Paul McCartney returned to the Giants ballpark tonight, but not to the same place he played the last time he brought a foursome to San Francisco, proper, when the Beatles performed what turned out to be their last live show ever in August 1966. That was Candlestick Park, notorious for howling winds and frigid temperatures after dark, a place that was once labeled “a pigsty” by former ’49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. Nestled on the bay, not far from the towering spires and twinkling lights of the Bay Bridge, with an “intimate” seating capacity of about 40,000, AT&T Park is a real gem. But 44 years later, we’ve put men on the moon and built a sparkling new stadium—and the PA really doesn’t sound much better than the old one did at the ‘Stick.
An inspired visual tribute to the Merseybeat days of the Beatles and an all-but-forgotten array of fellow Liverpool acts like Cilla Black, Gerry & the Pacemakers and the Big Three, spools down a pair of elongated Jumbotron screens on either side of the stage like two giant rolls of toilet paper. The pre-show canned music features an eclectic mix that ranges from jazz songbird Sarah Vaughn and Vegas lounge act Louis Prima to the exotic pop of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 and Otis Redding making “A Hard Days Night” all his own. Good as it was, after 35 minutes most people have tuned out.
Finally, McCartney and his terrific four-piece backing band leap onstage, more than an hour after the scheduled 7:30 starting time, to the anti-climactic strains of “Rock Show,” certainly not one of Macca’s more enduring numbers. Fortunately, “Jet,” one of Wings’ better tunes was followed by a letter-perfect version (down to George Harrison’s pithy original lead-guitar break) of “All My Loving.” But those who thought this was to finally be the nonstop Beatles beggars’ banquet we all hungered for were at the wrong dining table tonight, at least during the first 70 minutes of this 160-minute set. For the opening half of the show, Fab Four classics were sprinkled sparingly, like peanuts at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack.
“I smell something sweet in the air tonight. I think I’ll take a moment to take it all in,” said McCartney, nodding toward those patrons who will definitely be voting “yes” on November’s California initiative to legalize marijuana. Revolver‘s “Got To Get You Into My Life” with the horn parts nicely replicated by keyboard stops was a real rouser.
Apparently unaware of Mark Twain’s noted assessment of San Francisco’s climate (“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”), McCartney asked the crowd what happened to the warm weather, then reminisced about the Beatles’ S.F. appearances in ’64, ’65 and ’66 (the first two at the Cow Palace, just outside the city limits). “The girls were screaming so loud we couldn’t hear anything we were singing. Great memories,” he mused.
Perhaps inspired by Ray Davies’ Storyteller tour a few years back, or head Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s narrative-laced That Lucky Old Sun show from 2008, McCartney was quite chatty tonight. “I was lucky enough to hang out with Jimi Hendrix, a great guitar player and a beautiful guy, very humble, during the summer we recorded Sgt. Pepper,” noted McCartney. “We released the album on a Friday, and on Sunday I went to see Jimi. And he’d learned it by then and played it that night.”
“I wrote the next song for Linda,” says McCartney. “It’s dedicated to all the lovers in the audience.” Heartfelt Wings ballad “My Love” and Beatles chestnut “The Long And Winding Road” seemed all the more poignant in the wake of McCartney’s keen postscripts and dedications to long-gone friends and lovers.
A short memo to self, not to lose his focus—”Don’t get distracted by reading the signs in the crowd,” he said—was immediately ignored by McCartney, as he blurted out the message on a hand-painted banner: “I Saw You At The Cow Palace in 1964! Do You Remember Me?” “Of course I do! How are you, luv?” he laughed. “I’m Looking Through You” from landmark Beatles LP Rubber Soul, heavily influenced by the 1965 folk-rock milestones of the Byrds, was an absolute knockout.
“Blackbird,” with McCartney solo on acoustic guitar was written, he says, about the civil-rights struggles and the suffering going on in the American South back in the ’60s. “I wrote that, in some small way, to maybe give people hope.”
As if the dedication to late wife Linda hadn’t cut deeply enough, McCartney really opened up with “Here Today,” penned for former pal/sometimes adversary John Lennon. “I’ve found you don’t always say the right things,” said McCartney. “Sometimes you have the feeling, ‘I wished I’d said that,’ when it’s too late. I wrote this after my dear friend John passed away.” (“If I said I really knew you well, what would you say?/You’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart … But I am holding back the tears no more/I love you.”)
Totally unknown by most of this crowd, “San Francisco Bay Blues” was once a local radio hit by San Francisco one-man band/street musician Jesse Fuller. “We had to do it,” said McCartney. The goodtime piece served as the perfect low-calorie antidote that shook the cobwebs and dust from the evening and lit the fuse for a volcanic finale. “Eleanor Rigby,” with its baroque string quartet arrangement nicely rendered on keyboard, sounded so accurate it might have been the track from Revolver played over the sound system. (Of course, it wasn’t.) One purple-shaded window focused on the stage backdrop immediately expanded into rows and rows and rows of purple-shaded, lonely windows.
