When audience members filed into Fenway Park on Tuesday, they heard Paul McCartney deep cuts blaring through the sound system. There was no opening act to warm up the crowd — Macca is self-warming — and the man himself led his band’s onstage entrance, in defiance of the unspoken rule that the star always waits until everyone else is settled before taking the stage. All of it seemed to say that if you came for McCartney, McCartney is what you’d get, exclusively and without delay.
And boy, did he have plenty to give. Eleven days shy of turning 80, he was spry and up for the endurance challenge of playing upward of 30 songs over the course of two hours and 40 minutes at the first of two sold-out shows. He burst out of the gate with the joyous skiffle of “Can’t Buy Me Love” and, save for a brief encore break, didn’t let up until the guitar blowout of “The End” brought things to a close.
Typical fare for a McCartney concert, but such are his knack for songwriting and innate charm that even lesser-known numbers like “Come On to Me” and the moody, bluesy “Letting Go” played like crowd-pleasers that the audience was singing along with by the end. “Dance Tonight” in particular, with its gentle mandolin-driven skip, seemed to assert itself as something like a late-breaking minor classic from the singer.
There’s only so much holding back the ravages of time, of course, and McCartney’s voice had some small noticeable vulnerabilities from age, taking away some of the ripping power of “Maybe I’m Amazed” while adding poignancy to “Here Today” and the Elvis Costello-ish torch song “My Valentine.” But it otherwise maintained its essential McCartneyness, whether on “Hey Jude” (where the video screens caught former senator and secretary of state John Kerry recording the song with his phone) or even on a screamer like “Helter Skelter.”
Better still, his longtime band avoided falling into the trap of offering moribund versions of timeworn chestnuts with a sense of grim obligation. They played like they knew they’d earned their spot but still were still determined to do right by the songs. “Let Me Roll It” was a perfect simmer leading to a perfect boil, and with Wix Wickens’s shakers and Abe Laboriel Jr.’s drums pushing the beat forward, Brian Ray’s carnival-organ bassline and Rusty Anderson’s fiery guitar solo, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” was the full group at its sharpest.
McCartney also paid tribute to the late members of that other group of his. George Harrison’s “Something” started with chipper ukulele verses before making a graceful, lithe shift to the liquid majesty of the full band. And the churning calliope charge of John Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” was later eclipsed by Lennon himself joining “I’ve Got a Feeling” via footage from the Beatles’ famous rooftop concert as his onetime bandmate carried on their legacy more than five decades later, with both the spirit and the flesh still willing.
At Fenway Park, Tuesday. Repeats Wednesday.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.