Watching a real-life Beatle live for the first time is an overwhelming experience. Here, in front of you, is an integral part of music history; a living legend playing songs you’ve grown up on, that are tied to childhood memories, have meant so much to a staggering amount of people across the world. You’ve felt close to The Beatles in your life – listened to the records, watched the movies, made your pilgrimage to Liverpool – but there’s a limit to how close you can get. Paul McCartney himself recently told Marc Maron when asked if watching the Rolling Stones onstage made him wish he could take the Fab Four back out on tour: “Two of mine are dead.”
Any Macca show, then, would be a treat, but there are only a few ways they could be better than tonight’s (September 7). To celebrate the release of his new album ‘Egypt Station‘, Paul and his band have curtained off an area of New York’s iconic Grand Central Station (“the coolest station” Macca could think of) and are playing for just 300 competition winners and invited guests, including Amy Schumer, Steve Buscemi, Meryl Streep, Chris Rock, Kate Moss, and Mac DeMarco. There are crowds of people who haven’t won tickets gathered in clusters around the station, hoping they can make it in, while throughout the whole set there are fans in the street with their faces pressed up against the windows that look into the adjoining room, trying to catch a tiny glimpse of this night to remember.
If the whole evening is surreal, then it starts off even more so. The gig is being live-streamed with a slight delay and there are some little tricks and gimmicks Paul wants to pull off during it. Before his band join him onstage, he heads out to give the crowd some instructions. He wants to pretend to test the acoustics of the space by singing the opening line of ‘Hey Jude’, with the off-camera audience replying to him with the next line, like ghostly spectres invading his soundcheck. When everyone continues singing beyond the second line, he holds up his hands. “No no!” he laughs. “Just one line!”
Pre-meditated trickery sorted, it’s time to get things going properly with perhaps the most iconic opening chord in history – ‘A Hard Day’s Night”s Fadd9. Despite the fact he’s just put out a new record, Macca knows what everyone wants to hear and, for the most part, he gives it to them. Classics mix with cult favourites mix with fresh cuts mix with anecdotes you could listen to forever. “Let’s get high on life!” he exclaims before Wings‘ ‘Hi, Hi, Hi’. It might be cheesy but it’s an astute description of the feeling in the room.
“That was one of the very first songs we recorded in Abbey Road with Sir George Martin,” he says after ‘Love Me Do’, going on to share how the producer had switched things up so he was singing the “Love me do-ooh” line rather than John Lennon. “I was terrified,” he says. “And still to this day, I can hear [my vocals] shaking out.”
He follows that by taking things “right up to the present day” and airing a version of his Kanye West and Rihanna collaboration, ‘FourFiveSeconds’. He gruffly takes on West’s verses and it’s a little strange to hear this most celebrated 76-year-old musician sing lines like “Hold me back because I’m ’bout to smash“, but heartening that he’s seemingly more woke than the rapper considering he’s changed it from “‘bout to spaz“.
As legendary as Paul might be, he’s not entirely infallible. When he enters the crowd for a rendition of ‘Blackbird’, he has to stop and start the song twice because he forgets the lyrics. His fans are forgiving and encouraging, though, cheers echoing off the room’s tall marbled walls each time he makes it further than the previous take. Back on the stage at the front, he blames his errors on the audience. “I’ve never played it in the middle of people before!” he jokes. Thanks to the time delay on the stream, his mistakes are edited out of the version beaming onto people’s phones and computers around the world.
That might be a thrillingly close encounter with the Beatle, but two people are about to get even closer. Before new song ‘Who Cares’, an anti-bullying anthem that’s full of heart, he asks the audience to raise their hands if they’ve ever been bullied. He picks two women out of the front row and hauls them onstage to ask them to name their bullies before they dance alongside him during the song. The looks on their faces as he plays are ones of shock, awe, and elation; as if they will spend the rest of the night pinching themselves.
Of the songs aired from ‘Egypt Station’ tonight, ‘Fuh You’ is the highlight, not least because it comes prefaced by Macca defending himself against accusations of lasciviousness. He claims the title has been misunderstood, even by his own team who warned him an influential US radio DJ wouldn’t play the song if she made the same randy assumptions as everyone else. “Tell her it means ‘for you’,” he said. “And if not tell her ‘fuh you’!” That cheekiness is transformed into stadium-sized atmosphere as he and his band launch into the song, a super-charged and polished rouser that shows producer Ryan Tedder’s fingerprints even live.
From there, it’s a straight run of Beatles songs til the show’s end, beginning with a raucous ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’ that proves Paul can still rock out, even as he nears 80. Before ‘Birthday’, he wishes one fan a happy birthday, checking their ID to make sure they’re telling the truth. “Oh, wait a minute! This a false identification card,” he cracks, pointing to some imagined authorities at the side of the room. “Cops, get him – he’s underage!”
Sat at his organ, the star starts winding a music box that plays a teaser of the next song – a chiming version of ‘Let It Be’ – signalling the start of another of his planned moments shared ahead of the show’s start. The crowd is suddenly transformed into a sea of fake candles, waving and flickering, as he plays the classic – a beautiful sight for a song that doesn’t really need any embellishments to make you want to bawl your eyes out.
After the reprise version of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, it’s time for a wild rendition of ‘Helter Skelter’. Macca’s voice is raspy and hoarse in the best way as he recreates the track’s ferocious energy heroically, despite having been playing for nearly two hours straight at this point. “You’ve been fantastic here this evening, we’ve had a great time,” he says afterward, leading into an emotional and epic finale of ‘Golden Slumbers’, ‘Carry That Weight’, and ‘The End’. “I hope you’ve had as good a time as we have,” he adds as he and his band line up for a final bow. Before they leave the stage, he delivers a caveat that wins the title of biggest understatement of all time. “A special little gig.”
Paul McCartney played:
‘A Hard Day’s Night’
‘Hi Hi Hi’
‘Can’t Buy Me Love’
‘I’ve Got A Feeling’
‘Come On To Me’
‘Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five’
‘From Me To You’
‘Love Me Do’
‘I Saw Her Standing There’
‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’
‘Let It Be’
‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’
‘Carry That Weight’