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The deaths of two partners—Linda McCartney in 1998 and George Harrison last year—have allowed Paul, for the first time in his storied career, to open up his entire songbook and display its myriad treasures, one after another.

MAYBE WE'RE AMAZED

McCartney Throws Open His Songbook,
And It's Fab for the Fans
By Roy Trakin & Bud Scoppa

Toward the end of Paul McCartney’s rousing version of "Can't Buy Me Love," while the famous A Hard Day's Night montage flickered poignantly on the battery of video screens above the stage, two euphoric concertgoers had a brief exchange. Roy: "This has gotta be the best Beatles tribute band ever." Bud: "Especially the guy playing Paul."

Indeed, the guy playing McCartney at L.A.'s Staples Center Saturday night (5/4) was spot-on, the jowliness he’d shown in recent public appearances somewhat diminished, that signature charm fully intact, as he came across with an animated youthfulness that belied the fact he'll be 60 in June. This wasn’t the mere shadow of the Paul we remembered—it was the Cute Beatle incarnate, physically and vocally undiminished.

Even at $258.75 a ticket, you won't hear anybody who attended this event—certainly not the legions of well-heeled glitterati who showed up—complain about a concert that begins with "Hello Goodbye," ends with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" segueing into Abbey Road's "The End" and features 30 legitimately great songs along the way.

McCartney’s Driving USA tour sets a truly historic precedent for the venerable writer/artist; ironically, its joyous expansiveness is the residue of personal tragedy. The deaths of two partners—Linda McCartney in 1998 and George Harrison last year—have allowed Paul, for the first time in his storied career, to open up his entire songbook and display its myriad treasures, one after another. On the evidence of the three-dozen tunes he’s offering on this tour (and we could easily come up with a couple dozen more we’d love to hear), McCartney makes a strong case for himself as the most important songwriter of the 20th Century. That virtually all of his classics were written between 1963 and 1979 doesn’t diminish his achievement.

A gracious host, McCartney led a superb four-piece band (each of whom got his own introduction from Paul during the show), which included L.A. natives guitarist Rusty Anderson, guitarist/bassist Brian Ray and powerhouse drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., along with returning keyboardist/accordionist Wix Wickens. The fivesome came off as a real band, not as a superstar and his backing outfit, and appeared to be having as much fun as the audience. They leaned into the opening salvos of "Jet," "All My Loving," "Getting Better," "Coming Up" and "Let Me Roll It," deftly alternating between Macca solo hits and Beatles faves, many of which have never before been performed in concert—and you thought they never would. Remarkably, they seemed as relevant in 2002 as they did the first time you heard them decades ago. When Paul pulled out Sgt. Pepper’s "Getting Better," for example, singing the refrain, "Got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time," the crowd roared out the counterpoint line en masse: "Can’t get no worse!" in a moment of exhilarating collective catharsis.

Meanwhile, John Cusack and Neve Campbell boogied just in front of us, while Jack Nicholson, out of his customary courtside Laker seats, beamed and sang along to the words of "Jet" and "Hey Jude." Pat Boone looked about as stiff as Al Gore, and Brian Wilson appeared positively lost until he rose to the familiar Beach Boys-like strains of "Back in the USSR." Kiss' Paul Stanley held his young son aloft, Tobey Maguire and Ray Liotta appeared to be lost in their private reveries, Jeffrey Katzenberg kept putting drops in his eyes, and Ted Danson exchanged gleeful glances with Richie Sambora. Among those who pointedly brought their kids were Jeff Ayeroff, Glen Brunman and the co-author of this piece.

Paul practically apologized when he introduced songs from the new album, Driving Rain, which, on repeated listening, is his best in quite some time, with "Your Loving Flame," the new single, particularly memorable. An acoustic set followed, starting off with "Blackbird," which McCartney introduced as a song he wrote to commemorate the Civil Rights struggle, remarking how they used to call girls "birds" in England. "We Can Work It Out" into "Mother Nature's Son" and even "Vanilla Sky" sounded cool in this context. He joked about forgetting the words to Abbey Road's "You Never Give Me Your Money," even though he reportedly does it at every show, while, for "Fool on the Hill," he brought out the psychedelic-fronted organ he played on Magical Mystery Tour.

During the solo segment, Paul did a tribute to his two deceased mates, playing "Here Today" for Lennon, then rousing everyone, "Let's hear it for John." He played "Something" on ukulele for George, accompanied by another touching photo montage (the lighting and sound were all first-rate), then the full band returned for the backstretch, including a plaintive "Eleanor Rigby," a lovely "Here, There and Everywhere," a celebratory "Band on the Run," topped with a bring-down-the-house, everybody-dance-in-the-aisles "Back in the USSR," before upping the ante even higher with a glorious "Maybe I’m Amazed."

Then, the climax: "Can't Buy Me Love" into a surprisingly affecting "Freedom" into a truly mind-blowing "Live and Let Die," complete with swirling James Bond-cum-psychedelic graphics and three loud flash-pot explosions that woke up said co-author’s 11-year-old daughter. By then, the audience was putty, and Paul unleashed the final salvo: "Let It Be" and "Hey Jude" (ceding the final "na-na-na-NA-na-na-na" part to the audience, pictured on the giant screens watching itself). The first encore was "Long and Winding Road," "Lady Madonna" and "I Saw Her Standing There." The second and final closed out with (naturally, but a little anti-climactic) "Yesterday" and a fitting "Sergeant Pepper"/"The End" medley, which left us with the Beatles' own final coda: "The love you take is equal to the love you make." It was an ending that simply couldn’t be topped—glorious.

One of McCartney’s biggest problems in the past has been his cheerful insistence on being all things to all people, a seemingly obsequious attempt to please everyone, but on this occasion, that very generosity made this show (which Capitol is documenting for a fall DVD release) one for the ages. Don't miss it. To borrow George’s White Album line, we may not see its like again for a long, long, long time.

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