Gershwin Prize winner Paul McCartney at Library of Congress news conference

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; C01

He helped forge the shape and trajectory of popular music and was greeted Tuesday night by a strange and sonorous thunder.

Some of it was applause. Much of it was the drumpity-drumpity-drumpity of old seat-backs in the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium flipping into their upright position.

Because when Paul McCartney steps into the room -- sharp suit, chestnut hair, twinkling eyes -- you stand to greet him.

The beloved Beatle is in Washington to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Tuesday at the Coolidge, he was celebrated in a stately performance for guests of the library. On Wednesday, he'll accept the award in the East Room of the White House and will be serenaded by a cast of pop greats.

Much of that cast crammed into the Coolidge on Tuesday night -- a guest list that included Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Jack White, Herbie Hancock, Dave Grohl, Emmylou Harris, Faith Hill and all three Jonas Brothers.

Also in the crowd: comedian Jerry Seinfeld, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), TV honcho Lorne Michaels, singers Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, and too many Congress-folk to count.

After opening remarks from Pelosi and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, the Loma Mar Quartet performed. McCartney and this ensemble go back over a decade -- the songwriter enlisted them for his 1999 album "Working Classical," the collection from which they performed.

Lang Lang, the esteemed Chinese concert pianist, who wore his hair in sharp little spikes, was also on hand to perform McCartney's "A Leaf." There was a little surprise accompaniment: Someone's cellphone started bleeping midway through the piece, to a chorus of gasps and tsks.

The concert felt like a subdued counterpoint to the excitement that is expected to transpire at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Wednesday. Until, that is, the maestro took the stage for the finale, slung an acoustic guitar over his shoulder and started strumming the chords to "Yesterday."

"I like little informal gatherings like this," McCartney quipped after the crowd summoned him back for an encore of "Blackbird." Nary a cellphone chirped this time, and the singer's stomping left foot sounded almost startling on the Coolidge stage hardwood.

McCartney, who turns 68 this month, is the third songwriter to be awarded the Gershwin. Simon received the inaugural award in May 2007 and Stevie Wonder was celebrated in February 2009.

Named to honor the songwriting team of George and Ira Gershwin, the prize "recognizes musicians whose careers reflect a lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of artistic expression and cultural understanding," the library said in a statement.

Earlier on Tuesday, in Library of Congress Room 119 -- an ornately decorated chamber with an incredibly plain name and an insufficient air conditioner -- a throng of journalists was glowing in McCartney's presence during a pre-show press conference.

"Am I supposed to say something?" the songwriter asked after taking the podium. "Yeah, I'll say something. It's fantastic for me to be here." Swoon.

During the conference, McCartney fielded a mix of wonky political questions and awkward fan-boy requests. What would he do about the BP oil spill? "That's too big a question for me to answer." How does he feel about President Obama? "He's a great guy -- so lay off him!" Is he nervous to play for the first family? "Let's face it, this is not our usual crowd." Will he sign this old vinyl Beatles LP? After the conference -- amid a crush of photographers who rushed the podium -- he actually did.

And there were questions about craft. "It's a mystery," McCartney said when asked how his songwriting process has changed over the years. "You start with a black hole and if you're lucky, a couple hours later there'll be a song waiting there. That mystery, that magic is still the same for me."

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