“How many people here are not from Liverpool?”, enquires Paul McCartney (or ‘Sir Paul Actual Real Life Bloody McCartney In The Flesh’ to give him his full title) midway through his homecoming arena gig last night. “As chairman of the tourist board, we welcome you.”
While he moved away in 1964, the city’s prodigal son has been coming home enough recently to advise on the latest attractions. Earlier this year, he joined James Corden for a Carpool Karaoke jaunt of his teenage home on 20 Forthlin Road and stunned drinkers at The Philharmonic by dusting off some Beatles and Wings classics. Then, in July, he was back for an intimate, sweaty secret gig to 300 people in the Cavern Club.
The first night of the UK leg of his worldwide ‘Freshen Up’ tour is a far bigger affair: a 11,000-strong crowd, who’ve travelled from as far as New York and Siberia. Billowing bonhomie, Macca salutes those who’ve flown in from Japan with a trademark thumbs up and celebratory “Fantastic!” in Japanese.
Pre-teens in full Sgt Pepper regalia mingle with septuagenarians wearing vintage Beatles tour T-shirts. Throughout, the star good-naturedly highlights the forest of placards held up – some of which are less gig-banners, and more like dead-tree-based-tweets. ‘WE GOT A FINAL EXAM TOMORROW – HUG FOR A LITTLE LUCK!’ reads one (“You’ll kill it, don’t worry” reassures Macca) while another is inscribed with: ‘TO BE WITH YOU HERE TONIGHT IS PURE ADRENALINE. YOUR MUSIC MAKES MY HEART BEAT AT THE RHYTHM OF YOUR SONGS WHICH ARE THE SOUNDTRACK TO MY LIFE YESTERDAY TODAY AND FOREVER’. One die-hard brandishes one with the number ‘119’ – how many McCartney gigs he’s been to. “You must be loaded,” boggles his idol.
With no support act – come on, who the fuh could warm-up for Britain’s greatest living songwriter? – he bounds onstage at 8.30pm, going for the jugular with ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, and plays an epic, bladder-testing three-hour set of 40 songs, which run the gamut from his pre-Beatles skiffle combo The Quarrymen (‘In Spite Of All The Danger’) to the Fab Four, Wings and his solo output. Toting his iconic Hofner bass, his voice is in fine fettle and he looks fantastic for 76, like he’s slipped Mother Nature a sneaky tenner. Removing his jacket before ‘Let Roll It’, which codas with Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’, he’s stoned by lusty screams and mock-pantos a ‘Shucks, who me?’ double-take. “That is the big wardrobe change,” he says. “I’m going to no further.”
With his friends and family in the audience, the night clearly has an emotional undertow for him. “I could spend the whole evening chatting to you,” he says after ‘All My Loving’. “Imagine all the memories coming flooding back.” Before ‘Here Today’ – his imaginary 1982 conversation with the late John Lennon – he comments: “You can imagine one of the great things about coming back to Liverpool is I just remember all the little things we did, particularly before The Beatles, just hanging out and going to each others’ houses and stuff.” He recalls revisiting Forthlin Road for Carpool Karaoke: “It was pretty far out. Funny thing is though, ‘cos it’s a National Trust thing, the woman who was showing us round – like the curator or something – she asked us to pay,” he laughs. “I said: ‘this is my bloody house!’ ‘Come on – cough up.’ And we did!.”
Backed by a well-drilled, judderingly powerful band and full brass section, he doesn’t stint on the Beatles cuts – and primal versions of ‘Junior’s Farm’ and ‘Let Me Roll’ could be used by Alan Partridge as Exhibit A in his defence that “Wings? They’re only the band the Beatles could have been.” As does a communal rendition of ‘Let ‘Em In’ – which he jokes is renamed ‘The Postcode Lottery’, in reference to its use on those ubiquitous TV adverts. He dedicates the smoky piano ballad, ‘My Valentine’ – from 2013 solo outing ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ – to his wife Nancy Shevell, who’s in the audience, while the 2007 ukulele-led ‘Dance Tonight’ is accompanied by a drummer indulging in some novelty choreography (The Macca-rena?). Later in the evening, before ‘Something’, he mistily reminisces how George Harrison was in the George Formby Fan club – and visit ukulele conventions in Blackpool.
But he doesn’t rest on his laurels. Tracks from his most recent solo album ‘Egypt Station’, which charted at Number Three in August, effortlessly update his legacy, including the sultry horn-driven Viagra-rock of ‘Come On To Me’ and ‘Fuh You’. Interviews to promote it had seen him wax about about Beatles’ communal wanking sessions (one piece of footage that sadly doesn’t appear in archive material flashing behind him), and he performs these tracks with priapic teenage friskiness. Despite heralding the Beatles failsafe ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ by quipping: ‘When we do an old Beatles song, the place lights up with all your phones – it’s like a galaxy of stars. And then when we do a new song, it’s a black hole”, they – alongside anti-bullying rocker ‘Who Cares’ – are rapturously received.
The cod-reggae of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ and imperious ‘Hey Jude’ receive life-affirming sing-alongs – for the latter, the crowd even hold up pieces of paper with ‘Na-Na-Na’s’ on. ‘Live And Let Die’ ramps up the eyebrow-singeing pyro and fireworks with the big screen behind him showing a London skyline containing Parliament exploding – which seems a fitting metaphor for what’s happening outside.
It’s gone 11 when he returns for the encore, carrying a Union Jack, and the atmosphere starts to feel like a McCartney after-hours lock-in. The party vibes begin with ‘Birthday’ continue when two Finnish charity lottery winners are hauled onstage to duet with him on a raucous ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, while a fan holding a ‘I Want Me Some Paul For Xmas’ sign is rewarded with a festive, superlatively cheesy ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ – the first time he’s played it since 2016 – replete with shimmering snowstorm and the young people’s choir from LIPA (the academy he founded).
He careers manically through ‘Helter Skelter’ with the force of a man trying to exorcise all toxic associations with Charles Manson, following it with the triumvirate of ‘Golden Slumbers’, ‘Carry The Weight’ and ‘The End’, leaving the stage to streamers and ticker tape – signing off by praising Liverpool as “the best city in the world” – at 11.30pm. Another example, surely, of Macca refusing to bow to the march of time. In another interview to promote ‘Egypt Station’, he said he’d once ingested so many drugs, he saw the face of God. Judging by tonight’s transcendent gig, perhaps he just looked in the mirror.
Paul McCartney played (brace yourselves!):
A Hard Day’s Night
All My Loving
Got to Get You Into My Life
Come On to Me
Let Me Roll It
I’ve Got a Feeling
Let ‘Em In
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
Maybe I’m Amazed
I’ve Just Seen a Face
In Spite of All the Danger
From Me to You
Love Me Do
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Band on the Run
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Let It Be
Live and Let Die
I Saw Her Standing There
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
Carry That Weight