Beatlefan Publisher Bill King and his family saw the Memorial Day stop of Paul McCartney’s Freshen Up tour at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC. His thoughts on the evening …
Ever since Paul McCartney resumed touring in 1989, I’ve been waiting for him to do one thing that I missed terribly from the Wings days: Restore a horn section to his band.
Nothing against Paul “Wix” Wickens, his talented keyboardist, who filled the gap by playing the horn parts to songs like “Got to Get You Into My Life” on his synthesizers, but there’s nothing quite like the sound of real live horns being played in concert.
So, ask me the highlight of my latest McCartney concert, and I’ll quickly answer with no hesitation: No more synth horns!
The show notably featured the Hot City Horns, who first performed with Macca at Grand Central Terminal in last September, and have been a part of the band for the Freshen Up tour. Two of the three members of the horn section, trumpeter Mike Davis and trombonist Paul Burton, met more than a decade ago while both were students at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, of which Sir Paul is lead patron; the third, saxophonist Kenji Fenton, studied at the Royal College of Music in nearby Manchester.
The horn section is featured on 10 numbers for this tour, and they really added a lot to the show, starting with the moment during the show’s fourth number, “Letting Go,” when the spotlights highlighted them playing out in the midst of the crowd of 16,000, to much applause. In Raleigh, they were performing in the aisle between Sections 102 and 103, just a few feet from my daughter Olivia! She got quite a kick out of that. At the end of that number, Leslie summed it up nicely: “That was cool.”
For the rest of the numbers that feature them — “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Come On to Me,” “Let ’Em In,” “Lady Madonna” (with a sax solo), “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Let It Be,” “Live and Let Die,” “Hey Jude” and the closing “Abbey Road” medley in the encore — the Hot City Horns were onstage, to Wix’s right, about where the old Wings horn section used to be situated. They also did quite a bit of energetic, choreographed dancing when they weren’t playing (especially on “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”). And, at the end of the regular set, the horn trio joined the rest of the band — Wix, Brian Ray, Rusty Anderson and Abe Laboriel Jr. — stage-front to take a bow.
Beyond the horns, this year’s iteration of McCartney’s never-ending tour show was very much like the show I saw two years ago in the Atlanta area. Besides the three songs from the “Egypt Station” album included this go-round, the only real “new” number is “From Me to You,” which he brought back last year at Grand Central for its first U.S. performance since 1964.
Here’s how the show went: “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Junior’s Farm,” “All My Loving,” “Letting Go,” “Who Cares,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Come On to Me,” “Let Me Roll It”/“Foxey Lady,” “I’ve Got a Feeling” (with the instrumental reprise), “Let ‘Em In,” “My Valentine,” “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” (“Here’s one for the Wings fans,” Paul said, complete with the famous hand symbol), “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “In Spite of All the Danger,” “From Me to You,” “Dance Tonight,” “Love Me Do” (a particular audience favorite that got everyone back on their feet), “Blackbird,” “Here Today,” “Queenie Eye,” “Lady Madonna” (another crowd favorite), “Eleanor Rigby,” “Fuh You,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr.Kite!,” his tribute to George Harrison with “Something” (the usual version starting out on ukulele before the band comes in), “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Band on the Run,” “Back in the USSR,” “Let It Be,” “Live and Let Die,” “Hey Jude.” Encore: “Birthday,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” “Helter Skelter” and “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End.”
Besides the first-time tour numbers, the only real new twist (other than the addition of horns) was a new opening/precede for “Live and Let Die,” featuring Wix and some creative lighting. Oh, and he continued to leave out “Yesterday,” a practice that began with the Nov. 1 Tokyo Dome show last year (though the tune had been omitted previously from some scaled-back festival set lists).
So, yeah, there were a lot of familiar numbers — it seems like whenever a set list from the Freshen Up tour is posted, somebody (probably thinking mistakenly that they’re being original) adds a comment to the effect that “Paul should freshen up his set list!”
Admittedly, I do wish Paul would swap out a few of the numbers in the first half of the show more frequently, but it’s hard to argue with that murderer’s row of classic songs from “Something” to the end. It’s still one of the best concert experiences imaginable.
One song he probably ought to consider swapping out is, unfortunately, a favorite of many of us: his deeply personal and affecting tribute to John Lennon, “Here Today.” For the first time that I’ve seen live, his voice failed him completely on the falsetto “oohs” in the number. He attributed his vocal problem to “a frog in my throat,” but he obviously knew the problem was pronounced enough that he couldn’t just ignore it. Afterward he noted: “OK, my oohs forsake me, forsook me.”
