I am generally not a big fan of musicians, which is not to say that there aren't certain composers and performers I utterly adore -- Paul Simon and Sting come immediately to mind -- but I generally don't like to know too much about their personal lives and sometimes not even the inspiration for certain songs, because some songs are so much a part of my own psychic landscape that I don't want someone else's real-world associations interfering with my own. The Bee Gees' "Night Fever," for instance, can immediately send me back to a specific moment in sixth grade, having nothing to do with Saturday Night Fever or anything Barry Gibb ever did, and I prefer to keep it that way. When I was growing up, I wasn't a girl who had posters of musicians up in my room, though I grew up in the era of classic rock and disco, and had wide familiarity with everything from my parents' schlock pop on Washington's legendary WGAY to post-60s protest folk to what became club music. In particular, the drugs aspect of sex, drugs and rock & roll turned me off. One of my earliest memories of McCartney the person, as opposed to the Beatle, was a Saturday Night Live joke that in a shocking turn of events, Paul and Linda McCartney had NOT been arrested for marijuana possession that week. (Go ahead and count down the number of musicians we've lost ridiculously from both legal and illegal drugs, deliberately and accidentally, and then tell me how drugs inspire artists. I wasn't impressed as a teenager and I'm not impressed now.)
All this to say that while I can sing without missing a lyric pretty much every song the Beatles ever recorded or anyone ever bootlegged, I wouldn't have said that I was a huge Paul McCartney fan in the sense that a lot of people mean, where they can tell you every detail of his upbringing, his tours, his marriages, etc. I can only tell you music he wrote and performed that I have loved for four decades, and I literally can't think of a time I didn't know his music since "Michelle" came out the year I was born, meaning people sang it to me from the time I was an infant. As a teenager I would have said that I was more of a John girl, but it's hard to say how influenced I was by John Lennon's murder -- I remember arriving at school the next morning and seeing a bunch of ninth grade boys crying, something ninth grade boys would generally rather have cut off their right hands than done in public. For a long time after, in the popular imagination and in mine, John was the poet-peacenik-dreamer, while Paul was "Silly Love Songs." Still, Paul was also the survivor, the one still putting out catchy, relevant pop music for decades after. I had wanted to see him in concert very badly, but every year we decided that it was just too expensive if we wanted to travel and do other things, this year included. When my high school friend on Facebook said that she had tickets no one was going to use, I dropped everything I was doing to call her and, well, beg for them.
We arrived at FedEx Field in the late afternoon after picking up Daniel from robotics, driving through a thunderstorm that had never been forecast and in fact wasn't showing up on Accuweather. This was unnerving, particularly since it continued to drizzle on and off for at least an hour as we ate dinner in the parking lot (terrible expensive stadium food makes this dining option a no-brainer -- no one's allowed to bring anything inside even if you have food allergies, they actually pat you down going in, and bottled water and Coke are $5 each). We went inside an hour and a half before the 7:30 concert time on the ticket, hiked up the ramps to the 400 level, and stood under the overhanging seats waiting for the rain to stop. When eventually it did, there was an enormous, spectacular rainbow arcing over the parking lot and all of Landover for more than half an hour -- from our elevated vantage, we could see both ends on the ground as well as the ghostly reverse-rainbow double. This seemed an auspicious way to start the evening, watching the sky while people (mostly younger than me) in Beatles shirts and previous McCartney tour shirts came up to the level of the cheap seats.
An electronic duo, Thievery Corporation, opened for McCartney, with no fanfare either before or after -- in fact, during their first eclectic remix, the people around us seemed to think they were guys doing a sound check rather than musical artists in their own right. Thievery Corporation's remix of the Doors' "Strange Days" was the only thing memorable about the performance for me. As soon as they left the stage, the gigantic screens at either side of it turned on, with pictures and brief video clips of the Beatles, Liverpool, '60s psychidelic art, newspaper clippings and other nostalgic images. I was pleased that "Say Say Say" was one of the songs accompanying this montage, and wondered whether that had always been planned or if it was added after Michael Jackson died. During this segment, I was texting my friend Gretchen, who was also in the 400 seats though a few sections over, and she guessed McCartney wouldn't appear on stage till nearly 10 p.m., but he was out shortly after 9, kicking off the set with "Drive My Car," and then the hopelessly catchy, utterly ridiculous "Jet." On the upper level the audience mostly stayed seated except for the three kids getting stoned five rows down -- I haven't smelled that in an arena since the Grateful Dead in Chicago in 1995, I must be getting old -- but I don't think anyone was sitting on the field through the entire concert.
