Macca rocks New Jersey and shows why we endure
I grew up going to concerts – my first being The Who in December 1982 at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, my freshman year in high school.
Missed seeing The Clash by mere weeks, sadly – after Led Zeppelin, the band I most regret never seeing – though having 40 years of opportunity to see Charlie Watts and failing to do so is the most inexcusable. Eighteenth row, dancing on our chairs the whole time, Pete Townshend was 37 and in fine form. The kids were alright.
Many classic rock shows followed that initiation, including several by fellow British Invaders, The Kinks: Madison on March 10, 1985, again at Poplar Creek that summer, and finally at The Hollywood Palladium in 1987 – where I was close enough to the stage to toss a note wrapped around a cassette of my favorite band, Green; Ray picked it up and waved in my direction. (My brother and I also caught Dave Davies at the World Trade Center a month before 9/11, and I saw an amazing Ray Davies show at Irving Plaza in New York in 2006.) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Firm, Robert Plant, The Cars (David Robinson broke this drummer’s heart by phoning it in), Rush, Eric Clapton, Yes, Billy Squier (forgot my tickets and had to buy another pair at the box office), U2 – the beat went on.
I was also blessed with a dad who not only loved Soul music but also foresaw the benefit of bringing his idiot son to see James Brown and Wilson Pickett at the Holiday Star Theater in Indiana (while we weren’t the only white family there, I venture the only with a dad and two kids under 14). Later the Temptations / Four Tops double bill, Jerry Butler, the Righteous Brothers and more. Those experiences primed me a few years later to check out Curtis Mayfield’s protege Major Lance at a tiny club with my life-long bandmate (fortunately, Major had a Polaroid handy to snap a photo with us and Mrs. Lance).
And I like to think I’ve paid it forward, taking our four kids to see the Queen of Soul a few years ago at NJ PAC, driving from NJ to Detroit for the three girls to see Twenty-One Pilots – as well as excellent Foo Fighters, English Beat and Frank Iero shows with Skylar.
Everything changed in 1985, when punk rock broke for us kids in the suburbs. We ditched the stadiums for smaller venues and cooler bands – catching R.E.M. on May 8th at McGaw Hall near Northwestern University (here’s the set list, and note that they played 28 songs), seeing dozens of shows at the legendary – and still going strong – Cabaret Metro (The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Green, Buzzcocks, Soul Asylum – Smashing Pumpkins before anyone outside Chicago knew of them), and even more at clubs like The Cubby Bear (here’s a classic Lilacs show), Batteries Not Included, The Exit, Lounge Ax and more.
Not only was alternative music a revelation, going to see the bands was a completely different experience – ardent, visceral, essential. Small venues where there was no bad seat, and all you had to do to be right in front of the stage was get there early (or maybe mosh a bit to open things up). Hot nights where the other dancers’ – and even the bands’ – sweat was unavoidable. Live performances delivered by bands living out of a van as they traveled the US in pursuit of the dream – and for the love of the music, the experience and each other (best articulated by Material Issue’s Jim Ellison in this clip). We even got to ask Bob Mould for his advice on band vs. college in January 1986 after we were stunned to see him nonchalantly walking around the theater in Kalamazoo by himself after setting up his equipment.
All of which is prelude to saying that Paul McCartney was fucking awesome on Thursday at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey; in my 40th year of concertgoing, one of the best performances I’ve ever enjoyed. And I heard a number of others among the 60,000 or so dedicated fans say the same (one of whom got a shout out from Macca for attending his 130th show).
Nearly 3 hours of pure rock brilliance – fully THIRTY EIGHT songs to wrap up the tour two days shy of his 80th birthday – and Paul carried it all seemingly effortlessly, a lifetime of performance clearly conditioning him well. He also rotated from bass, to electric guitar, acoustic, piano, mandolin, ukulele, keyboard and back to the axes.
Singing nearly every word and swaying to the rhythms under the stars, I realized that Paul is the perfect musician to see in a stadium: while the band is also fantastic (they’ve been playing with McCartney for 20 years), he is the band, and it’s easier to focus on one magnificent performer – especially when you’re viewing him on a screen from the upper deck at the back of a stadium.
While there were “wall of sound” moments – an instrumental version of “Foxey Lady” (followed by Paul’s telling of England’s rock royalty turning out to see the young Jimi’s breakthrough in London), the choruses of “Live and Let Die” and “I Wanna Be Your Man” (which featured special guest Bruce Springsteen; they also played his “Glory Days”, and Jon Bon Jovi joined to lead us in singing happy birthday to Paul) – the songs have wonderful dynamics, and the tasteful instrumentation (including an excellent horn section) allowed for full appreciation of the melodies, harmonies and Paul’s signature voice. Even subtle elements came through clearly, such as the metallic guitar chunks in the verses in “Jet”.
Another thing that hearing the songs live struck me in a way it hadn’t before was the simple genius of some of McCartney’s most memorable songs:
Only my love does it good, to me – whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
Driving to the show, the four of us were excitedly speculating on what songs they’d open and close with, whether we’d hear a lot of Wings tunes (I would have preferred more Wings over New Jersey than Beatles, but they did play eight – including the slow-jam classic, “Let Me Roll It”) – over-indexing for the 10 years of that band’s existence) and whether they’d have to change the key of certain songs for Paul to hit the high notes. Answers: opened with “Can’t Buy Me Love”, closed with “Helter Skelter” followed by an Abbey Road medley that included a scorching 4-way trade-off guitar lead on “The End”, and Paul’s voice sounded great, including “for the rabbits on the run”.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the difference between those who decided it was better to burn out than to fade away, and did so tragically – vs. those who not only chose to survive but to continue contributing for decades. I love John Bonham and Keith Moon – I literally would not be the same person had they not left their indelible marks on rock history and thus on both my drumming and music appreciation. But the more I learn about their demise, the more clear is the tragic toll their professional life took on their mental health. Bonzo was depressed, hated being away from home to go on tour, and told Robert Plant the day he drank himself to death: “I’ve had it with playing drums. Everybody plays better than me. I’ll tell you what, when we get to the rehearsal, you play the drums and I’ll sing.” Brutal.
Contrast that with Charlie Watts, a homebody who also hated being on tour so much that, “I used to quit at the end of every tour” – only to return because he loved the band and it was his job, which he continued fulfilling till he was about to turn 80 and a medical condition required him to pass up the 2021 tour.
Or Simon Kirke, legendary drummer of 60’s band Free (“All Right Now”) and then Bad Company, of which he’s the only member to play in every incarnation of the band from their inception in 1973 through their most recent 2019 tour (with Lynyrd Skynyrd). While Bad Company is on hiatus he plays with other musicians, and had a show just last month. And he’s still a music fan, as well. I had the honor of meeting Simon at a J.D. McPherson show a few years ago, where we discussed the legacy of John Bonham (I’d just paid homage the week before at his gravesite) and admired J.D.’s tremendous drummer, Jason Smay.
Not to mention that rarest breed, who not only continue to contribute, but amazingly manage to create some of their best work in their eighth decade (divinely inspired by Bowie).
So thank you, Sir Paul. You’re not only one of the greatest of all time, your endurance and enduring relevance is an inspiration to millions. My other life-long bandmate and I adored your show, and having played “Helter Skelter” last month at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, Circles enters our fifth decade of playing music together determined to keep on getting back.