On Weekend One of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, our colleague Peter Blackstock delivered an excellent and comprehensive review of Paul McCartney’s kickoff headline set. This is not a repeat of that piece. Instead we present a conversation between two members of Team 360’s ACL coverage crew, Deborah Sengupta Stith and Ramon Ramirez, about whether Sir Paul lives up to the hype for a casual fan.
DSS: True confession: Since the lineup for ACL Fest dropped in May, I’ve been utterly indifferent about McCartney’s headline set. I’m not sure why. McCartney is a legend and one of the greatest songwriters of modern music, but the idea of standing through a two-and-a-half-hour set that would surely include a few Wings deep cuts and (shudder) tracks from his new album, “Egypt Station,” sounded like a slog.
Well, consider me converted. That was a spectacular performance that was back loaded with a lot of unforgettable moments. I’ll be honest, though, it took me a little while to fully get into this set. I’m not really feeling the '60s nostalgia right now and the Beatlemania one-two punch of “Hard Day’s Night” and “All My Loving” at the top didn’t really do much for me. Then there was a lot of newer McCartney stuff which was fine, but didn’t really grab me.
RR: I needed a few songs, too. Sure, Paul is a Beatle. But can a 76-year-old and an all-male backing band hold everyone’s attention for more than two hours? Travis Scott got the job done in 45 minutes and McCartney’s 50 years his senior.
Mostly! This was McCartney holding court like the best dinner party host. He was loose and riffing like Austin Powers. His intermittent chatter varied from last week — “We got a return booking,” he humbly deadpanned early on. He joked that writing with the G-minor chord was his songwriting “turning point.” He thanked “Shakey” for working “the lights.” I kept waiting for him to offer us a spot of tea.
Macca was a curator, homaging deceased bandmates. It meant lulls and piano ballads. “My Valentine” is a clunky and bad song and the Johnny Depp-assisted video for hearing-impaired fans was well-intentioned but his dead-eyed stare will haunt me.
What convinced you?
DSS: Well, it wasn’t the riffing, which felt a bit canned, but I guess Paul McCartney making dad jokes is to be expected and kind of charming. When he tacked that blistering guitar solo onto the end of “Let Me Roll It” and told the story about Jimi Hendrix covering “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” a week after the album dropped, I was struck by the history. It really drove home the legend status, the idea that this man shaped an entire era of music.
Of course, right after that, he went into “My Valentine” which I agree was not a winning moment and I was super annoyed that he didn’t play “Sgt. Peppers” then. (More on that later.)
Surprisingly, the moment when the residual hesitation vibes melted away was when he played “Maybe I’m Amazed,” a song that I was not at all familiar with. The vocal prowess and grandiose, arena-sweeping emotion put me in my feelings in a way that I really wasn’t expecting.
RR: I got misty-eyed during “Maybe I’m Amazed,” that schmaltzy, stuffy and pleading piano standard. Had it on a burned CD-R mix, segued with a bad Red Hot Chili Peppers song from “Californication.” I also cried during the “mama” part of “Band On the Run.”
Other highlights: Let’s hear it for 1968’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Haters used to say that McCartney wrote it after traveling to India, meanwhile John Lennon returned with the muted and important “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” But dang the former was sublime tonight — and a reminder that life comes at you fast and little changes. McCartney’s convention-smashing role-reversal at the end where Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face while Molly goes to work at the market is a subversive, gender-queer celebration of life.
Relative to the silly and maximalist “Live and Let Die,” full of fireworks and hot brass, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” was driving and dignified.
“We Can Work It Out” was buttoned-up and my favorite early Beatles throwback of the night.
A question that speaks to the cross-generational appeal tonight: Near the platinum lounge, two men argued about whether the dad should take his kid off his shoulders because said boy was blocking the man’s mom’s view. With so many converged patrons jostling for space, who held the moral high ground here?
DSS: PSA: Nobody is allowed to get mad at anybody for blocking their view in Zilker Park. It’s a concert in an open field, people.
With that settled, I loved “Blackbird,” a song written during the civil rights era that felt particularly poignant at this moment. I also felt a lump in my throat during “Let It Be,” a song that I only recently learned was inspired by a dream about his mother roughly a decade after she died.
I was totally swept up in the over-the-top explosives of “Live and Let Die.” (Maximalism for life, homie.) The segue from that into “Hey Jude” was brilliant. Also, probably the best sing-along in Zilker Park history.
Which brings us back to “Sgt. Peppers.” I am on the record as being anti-encore, and Sir Paul’s set demo-ed exactly why I feel that way. While “Sgt. P.” was a very smart song to come back on, why not take the night out with everyone swaying and singing together rather than tacking on a few (admittedly excellent) extra tracks to play as half the crowd books for the exit gate?
RR: When he threw in a “todos juntos” during the “na-nas” of “Hey Jude,” it was an inclusive and warm nod to the Mexico flag waving up front. Agreed: It’s an optimal final word. But maybe he’s tired of ending shows with it — that was his set-closer at the Super Bowl back in 2005 — and he wanted a new challenge.
Tricking out the ending suite of “Abbey Road” into a bulkier exclamation point has been a great recent flex for him. (The only time I went into a full-throated singalong was during “Carry That Weight.”)
It was the last night of McCartney’s “little tour,” he said. This 31-song set was more vibrant: He cut “Hi, Hi, Hi,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” and added “All My Loving” and the previously mentioned “We Can Work It Out.”
He ran almost 10 minutes after the 10 p.m. end time. Like the righteous and forward-looking, politically minded David Byrne set three hours earlier on the same stage, McCartney showed us that old dogs can stay young by listening, learning, embracing change and trying to be better citizens. The love you take is equal to the love you make ... so hit the “25 percent” button on the tablet when you tip the bar staff this weekend, folks.
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