It wasn't a beastly night in Washington in August, by which I mean that it was under 95 degrees, but the humidity was quite high and it felt quite hot even in the upper seats where there was a nice breeze. I can't even imagine how hot it felt on stage. McCartney, I should note, is exactly the same age as my mother, and my mother is in very good shape...even so, it was impossible to think of Sir Paul as a generation older than me. His energy level is incredible. He sang for a solid two and a half hours without a break, without even stopping to gulp water and change his drenched shirt (he did take his black suit jacket off pretty early in the show, declaring a wardrobe change, but he left the red suspenders on). Not having seen him in other cities, I don't know how much of his patter is scripted, but he had several remarks that were clearly written for Washington alone, particularly his introduction to "Michelle," which he said they were performing in case Barack Obama wanted to sing it to his wife. He mentioned that Washington was the Beatles' first stop on their first tour of the U.S.
The Beatles! I cannot overstate the thrill of seeing as well as hearing McCartney perform "Eleanor Rigby" live. Or "The Long and Winding Road." Or "Back in the U.S.S.R." Or "Let It Be." Or "Paperback Writer" (accompanied by a hilarious montage on the screen of bad ancient paperback covers, mostly nurses from romances). Or -- maybe particularly -- "Hey Jude," which of course involved a lengthy audience singalong, with him asking first just the upper level, then just the men, then just the women, to join in "Na na na na-na na-na, na-na na-na, hey Jude." I'd never heard him discuss "Blackbird" as a civil rights song before, and it had a lovely artistic screen display ending with the blackbird flying free. He segued from "A Day in the Life" into Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" (another singalong). He paid tribute to John before "Here Today," and explained that George Harrison gave him the ukelele he played along with "Something," with photos of George on the screen, which was followed by "I've Got a Feeling"...in addition to the two huge screens at either side of the stage, zooming in on McCartney and the band so everyone in the upper reaches could see them without binoculars, there was a big screen with seizure-inducing lights on the stage, and during "Got To Get You Into My Life," that screen was playing images of the Faux Beatles from Rock Band, which (in that advertisement-covered stadium) somehow seemed less commercial than self-mocking ("look, I'm a cartoon character of myself!").
The whole show felt like a tribute to everyone McCartney ever worked with. He sat at the piano and performed "My Love" as a tribute to Linda. "Band on the Run" was accompanied by screen photos of a Wings photo shoot. My kids' favorite number was probably "Live and Let Die" -- I am so glad we watched that awful movie recently, and had the inevitable debate about whether it's "in this ever-changing world in which we're living" or "in this ever-changing world in which we live in" -- which was accompanied by a full fireworks display both on and above the stage. His voice is better in his 60s than a lot of singers sound in their 20s, he can still hit all the high notes. And his energy level never flagged, even though the entire band (guys much younger than Sir Paul) were sweating buckets.
The encores were a Beatles fan fantasy. The first one included "Day Tripper," "Lady Madonna," and "I Saw Her Standing There." After much screaming, Sir Paul and the band then came back out and did "Yesterday," "Helter Skelter" (the loudest song of the night), "Get Back," and the "Sgt. Pepper" reprise into "The End." I've been very lucky in my life, concert-wise. I saw Paul Simon's Graceland tour. I saw U2 in Philadelphia in 1987, when Bruce Springsteen got on stage and sang "Stand By Me" with Bono. I've seen the Indigo Girls, Peter Paul & Mary, and my favorite local folk groups many times over the past two decades. But I've never seen anything that can compare to Paul McCartney, and I honestly don't think there's a living musician who could.