Paul McCartney may be feeling nostalgic, if not sentimental.
For one of rock’s remaining forebears though, this can be hard to gauge.
McCartney, who turns 80 on June 18, has been performing for well over three-quarters of his life in front of audiences in sweaty — and sometimes outright makeshift — venues in his native Liverpool and stadiums and arenas the world over.
And despite his revered musical acumen that helped raise and push the second wave of rock ‘n’ roll to become a lasting and liberated art form, rather than a culture-shock blip fueled by teenage fantasy, too often overlooked in today’s rearview is McCartney’s sheer prowess for performance.
Simply put, the guy knew — and still knows — what the fans want. Whether it’s what the man himself wants to play is altogether a different matter.
Yet, there could be something a bit more personal, a bit more tender than just playing the hits behind Macca’s latest run — aptly named the “Got Back” tour, which pulled into Fenway Park on Tuesday and returns Wednesday night.
Beatle buzz is common anytime McCartney or Ringo Starr hit the road. But this latest slate of shows — yes, they’re both currently on tour (Ringo just played the Boch Center last week) — comes on the heels of “Get Back,” the Peter Jackson-directed film released on Disney+ late last year, offering fans a fuller-picture of the band’s previously notorious sessions that would culminate in Let It Be.
At Fenway on Tuesday night, McCartney rolled through a 36-song, career-spanning set, book-ended with Beatle classics “Can’t Buy Me Love” and the encore-closing “The End,” which capped off the medley fading out 1969’s Abbey Road.
In between was a musical mosaic reminding us why McCartney remains one of the genre’s most colorful pioneers, laced with plenty of his distorted treble shouts and punctuated with his tactful “Yeahs” — outbursts forever reminiscent of an idol, Little Richard.
When the band cracked open “Let Me Roll It,” from his Wings-backed 1973 release “Band on the Run,” McCartney strapped on a Les Paul to play the cutting guitar riff as if to prove he’s no octogenarian. And bolstered by his longtime and formidable backing band, McCartney can still hit those Everly Brothers-seasoned harmonies ever-present in his cataolog.
When a sign by a fan wishing him an early happy 80th birthday caught his eye, he quipped, “Who’s that?”
Indeed McCartney’s current setlist, stacked with a handful of more recent works — including “Fuh You,” off of 2018’s Egypt Station — shows he has no interest in being penned into the 1960s and ’70s. (Still globe trotting, McCartney is no Elvis in Vegas).
And he’s well aware of what his audience thinks about that.
“We can tell what songs you like,” he told the crowd late into his set, which ran just over two-and-a-half hours long.
When Beatles hits fired through the speakers, out came a sea of phones from the audience, McCartney explained. He likened the view to a “galaxy of stars.”
When the newer songs came out, though, there was a “black hole,” he said.
“But we don’t care,” he continued. “We’ll do them anyway.”
But it’s hard to shake a feeling that McCartney, now late in his life, is more acutely aware of his career’s glorious arc, or maybe just accentuating it a tad more.
An undeniable living legend, McCartney has likely had to reckon with his public perception as an untouchable artist the likes of a modern Beethoven, rather than a boy who struck gold in a dreary, working-class city on England’s outer shores.
“In that little port, there were these four guys who got together, formed a band, and ended up doing quite well for themselves,” McCartney told the crowd Tuesday.
Next month marks the 65th anniversary of when a 15-year-old McCartney met John Lennon, joining the latter’s folksy, thorny, and completely homespun musical group, The Quarry Men.
The following year, as McCartney explained, the five-member group that would someday shrink and evolve into the Beatles scraped together £5 to cut their first record, a lone 78 rpm disc the boys passed around by the week. (John “Duff” Lowe kept the pressing for some 20-odd years before McCartney bought it off of him, with Lowe making “quite a considerable profit,” McCartney quipped.)
With a Martin acoustic guitar, McCartney brought back his boyhood as he played that track. Written with George Harrison, “In Spite of All the Danger” is an Elvis-heavy, adolescent plea to take on life’s toughest challenges — “anything you want me to” — for the sake of a relationship.
McCartney’s mighty back-up band joined him downstage for the toned-down performance. Behind them stood a backdrop of a tin-roofed shack plucked out of 1950s southern America, suggesting a juke joint or front-porch affair that birthed the music that would roll into one large lump the Brits called “skiffle,” and hand the Beatles the match to set the world on fire with rock ‘n’ roll.
