Paul McCartney the musician, the songwriter, the experimentalist, the huckster, the hippie, the charmer, the living ambassador of the Beatles legacy — all these roles Mr. McCartney played to top form Monday, the second of two blockbuster nights at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
He is on a barnstorming tour of five of North America’s top baseball stadiums this summer, an itinerary that may look sparse in a datebook but is ending up to be the most exhilarating performance run of his career. Like the previous dates on this tour, Monday’s performance was just ten minutes shy of three hours and featured 35 songs without little break in the action. Add a setlist that spanned nearly 50 years of pop music history and there was a sense that this was something special that would not be glimpsed in years to come.
McCartney’s casual but confident stage manner, frequently accompanied by lithe dance steps, contrasted the Herculean effort of sorting through a deep catalog and performing each song with vitality. This turned out to not an obstacle as McCartney, accompanied by a four-member band, rolled forward with ease, connecting each song with present day enthusiasm. With every vocal bark and bellow still sharp, he reflected little the constraints of his age but instead seemed to use the songs as anchors to deepen his survivor’s credentials as both musician and entertainer.
Obvious Beatles songs dominated the night, and how could they not? With these, McCartney choose songs that, once again, showcased that band’s many evolutionary phases in such a short time window, from taut, harmonic power pop (“The Night Before”) to fantasia (“The Long and Winding Road”) to “Helter Skelter,” a song that still kicks up dirt, giving McCartney an excuse to thrash amid noisy power chords.
With so much ground to cover, McCartney also filtered in new songs, such as “Sing the Changes,” a track from The Fireman, a stealth side project that was largely underground until recently, and “Dance Tonight,” a tuneful song so simple, it got hijacked by drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. who humorously rotated through several mock dance styles behind his singer’s back.
The band injected little personality but leaned into the heavier fare with more ambition, especially on those, like “Junior’s Farm,” that happen to require three-part harmonies. Exactitude was the mission although it would have been nicer if actual horn and string players, instead of a keyboard played by Paul “Wix” Wickens, replicated the signature horn and string parts.
McCartney did not often step outside his role as congenial host giving the people what they want. But that did not mean he wasn’t capable of a surprise. Near the end of “Let Me Roll It,” a Wings hit, the band launched into “Foxy Lady,” the Jimi Hendrix signature that allowed McCartney solo on his guitar as his band vamped. Later, following “I Got a Feeling,” the band reprised the song but in lyric only. McCartney sang the title lyrics over a band jam that involved interlocking guitars, including his own, in what simply looked like an opportunity for the singer to enjoy an unhinged moment to loosen free, even from himself.
McCartney paid tribute to John Lennon and George Harrison through their songs. For Lennon, a mash-up of “A Day in the Life” with “Give Peace a Chance” was less successful, simply because both felt crowbarred together. The more effective Lennon tribute was “Here Today,” a song written two years after Lennon’s murder he played alone on an acoustic guitar that featured lyrics that winsomely talked to his former partner about regrets and lost opportunities his death left behind.
The stage design gave concertgoers in the far stands ample video of the stage action, taking place in centerfield. That included a bit of salesmanship — footage of a virtual Beatles from a recent video game package on sale at a Best Buy near you. There was also a surprise, and overplayed, montage of fireworks and pyrotechnics both above and on stage during “Live and Let Die.” Even McCartney looked comically swayed by the cartoon sequence, plugging his ears with his fingers and shaking his head when it was complete.
Yet the most affecting moments of the marathon evening were those in which McCartney stood alone with a guitar, telling stories and hitting strings. He was not observed taking in much water or even pausing during this hot Chicago night, which contributed to the effect he was as much absorbed in the music as anyone present. Song after song, “And I Love Her” to “Blackbird” to “Yesterday,” McCartney turned familiar territory into quiet, shared celebrations.
Paul McCartney’s setlist for Monday, Aug. 1 at Wrigley Field, Chicago
1. Magical Mystery Tour
2. Junior’s Farm
3. All My Loving
5. Got To Get You Into My Life
6. Sing the Changes
7. The Night Before
8. Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady
9. Paperback Writer
10. The Long and Winding Road
11. Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
12. Let ‘Em In
13. Maybe I’m Amazed
14. I’m Looking Through You
15. And I Love Her
17. Here Today
18. Dance Tonight
19. Mrs. Vandebilt
20. Eleanor Rigby
22. Band on the Run
23. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da
24. Back in the U.S.S.R.
25. I’ve Got a Feeling
26. A Day in the Life/Give Peace a Chance
27. Let It Be
28. Live and Let Die
29. Hey Jude
30. Lady Madonna
32. I Saw Her Standing There
34. Helter Skelter
35. Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End