Paul McCartney's audience is like the crowd at the Louvre: A small percentage knows about and appreciates the contemporary works, but most folks come for the old stuff. At MCI Center on Saturday night, McCartney unveiled enough of his vintage art to keep the Mona Lisa smiling.
And so long as he emphasizes the familiar, the task of picking a set list for a McCartney show, even one lasting about three hours, seems about as difficult as choosing the starting lineup of an NBA all-star game: There really isn't much chance of a noticeable mistake. His genius as a youngster was so complete that many of the Beatles tunes rendered on this night -- "The End," "Eleanor Rigby," "For No One," "Let It Be," "Yesterday" and "The Long and Winding Road" among them -- would have made just as many listeners cry had he taken away either the lyrics or the music. During the naah-naah-naah-nahnahnahnaaah portion of "Hey Jude," for example, a baby boomer in the front section looked away from the young girl beside him as if to hide the tears pouring down his cheeks.
McCartney, however, only rarely got overtly maudlin. He sang "Happy Birthday" to John Lennon, who might have turned 65 this weekend had he not been assassinated 25 years ago, and also requested an ovation for George Harrison and ex-wife Linda McCartney, who both died of cancer in recent years.
While introducing the 1963 single, "I'll Get You," McCartney reminded the crowd that Washington had hosted the first Beatles gig in the States. "If you remember this one, you weren't there," he said of the February 1964 show at the Washington Coliseum, a sad building about a mile from MCI Center that still stands, thoroughly underappreciated by the locals for its role in the cultural earthquake inspired by the Fab Four's American invasion. (Top tickets to McCartney's MCI appearance had a face value of $253, while tickets to the Coliseum show went for $2-$4, or much less than the per-ticket service charge vendors get today.)
Unlike at, say, a Beach Boys or Elton John show or any concert where fans know the material as well as they know their adolescence, the crowd didn't appear eager to sing along. Folks came to hear McCartney sing, in a voice still strong enough to leave listeners awestruck. He had to ask the audience to join him on the fadeout to "Hey Jude." His musicianship hasn't flagged even a half-step, either: The fretwork on his hollow-body Hofner during "Penny Lane" served to remind folks that McCartney pretty much single-handedly -- with his right hand -- changed the way pop bass players approached their craft.
The few new songs McCartney delivered from his latest CD, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," had obvious nods to the Beatles catalogue: "English Tea" recalled "Piggies," while "Jenny Wren" hinted at "Honey Pie." There are worse places to steal from.
There was a noticeable difference between the original and live versions of Wings songs ("Let Me Roll It," "Live and Let Die" and "Band on the Run" among them), which McCartney and his four-piece backing band reproduced with fabulous hard-rock -- or, as the bandleader might call them, "naked" -- arrangements, providing more evidence that overproduction ruined more '70s rock than booze or cocaine did.
McCartney looked as wonderful as he sounded. At 63, he has aged at a slower pace than his audience. The artificial glow he had about him during his appearance at the last Super Bowl was gone; he's grown into whatever facelift he'd had. But this night brought out the kid in a lot of people: Just before showtime a female fan old enough to have a daughter old enough to know better appeared to be trying to talk her way backstage while dressed in a too-revealing T-shirt that read "I'm Jill I Will." She didn't get back.