At other times, McCartney, standing in Beatle boots, vest, and drainpipe pants, told stories about landing the group’s first recording contract and putting “Love Me Do” to tape, admitting he can still hear the nerves in his voice on the song’s solo refrain to this day.
His late bandmates got nods with a ukulele-led cover of Harrison’s “Something” and a rendition of “Here Today,” the letter-in-song McCartney wrote to Lennon after the latter was killed in 1980.
Offering some advice, McCartney told the audience to never pass up a moment to tell someone you love them.
When he wrapped “Maybe I’m Amazed” from McCartney, his first solo venture in 1970, McCartney pointed out an image of him and his then-infant daughter, Mary, that flashed above him on a giant monitor, taken from the album’s back cover.
Mary, he said, now has four kids of her own.
“How time flies,” he said with an air of disbelief not lost on the legions of grandparents that packed the house. “Maybe I’m amazed!”
Living a lifetime in showbiz, McCartney is beginning to — finally — look a bit more his age, after all.
His eyes are a bit more tired, though in year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s certainly not alone. He’s embraced his grays more in recent years. He wears them well and they’re still a bit moppy. In the breeze at Fenway, it’s hard to not conjure a squint-and-you-may-see-it vision of the much-younger man who stood in the January chilly air on a London rooftop all those winters ago.
Of course, with the Jackson film this past year, songs like “Get Back” have a renewed flair and remain dumbfoundedly accessible across the generations assembled in McCartney’s audience. And a late-set run of Beatles hits, from “You Never Give Me Your Money” to “Let It Be,” cranked up an electric jolt needed for the rather sleepy mid-week crowd that welcomed McCartney back to Boston on Tuesday. (Notably, however, signs spelling out “We love you Paul” wrapped the grandstand earlier in the night, causing the rocker to stop to “drink it all in for myself.”)
Abundantly clear is that the beating heart of McCartney’s career will forever be that storied collaboration with Lennon — two friends whose ambitions and humor carried them into the stratosphere of stardom and have now shaped more than half a century of popular culture.
Like the quintessential core of the “Get Back” sessions — intended to capture the band in a rootsy-er, less glammed-out version — it’s clear McCartney is not interested in myth making, but rather something more pure, more innocent, as the Beatles at their best will always be.
His encore opener plays it straight. Using isolated vocals and video from the rooftop concert produced by Jackson, McCartney duets, virtually at least, with Lennon for the first time in decades on Let It Be’s “I’ve Got A Feeling,” with Lennon’s line “Everybody had a hard year” ringing a bit more true during this pandemic.
“That’s beautiful for me,” McCartney said, summing it up afterwards. “Together again.”
Perhaps even more fitting is McCartney’s full-throated bridge:
All these years, I’ve been wanderin’ around
Wonderin’ how come nobody told me
All that I been lookin’ for was somebody who looked like you
For a few minutes, together, the two boys from Liverpool sang across the ages, one on a screen high above and immortalized in long-haired youth, uncertain where that wild ride would take them all next.
Below him stood McCartney, wearing all the life Lennon never got to embrace, but still left pondering about £5 recording sessions, a high school band, and the music he made with his friend.
All these years, indeed.
1. Can’t Buy Me Love
2. Junior’s Farm
3. Letting Go
4. Got to Get You into My Life
5. Come on to Me
6. Let Me Roll It (with Jimi Hendrix, Foxy Lady tribute)
7. Getting Better
8. Let ‘Em In
9. My Valentine
10. Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
11. Maybe I’m Amazed
12. I’ve Just Seen a Face
13. In Spite of All the Danger
14. Love Me Do
15. Dance Tonight
17. Here Today
19. Lady Madonna
20. Fuh You
21. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite
23. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
24. You Never Give Me Your Money
25. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window
26. Get Back
27. Band on the Run
28. Let It Be
29. Live and Let Die
30. Hey Jude
1. I’ve Got a Feeling (virtual duet with John Lennon)
3. Helter Skelter
4. Golden Slumbers
5. Carry That Weight
6. The End
Paul McCartney plays his second night at Fenway Park on Wednesday, June 8.