McCartney's Tough Switch

In his first tour in 13 years, transition from Beatle to solo seems strained. MUSIC: REVIEW

GLENN KOENIG missed the Fab Four in the '60s. ``My parents thought the Beatles were a communist plot,'' he explains. But last Friday at the cavernous Worcester Centrum - 26 years to the day after the lads from Liverpool first held the country spellbound on the Ed Sullivan show - Paul McCartney gave Mr. Koenig of Arlington a pleasing jolt of remembrance.

Koenig was among the many large audiences that have been caught and held by the McCartney tour - the first in 13 years - which began last September in Norway, and will reach four continents and 15 countries before it ends.

At first the lights go black. A single, suspended electric twang from a Rickenbacker six-string that unmistakably says ``A Hard Day's Night'' jolts the capacity crowd. Three screens light up with 25 years of history - from Jackie Kennedy to Andy Warhol, from the Apollo moon landings to Tiananmen Square, from the early Beatles to McCartney's solo career. Roaring amplifiers pound out ``All You Need is Love'' and ``Live and Let Die,'' part of the soundtrack of Richard Lester's exciting film introduction. The band takes the stage; an audience of balding fortysomethings is in a frenzy.

But from the first live drumbeat, the transition from rock-umentary to rock-and-roll seems as difficult as Paul's career change from Beatle to solo artist. With clips and cuts of the Beatles, Lester's film fans the crowd's anticipation.

When the band opened in Worcester with ``Figure of Eight'' from McCartney's new album, ``Flowers in the Dirt,'' the crowd sat down. The sound was foreign; it wasn't Beatles.

Only lyrically did the shift work. To images of Vietnam and Tiananmen Square, the song appropriately asks: ``Is it better to love than to give in to hate?''

McCartney teased the audience with a few more from his solo material. Then it came. With a scratchy voice from so many shows, the former Beatle belted out the first of 16 songs the Beatles never played live, ``Got to Get You Into My Life.''

On a pastel rainbow-painted piano, Paul played the ballads ``The Long and Winding Road'' and ``Fool on the Hill'' - dedicating the latter to ``three mates of mine, John, George, and Ringo.''

``Anybody wanna bop around, jigger a bit?,'' McCartney asked, not letting up for a moment. ``This next song is a pretty good one to do it to.''

That next song was ``Can't Buy Me Love,'' played in a flawlessly authentic rendition, including Paul on his Hofner violin bass and guitarist Robbie McIntosh doing an exact copy of George Harrison's original solo. This was Paul the Beatle that the crowd came to see.

With a rising piano platform and his still-boyish grin, Paul is a vaudevillian entertainer as wrapped up in the audience as it is in him. At times he seemed almost surprised by the thundering applause. But then he plays, and all the authority and control of nearly 30 professional years betrays him.

The closer McCartney stays to his roots, the better he is. I heard him bring the house down with covers of Fats Domino's ``Ain't That A Shame'' and Eddie Cochran's ``Twenty Flight Rock.'' But his added driving jam to ``Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,'' sounded strangely out of place.

Picking up an acoustic guitar in the encore, Paul brought the crowd to a deafening silence on the first chord of ``Yesterday.'' Then he and his band - wife Linda and Paul Wickens on keyboards, guitarists Robbie McIntosh (The Pretenders) and Hamish Stuart (Average White Band), and drummer Chris Whitten - brought 2 1/2 incredible hours to a conclusion with ``Get Back'' and the ``Abbey Road'' medley ``Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End.''

If McCartney gave the audience a career-spanning feast of his greatest hits, he also presented his career's greatest dilemma: What to do after the Beatles?

``I imagined John Lennon doing those songs with Paul,'' mused Janice Burdick, a fan from Arlington. ``I missed him.''

Paul mentioned their names, played their music - often note for note, showed films of them, but when he hit the ad libs at the end of ``Hey Jude,'' the background ``nah nah's'' weren't John and George. When the harmonies to ``Back in the USSR'' didn't pierce with Lennon's nasal, siren voice, Paul's voice sounded naked.

And, unfortunately, the specter visits Linda. Her vocal presence is well known on Wings's and Paul's solo material, even on the album ``Let it Be.'' But with the Beatles's absence so present, Linda's occasional ``yeahs'' caused cringing memories of Yoko Ono whining in John Lennon's solo performances 20 years ago.

Beyond the music, McCartney is promoting the British environmental group Friends of the Earth, and the show's complimentary program carries the organization's essay on acid rain and ozone depletion.

``If you like what they say,'' Paul says during the show, ``next time you vote, tell your politicians you want to live in a clean world.''

With tickets at a premium and the impact of seeing a Beatle live, doing songs that rain nostalgia and provoke many to tears, one too easily forgets that Paul is no more than a man with a wonderful gift. That he shares that gift with us, and touches so many, bears true testimony to the power of the individual.

Though his performance wasn't fab, it was superbly warm, hauntingly memorable.

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