-recent Wings material by more than 2-to-1. The 38-song serenade included “Let It Be,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and the na-na-na-nas of “Hey Jude.”
For years, such shameless give-’em-everything-they-want concert experiences have signaled creative death. But in 2013, McCartney stands as a vital exception. He has the rarest of catalogues in his possession, one capable of vaporizing cynicism across nations, races, generations and ponds — from sea to shining sea and from the infield seats to the nosebleeds. When it comes to provoking ecstatic communion, the man has no peer.
Okay, maybe one: Stevie Wonder. But that guy’s brilliance mysteriously can’t fill stadiums. Okay, maybe two: McCartney’s rival, the Rolling Stones. But that band still smuggles enough grease and mischief into its 21st-century concerts to keep the proceedings from feeling like pure sonic sunshine.
It has been a few years since McCartney brought his solar powers to Washington. He headlined a rapturous concert at FedEx Field in 2009, then returned in 2010 to scoop up some awards — the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in June and the Kennedy Center Honors in December.
His first Washington performance, of course, was with the Beatles on Feb. 11, 1964, for their first U.S. concert, just two nights after the lads had altered the course of popular culture on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In 2010, former vice president Al Gore, only 15 years old in that hyperventilating D.C. audience, recalled the concert: “We all loved their music, but clearly there were a lot of people in that crowd who loved it even more than I did because they couldn’t stop screaming.”
Nearly 50 years later, the screams aren’t nearly as deafening, but the expectations we’ve set for our live performers have grown so bloated that we routinely cheat ourselves out of the magic of rock-and-roll. Life on the Internet has made us pampered and impatient. We’re addicted to instant gratification. If we want to hear a song, we tap-tap-tap it into YouTube or Spotify or, if we’re feeling charitable, iTunes. We expect the same from a concert experience.
Accordingly, many rock veterans don’t just reunite their bands anymore — they hit the road promising to play their most legendary albums track by track, with no filler and no surprises. Promoters advertise these concerts as special events, ignoring the fact that music played with a sense of adventure is a special event in and of itself. Instead, fans end up paying for something scripted and predictable.
And although McCartney won’t be playing “Revolver” or “Ram” on Friday, we still know what’s coming our way. So why does he get a pass?
Because it’s highly likely that at Nationals Park we’ll be singing once-a-century music alongside thousands of strangers in a public euphoria ritual that can’t be ripped off, recycled, duplicated or denied.
So no need to bark out your favorite song. Just enjoy it when it comes.