Ex-Beatle's Band on the Run (Again)

Paul McCartney kickstarts a world tour to help his latest album get `Off the Ground'

IS there a shelf life for a rock-and-roller? Does gray hair automatically exclude one from performing the music of youth's rebellion? In the case of Paul McCartney and a handful of others, not necessarily.

McCartney's "New World Tour" is proving that even a 50-year-old father of four can have the energy, songwriting talent, and ability to tap into the collective mindset longer than many thought possible.

The former Beatle, whose fans now span three generations, gave a spunky 2 1/2-hour concert at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, one of the first stops on his 14-nation tour. The 33-song concert that included classic versions of "Michelle," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "The Long and Winding Road," "Let It Be," and "Lady Madonna," offered something for everyone.

McCartney fans are not the types to go wild at one of his concerts: They're too busy strolling down memory lane. They make for a contemplative audience, not one that will stand on chairs and scream or dance in the aisles.

The concert, showing how inextricably linked to history the Beatles were, opened with fast-moving snapshots of major events of the past 30 years shown on six screens.

"A Hard Day's Night" (1964) accompanied shots of screaming teenage girls and the Fab Four with their bowl haircuts. A gum-chewing John Lennon sang "All You Need is Love (1967) as the group's one-time Indian guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, smiled enigmatically. "The Long and Winding Road" (1970) undergirded shots of the harsher days of Vietnam and the civil rights movement. "Live and Let Die" (1973), from the era of McCartney's band Wings, jolted us into Nixon and punk hair. And so on.

Then, in a blaze of white light, McCartney and his small band burst onstage with "Baby You Can Drive My Car."

This tour, as in his last one, leans heavily on special effects: lights, whether harsh white, lurid purple or flashing strobe; colored smoke; giant floating white scrims covered with print for "Paperback Writer," huge images of stained glass for "Hey Jude."

Clearly he's adapting to what he sees as the tastes of a generation accustomed to colorful, fast, and multiple images. As one of that generation who hooked into the Beatles during their black-and-white days, I found the lights and smoke intrusive and unnecessary.

But McCartney doesn't give a hoot about Luddites like me. While he performs even the most primitive early Beatle songs such as "When I Saw Her Standing There" and "All My Lovin"' with verve and good grace, they're from another life. He's involved with the present - animal rights, helping to build a country hospital, and planning a performing arts center in Liverpool, England. (In fact, the 100-page program makes it impossible to miss McCartney's favorite causes. It's filled with advertisements for Greenp eace and other groups.)

McCartney continues to evolve musically. A few years ago he was commissioned by the Liverpool Philharmonic to write an oratorio, an enterprise that was generally poorly received by classical-music critics on both sides of the Atlantic. The "Liverpool Oratorio" was videotaped and shown on public television in the United States.

In 1991 he created a totally acoustic program for an intercontinental MTV audience. In between, he played low-profile gigs in European pubs.

His latest songs, "Peace in the Neighborhood" and "Hope of Deliverance" show his continuing theme of individual responsibility for first imagining, then helping create, a more harmonious world.

One benefit of his long stay in the music business is that he's grown into his own lyrics, light as they can sometimes be. "If she's beside me I know I need never care," and "Only my love holds the other key/to me," resonate in a new way as sung by a man celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary with his beloved, but unmusical, wife Linda.

McCartney's cheeriness, cheekiness, and ability to not take himself too seriously never changes. Dressed in a black-and-white striped silk suit with a black-and-white swirly print shirt, he grinned a lot, scampered around, and handed over the stage to his band members.

His last world tour in 1989-90, which played to 2,843,297 people, set the stage for this one. So after the band - Paul and Linda, Robbie McIntosh, Hamish Stuart, Blair Cunningham, and Wix - finished their new album, "Off the Ground," the band got on the run.

There was some talk here that McCartney might be working on gathering the remaining former Beatles for a tour. But in a Melbourne press conference, he dispelled that. "That would be like trying to reheat the souffle," he said, with a puckish grin.

* `The New World Tour' kicks off in North America on April 14, at Las Vegas, Nev. Cities on the tour are: Los Angeles; Las Cruces, N.M.; Houston; New Orleans; Memphis; St. Louis; Atlanta; Cincinnati; Orlando, Fla.; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Minneapolis; Boulder, Colo.; San Antonio; Kansas City, Mo.; Milwaukee; Detroit; New York; and Toronto. (Additional US dates may be added.)

The tour continues overseas to France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.

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