Paul McCartney, Still a Performer Without Peer

By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

Paul McCartney is the only person in the entire world capable of what happened on Saturday night: He sang his classics for nearly three hours as he presided over an enormously and universally pleasing lovefest at FedEx Field. A small handful may be able to claim an equally lauded songbook, but nobody's is as widely cherished, and Macca wasn't stingy in the slightest when it came giving the fans all they wanted -- a whopping 21 Beatles songs were included in the set. He's the definition of a legend, but that initial feeling of reverence quickly faded once he started chatting, affirming his status as the friendliest rock god who walks the Earth. It was simply one of those shows that left you feeling tingly on the way home.

Anyone wondering why the 67-year-old musical deity continues to take his show on the road was greeted with multiple answers, each more convincing than the last. The first is that he's still damn good at it, and with only the most minimal reliance on any pomp and circumstance. This was not a spectacle; it was a rock-and-roll show. After noting that the Beatles' first U.S. gig 4 1/2 decades ago was in Washington, McCartney joked, "We've got bigger amps now!" But save some well-placed pyrotechnics during an appropriately explosive version of "Live and Let Die," there was nothing over-the-top about the performance. Fronting a modest five-piece band, McCartney smartly let his songs serve as the centerpiece, and they were played with passion and precision. Time has taken its toll on the voices of some of his contemporaries, but Macca's remains in peak form; he belted out the chorus of "Got to Get You Into My Life" with gusto to spare and hit every note during "Blackbird." He deftly toggled between acoustic and electric guitar, piano, even ukulele and mandolin, along with his trademark bass, all while maintaining an expert flow between Beatles, Wings and his solo material.

The second is that he clearly enjoys it, in his own silly way. He hammed it up, endlessly pointing to individual audience members while making goofy faces and hopping from center stage to his perch at the piano. Twice he mentioned how in the old days he couldn't hear his own songs because of all the screaming girls -- cue the shrieks throughout the stadium and McCartney's "Oh, did I do that?" grin. There was an extra perk in his voice when he dedicated "Michelle" to the Obamas.

Perhaps most importantly, one can sense that McCartney feels a responsibility to give back to his adoring fans. The Beatles phenomenon is one that defies generational categorization and is unlikely to ever be matched. His tributes to John Lennon (a solemn "Here Today" plus "Give Peace a Chance") and George Harrison ("Something," played on a ukulele that was a gift from Harrison) were touching, and he's the only one who can pull that off without it feeling exploitative. McCartney isn't the only musical act capable of filling a stadium, but the pure joy he brings his fans, of all ages, is unmatched. When he hangs it up, there will be an unfillable void.

He ended his set with "Hey Jude," which endures as the most irresistible singalong ever. Inside the stadium, people came together: those who grew up with his songs and those who discovered them decades later. There was hugging, swaying, the lighting of lighters. Practically everyone giddily gave in to the "Na, na na, na na na na" chorus. The single syllable was appropriate -- actual words weren't necessary to convey the feeling. After the song the beknighted Liverpudlian took a bow, flashed his goofy grin and spryly made his way offstage, concluding the magical -- no other word for it -- evening.

Oh. Then McCartney came back out and ripped through eight more Beatles classics -- "Day Tripper!" "I Saw Her Standing There!" "Get Back!" "The End!" -- that worked the crowd into an extended state of delirium as the midnight hour approached.

Only Sir Paul.

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