I’m thinking he should pick a John song as his tribute and retire “Here Today” (as much as I love it). Something that won’t challenge his voice or emotions as much. Leslie suggested “In My Life” (she particularly loves the harpsichord-like keyboard solo in that).
Paul’s voice held up for the most part, though it definitely was rough the last third of the concert. Still, as I said to the family as we were driving home, “I didn’t see anything but smiles on the folks exiting the arena.”
As the reviewer for WRAL-TV put it, “Inevitably, McCartney’s voice is not what it once was, and there were times when his singing wavered. But there was poignance in that, too, an acknowledgement of time gone by and just how much McCartney’s music has meant to so many over the years. He wore those rough edges proudly on the solo acoustic portion of the program, performing The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ and his 1982 John Lennon tribute ‘Here Today’ from a raised platform above the stage.”
Like the bit on the riser, most of the show’s stagecraft remained the same, though a few of the videos played on the screen behind him did seem to have been freshened up. The band continued the four-flag entrance for the encore, this time with the U.S., U.K., North Carolina and LGBT pride rainbow banners being waved. The latter was an on-point statement in a state that drew a lot of flak from performers (including Ringo) a few years ago for its anti-transgender “bathroom bill.”
One notable change in the show came right before “Lady Madonna,” when Paul told the crowd, “One of the things that people say to me when they’re seeing the show, ‘You didn’t take a drink of water the whole time.”
“But tonight I’m going to,” he said. And he did.
“Alright, a rule is broken. That’s what rules are for.”
He took another sip later, before “Let It Be.”
As has been the case on all the shows on this leg up to this writing, he didn’t bring any fans from the audience up on the stage this time around, but he did do the bit where he reads signs being held up (some of which are shown on the big screen), and he even read another later in the show.
He was chatty throughout, telling a lot of familiar stories and a few that are newer (including about getting James Corden to add “McCartney” to his son’s name). He correctly knew how long it had been since he’d last played Raleigh, saying, “It’s great to be here again. It was 17 years ago, y’know. … We’ve got some old songs for you, some new songs, some in-between ones.” However, Paul did use the British pronunciation of the city’s name (“Rally”) as opposed to how it’s said in the U.S./North Carolina: “Rawh-lee.”
He introduced “My Valentine” as “one that I wrote for my wife, Nancy, and she’s here with us tonight. This one’s for you, Nance.”
After “Dance Tonight” (featuring Paul on mandolin), he made reference to his drummer’s hammy moves during the song, saying, “I mean, we don’t need 40 dancers, we’ve got Abe.”
Of course, the pyrotechnics on “Live and Let Die” were as awesome as ever (with the heat from those flashpots easily felt in our lower-level seats about midway back from the stage).
Musical high points for me included Paul getting to play lead on his psychedelic guitar on “Let Me Roll It,” and him playing a nifty acoustic solo on “In Spite of All the Danger” (which was introduced with an expansive version of the story of the early recording the Quarry Men made of the tune and how fellow member Duff Lowe kept the disc for years and later sold it back to him for a very nice profit). The audience was asked to sing along on a reprise of that early number, but didn’t have to be asked to join in on other numbers, including “Love Me Do” and “Something.” As the reviewer from The News & Observer noted, “When you’re singing the same song with thousands of strangers, you can’t help but feel joy and a sense of unity. As you listen to the decades-old lyrics, the ones that stay with you after the confetti has been swept off the arena floor … still provide hope in a world that could surely use some.”
Merchandise on offer was pretty standard, with the most exciting item being a limited-edition tour poster for the Raleigh show featuring Paul and landmarks from North Carolina’s capital city. There were only 100 copies available and the lines were very long, but my daughter-in-law Jenny bribed a guy ahead of her to buy one for my son Bill, now the proud owner of poster #48!
Every time McCartney goes back out on tour, I have people ask me why he still does it when “he doesn’t need the money.”
He’s not doing it for the money, folks. He continues to tour because he truly loves playing his music in concert, feeding off the energy of the crowd (which helps explain how a guy marking his 77th birthday in June manages to play a show that runs nearly 3 hours).
I believe he’ll continue to tour as long as he’s physically able to do it.
And, as long as he keeps at it, we’ll keep coming. It’s a show that pleases young and old. My son was seeing his 14th McCartney concert; my daughter, her sixth. Said Olivia afterward, “I really hope I get to see him at least 10 times.”
If Paul has anything to say about it, she probably will. “We’ll see ya next time!” he promised the Raleigh crowd at the end, like usual.
I think he means it.