“Here’s something I don’t know if you knew about George Harrison: He was a great ukulele player,” said McCartney of his other fallen former bandmate. “I used to go over to his house, and I learned this song on ukulele.” McCartney strummed and sang a marvelous version of “Something” on the Hawaiian fretted instrument that soon turned into a full-blown reading of the standout track from Abbey Road. “Oh, yeah, Georgie!” shouted McCartney as the crowd erupted.
“Band On The Run,” from Wings’ most successful 1974 album of the same name, was accompanied by outtake film footage from the convicts-in-prison-spotlight cover photo shoot that featured band core the McCartneys and former Moody Blues singer Denny Laine along with celebrity drop-ins like actors James Coburn and Christopher Lee, as well as Liverpool light-heavyweight boxing champ John Conteh, among others.
McCartney has finally worked up enough of a sweat to doff his jacket and cut loose with the best of his tracks from the White Album: the ska/Blue Beat-influenced “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and the Beach Boys-fueled “Back In The U.S.S.R.” It’s a solid one-two roundhouse that gets the old-timers up and out of their seats, gyrating like they did before they turned 64. “U.S.S.R.” is blanketed on the rear of the stage by stunning black-and-white images of wildly spinning Cossack dancers. It’s just as powerful as any drug you can buy on the premises. “Wings did a show in Red Square, and we got to meet the Russian defense minister,” chuckles McCartney. “I dunno, he looked just like a kid to me.”
The endgame happens so quickly you hardly have time to catch your breath between songs. A raucous runthrough of “Paperback Writer” is surrounded by a lurid backdrop of pulp-fiction cover art. And before you can recover, you’re mesmerized by the hauntingly familiar opening strains of “A Day In The Life,” the Wagnerian, death-spiral closer of Sgt. Pepper. Just as they’re about to finish the song with those too-close-to-the-sun chords, everything shifts gears into Lennon anti-war manifesto “Give Peace A Chance.”
The philosophical “Let It Be,” from the final Beatles album, originally produced by Phil Spector, might fool you into thinking the end is near. But no. “Live And Let Die,” Wings’ most exciting track and the theme song from the 1973 James Bond flick with Roger Moore inheriting the franchise from Sean Connery, goes off like an IED in Iraq. A row of flamethrowing onstage smoke pots send fire heavenwards, and the instrumental teaser passages are highlighted twice by a barrage of full-bore fireworks exploding behind the stage to land safely in McCovey Cove, just beyond the right-field wall. it’s an unexpectedly welcome sight in the Bay Area, since most local towns eliminated Fourth of July pyrotechnics displays this year due to extreme budget constraints.
They wrap things up with McCartney seated at the grand piano for the gripping opening passages of “Hey Jude,” the song that even made a Beatles believer out of Mick Jagger in 1968.
But, just as the massive final sound of everyone joining in on a sing-along has ceased to echo from the surrounding hillside, McCartney and the boys are back onstage, toting two flags, the Union Jack and the California bear flag, for an encore that rattles the foundations of AT&T, much like the Loma Prieta earthquake shook old Candlestick back in 1989. It’s the runaway-firetruck headiness of “Day Tripper,” followed by McCartney abandoning the wonky, dayglo keyboard up front at the last second for the trusty old grand piano in the back. “Lady Madonna,” a Beatles tune, supposedly written in 1968 for one of their boyhood heroes, Fats Domino, is followed by “Get Back,” a smoldering number that gives the left-wing Lucky crowd one more chance to light up. And that’s it.
Not so fast. Back again for a second encore. The contemplative “Yesterday,” McCartney’s first solo/Beatles vehicle, is followed by an earsplitting “Helter Skelter,” the White Album screecher rumored to have inspired the Manson Family murders in 1969. The reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” gives way to Abbey Road finale “The End.” As you can see clearly by now, the love you take really is equal to the love you make.
The funny thing is, I’m thinking on the way back to the train jammed with revelers, he could have played 35 completely different Lennon/McCartney songs, and it might have been an even better show. Let’s hope the cathartic rendering of “Here Today” will open the barn doors for a full-scale mounting of more John-songs and more George-songs. Amazingly, McCartney’s voice, hailed as the finest rock vehicle of all time, remains as strong as ever. He hits every high note with ridiculous ease. It’s pretty obvious, Paul McCartney is sitting on the best back catalog of songs in the history of pop music. It’s high time we heard all of them. Live.