By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers; Photo by Sandy Roe/Juan Junco
The woman behind me caught the Beatles at Shea Stadium back in ’65. The teenager down the row wearing the black Bieber shirt certainly did not, nor did the two young women who handed us “Na-Na” signs to wave during “Hey Jude.” Elsewhere in the cavernous Carrier Dome, among the more than 35,000 in attendance, were numerous students in my Syracuse University songwriting course—every year I have Beatlemaniacs in the class, way more steeped than I in Fab Four trivia. And everyone packed into the arena, it seemed—kids to seniors—was euphoric.
If there were any question as to how Beatles music keeps hooking generation after generation, Paul McCartney laid them to rest in his concert on a balmy September night in Syracuse, New York. First, there was the sheer power of his performance: Over three straight hours and 39 songs, he nailed bass and guitar and piano parts and did a remarkable job of rocking the vocals in the original keys—even freaking “Helter Skelter”! Few musicians of any age would attempt a show of that magnitude, and to do so at 75 is beyond impressive. (The next day, when my band took a break in the middle of a three-hour gig, I felt like a total wuss.) McCartney’s long-running band—the exuberant Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums, Rusty Anderson on guitar, Brian Ray on guitar and bass, and Swiss-army-knife multi-instrumentalist Paul “Wix” Wickens—provided bedrock instrumental and vocal support, but Sir Paul commanded the stage all night.
Talking to the arena as if we were in a coffeehouse, he told cool stories—about the descending acoustic riff that inspired “You Won’t See Me,” about Jimi Hendrix covering “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” just a few days after the Beatles release, and about a cab ride with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that resulted in McCartney and John Lennon supplying the Rolling Stones with their first UK hit, “I Wanna Be Your Man.”
The real star of the show, however, was the songs, which included, as McCartney put it, “some old ones, some new ones, and some in-between ones.” On the old end was “In Spite of All the Danger,” recorded in 1958 by the pre-Beatles Quarrymen in their first studio session. And on the new end was “FourFiveSeconds,” McCartney’s earworm with Rihanna and Kanye West. Along with all the straight-ahead rockers from the Beatles and Wings catalogs were quite a few arrangements with McCartney picking his Martin dreadnought—particularly moving was “Here Today,” McCartney’s conversation-in-song with Lennon written shortly after his death. For “Blackbird” and “Yesterday” (the latter on his low-tuned Epiphone), McCartney went solo—not counting the thousands of people singing along.
What hit me over and over through the evening was how beautifully constructed the songs were—the indelible melodies, the unexpected chord changes, the kick-ass guitar riffs, the lyrics that manage to be both plainspoken and poetic. These are songs built to last and ready be interpreted again and again. The moment that summed all that up for me came in George Harrison’s “Something,” which McCartney strummed on a ukulele—a sweet, inventive cover, perfect for the YouTube era, that then morphed halfway through into the Abbey Road arrangement. The song was old and new again, and I get goosebumps even thinking about it now.
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McCartney doesn’t need to work this hard at this stage of his life, of course. But his show radiated joy at just being there and playing these songs and making all kinds of people very happy. In this bitter and cynical age, that felt like an extraordinary gift.
We don’t have video from that show, but here’s a solo acoustic version of “Yesterday” from 2009, with Sir Paul playing the same Epiphone guitar he used in Syracuse (and the whole tour):