The Critical Mass

Paul McCartney’s jailbreak

Very few artists reach the enviable position of being a prisoner of their own success. After all, what creative person wouldn’t want to see their work so adored that tens of thousands of people are enraptured by it, celebrating it, showing how they have made it a part of their lives as well?

Paul McCartney has reached that point, where 35,000 people on Saturday night sang along with “Let It Be” and held the lights of their cell phones high, until it looked as though Syracuse’s Carrier Dome was filled with tiny little fires.

And there was one, a few songs later. “Live and Let Die” had been accompanied by a pyrotechnics display unlike anything I’ve seen before. Indoors, anyway. A mix of video and actual fireworks, so well designed that you couldn’t tell what was real and what was digital imagery. Then McCartney went to the piano for “Hey Jude.”

But just a few seconds into the song, people in the crowd began to notice something else, pointing and worriedly murmuring. Here McCartney was playing one of his most-famous compositions, and he was losing the audience. High on the towering stage, where the beams supporting the lights seemed to be almost brushing the Teflon roof, a small orange fire was smoldering. The fireworks had set something ablaze.

People were clearly wondering: Is the Carrier Dome roof fire-proof?

Fortunately, before it could be tested any further, someone from the Carrier Dome staff climbed into the dark entanglement of the stage’s nether regions and snuffed out the fire, with glowing red ashes falling past one of the video screens showing McCartney’s giant face as he wrapped up “Hey Jude.”

McCartney himself seems to understand that this music is an overwhelming force of nature. So he lets it be, at least at first. The first third of the three-hour show was simply McCartney and the band laying the songs out there. Alternating a Beatles song with one by his post-Beatles band, Wings, or his solo work. An opening of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Junior’s Farm,” “Can’t Buy Me Love.” McCartney was just playing them straight, letting the crowd revel it its own memories.

But this was McCartney’s version of Ali vs. Foreman, “rope-a-dope,” where Muhammad Ali allows George Foreman to take his best shots, expend his energy. Then Ali, and on this night McCartney, takes over.

Slowly, at first. The Wings song “Let Me Roll It” got a little “Foxy Lady” tacked onto the end of it. A tribute to Jimi Hendrix, McCartney explained, allowing him to tell a story about him seeing Hendrix play a song from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with such ferocity that his guitar was hopelessly de-tuned.

McCartney found the way out of that successful artist’s prison, by outlining the relationship he would have with these 35,000 people. The band would play, and then he would pause every now and then to tell a story in an almost grandfatherly way. And those 35,000 people would be respectfully silent, because this was insight from a guy who was in the midst of this history, the songs from their lives.

So the 75-year-old McCartney, looking and sounding years younger, played “In Spite of All the Danger.” the first song that he, John Lennon and George Harrison ever recorded, as The Quarrymen. And as a platform rose from the floor, carrying McCartney and an acoustic guitar to new heights, he described how while living in England he had written this song as an inspiration for people fighting for Civil Rights in the American south: And then he played “Blackbird.”

There were new songs, such as “FourFiveSeconds” which he recorded with Rihanna and Kanye West. But McCartney said he and the band could tell what the audience wanted to hear by when the cell phones came out to record, and that was Beatles music. And so it was with “Eleanor Rigby,” in which the Carrier Dome assumed an almost church-like aura. “Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear…”

The Beatles overwhelmed all. Especially McCartney’s tributes to the two who have died, Lennon and Harrison. McCartney brought out a ukulele for a sweet opening to Harrison’s “Something,” before the song exploded beautifully into the full band. It was followed by “A Day in the Life,” largely written by Lennon, segueing into Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

And to hammer home the point of what this night was really all about, seven songs as encores. All Beatles songs. “Yesterday,” a reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Helter Skelter,” “Birthday,” “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight.”

And then “The End,” with the finest lines McCartney ever wrote closing the show: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

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