|Paul McCartney performs two shows at Fenway Park this week. (Brantley Gutierrez)|
Just 17? McCartney still plays as if he were.
QUEENS, N.Y. - “Welcome to the casbah!’’
This is how Sir Paul McCartney impishly greets a visitor to his backstage green room at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. He’s retrofitted the locker room with heavy dark curtains, bronze relief wall hangings, and plush couches that groovily approximate a cross between a meditative spa and a cozy living room. And McCartney, in his white Oxford shirt and jeans, seems relaxed enough to be lounging in one of those environments, offering a cup of tea and introductions before settling on a couch. With his tension-free shoulders and off-handed nail-filing you’d never guess that in a few hours the legendary Beatle and former frontman for Wings would be performing for 42,000 people just outside these walls. For the third time in a week.
As calm as he is, though, even the 67-year-old McCartney, who comes to play Boston this week, acknowledges he still gets as much of a thrill as ever from performing live.
“We always try and look for something we’ve never played,’’ he says, “and there are a couple in the set now this year that I’ve never played.’’
Berklee College alum Abe Laboriel Jr., McCartney’s drummer and indispensable harmony vocalist since 2001, says McCartney somehow manages to play as if he were still that teenager with the mop top haircut back in Liverpool. “He doesn’t need to be doing this, he’s doing it because he wants to, he loves to do it, and honestly it keeps him young,’’ Laboriel says. “Every time he sits down he’s reborn, he’s like a 17-year-old kid, excited to be there, to be in the moment.’’
On a brief summer tour that includes stops next Wednesday and Thursday at Fenway Park, McCartney is as energetic as ever, playing exuberant 2 1/2-hour shows spilling over with hits from his nearly 50-year career. Backstage, filing away - in preparation for the fingerpicking of songs like “Blackbird’’ - McCartney is engaged and engaging, jazzed to discuss “Electric Arguments,’’ his third album as The Fireman, the alter ego he dons when collaborating and experimenting with British producer Youth.
“Every so often we’d say it’s time we did a Fireman,’’ says McCartney of Youth, his Fireman coconspirator since 1993 and with whom he shares a love of art and beat writers. “We just like working together and so we talked a little bit about where we might go and I’d sent him some sort of sea chantey record, it was like a pirate-y kind of record, you know? And I said, ‘for no particular reason I just happened to be listening to this, maybe we can start there?’ ’’
The sea, sky, sand, and air are recurring themes on the expansive “Electric Arguments,’’ and McCartney says he was lyrically inspired by folks like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the cut and paste techniques of William Burroughs. But even with those offbeat origins, “Arguments’’ is unique among the Fireman releases in that it is the one that most resembles a proper McCartney solo album. While his previous records explored more ambient electronic sounds and dance grooves, “Arguments’’ offers Macca’s signature pop vocal melodies, choruses, and ruminations on romance, while also keeping the experimental spirit alive with funky sound effects, loops, twitchy percussion textures, and excursions into nervy blues.
Given their lengthy friendship, Youth says, “I think he trusts me enough to allow me to push him in all sorts of different directions. With an artist of that caliber and who’s that iconic it is hard to push them into the process when they’re there to enjoy [themselves].
“But I felt with this one he really had a fearless courage to him. It was the time he was going through his divorce [from Heather Mills] so he was in a fearless and an emotive state of mind and I think this was a great cathartic way of releasing a lot of that emotion. Maybe not specifically to do with the divorce but music for artists is a great release of emotion.
“I would come in each morning, we’d set a groove, and then I would try and make a song up and I’d put instruments on it,’’ he says. “I’d throw everything at it, it was just like throwing paint at a canvas.’’
McCartney says he enjoyed the improvisational nature of “Arguments’’ so much that he’s wondering when he can do it again. He says he’s already written songs for his next album in his more typical style, but then he adds, “I do quite like to seesaw techniques so that I don’t get bored or feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over, so Fireman was a great relief from that.’’
Certainly, if anyone could rest on their laurels and get a good night’s sleep it’s McCartney. But he welcomes a challenge and a means to feed new avenues of creativity at a moment when a large part of his world is insistently devoted to reflecting on his enormous musical legacy: At Citi Field, he gave a nod to the Beatles legendary Shea Stadium shows; he recently reflected on the “Late Show With David Letterman’’ about the band’s appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show’’; and a complete set of remastered Beatles albums and the new video game “The Beatles: Rock Band’’ both will hit shelves on Sept. 9. (“You can’t get much cooler than 09/09/09,’’ he says with a smile of the “revolutionary’’ release date.)
McCartney seems to have found a sense of peace in juggling both his present as a vital contemporary musician and his past as the cute Beatle. “It’s nice to have got to a place where that’s balanced now,’’ he says. “There were definitely times when I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’d rather do some new stuff.’ But you kept getting dragged back to the other because it went down so well. You know, it’s like a comedian, you can tell any joke you want but the ones that they laugh at are probably the ones you should keep in the act,’’ he says with a laugh.
This approach would explain McCartney’s set list, carefully curated to please the fans as much as himself, sprinkled with his biggest Beatles, Wings, and solo hits. “I’m a believer in that,’’ he says. “I know if I went to see the Stones I would definitely want them to do ‘Satisfaction.’ If I went to see Prince I would want ‘Purple Rain.’ But I can see it from his point of view, ‘Oh God, not that one again.’ ’’
Then he pauses.
“There are artists who will not play those songs for that reason, but I’m not that kind of artist,’’ he says with another twinkly smile. “I think an audience deserves to hear some of what it wants.’’