As we begin a new year of music, Don Shiau shares his biggest concert experience of 2016. And possibly his entire life. Because really, how do you top rock’s biggest royalty?
I was born just over a month before John Lennon was murdered, and was barely out of my teens when George Harrison died. By the time I was actively attending concerts, a Paul McCartney show was the closest I could ever get to seeing The Beatles live.
But things never lined up nicely. When I was a student, the problem was money. When I started working, the problem was time. Despite doing back-to-back tours since 2010, Macca rarely swung into the region, leave alone Singapore.
This year I finally decided enough was enough. The man wasn’t getting any younger, and there was no telling when he’d decide to take a break or call it quits. So wherever in the world he was, I’d meet him there.
My fiancée and I planned our annual vacation around his latest tour, One on One. We looked for a date which would also allow us to attend other gigs and festivals we were interested in. The result of our triangulation: Hersheypark Stadium, 19 July 2016.
TOO MANY PEOPLE
Hershey is a small American town pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Population of 15,000, all quaint little houses, basic amenities, and rolling fields. It has no public transport, because everyone drives. Its sole claim to fame is the world-famous Hershey Company. Hence its anchor tourist attraction: the enormous Hersheypark, a candy-themed amusement park, and its adjoining stadium.
So here’s what happens when Paul McCartney drops by for a concert. A sign goes up on the road from the airport saying “HERSHEY WELCOMES PAUL MCCARTNEY”. A few road names and Hersheypark ride names are changed, just on the day of the concert, to honour him. 30,000 people flock to the stadium, resulting in traffic that looks like it’s backed up for miles. My fiancée and I look like we could’ve been among the twenty youngest people there, and were quite possibly the only ones from the Eastern Hemisphere.
I’ve been to concerts. But a Paul McCartney concert is something else. Everything about Macca—one of the highest-achieving, longest-touring musicians active today—is about scale. It starts with the merchandise. Each merch booth (one inside and one outside the venue) were larger than those I’ve seen at entire festivals. I counted at least eleven t-shirt designs, three of which were for the current tour. I saw all manner of souvenirs from posters, programmes (30 USD), lanyards (20 USD), caps (40 USD), beanies (40 USD), bandanas (15 USD), keychains (5 USD), necklaces, badge sets (30 USD), sew- on patches (20 USD), tote bags (25 USD), tumblers (40 USD), mugs (20 USD), even a bloody 115 USD RUG. Yes a rug, complete with tassels. The programme itself is the most elaborate I’ve ever seen for any tour. It had a proper spine, and was packed with feature stories. Not just the usual photographs and tour credits. It even had stickers and colouring pages!
THE SONGS WE WERE SINGING
This sense of scale naturally extends to the music as well. So here’s a poser: if you’re a living legend with a back catalogue possibly larger than anyone else’s, how do you even begin to assemble a setlist? Perhaps you start with the non-negotiables—in Macca’s case, “Hey Jude”, “Let It Be”, “Yesterday”, “Maybe I’m Amazed”, “Band on the Run”, “Live and Let Die”—and you slot the rest in.
‘The rest’ being a balance of Beatles-era, Wings-era and solo numbers spanning from 1958’s “In Spite of All the Danger” to 2015’s Rihanna/Kanye West collaboration “FourFiveSeconds”. Or as the man himself put it, “some old songs, some new songs, and some in-between songs”. Some of these he dedicated to those closest to him: “My Valentine” to his current wife Nancy Shevell, and “Maybe I’m Amazed” to his late first wife Linda (I found it amusing that nothing was dedicated to his second wife Heather Mills, with whom he had an acrimonious split in 2008). And then of course were the loving, tear-jerking tributes to Lennon, in the form of “Here Today”; and to Harrison, in the form of “Something”.
But even in a 38 (!) song set, Macca couldn’t possibly squeeze everything in. As the show progressed, I felt like he’d played all the things I’d always wanted to hear live. After the dust settled, I realised how much he left out. No “Get Back”, “The Long And Winding Road” or “I Saw Her Standing There”. Wings standards “My Love” and “Jet” were also missing, as was his solo hit “No More Lonely Nights”. But the show ended with an appropriate bang: “Hey Jude” for the main set, and the Abbey Road closing medley of “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight” and “The End” for the encore. I have to say, there is nothing like uniting with 30,000 strangers to sing “Hey Jude”, with Paul McCartney on the keys. It is simply transcendental, and I feel privileged to have experienced it.
MAYBE I’M AMAZED
I should also talk about the amazing visuals for the One on One Tour. Next to Roger Waters’ The Wall concerts in 2011, this show had the highest production value I’d ever seen. There were essentially three screens—one on the stage, split into three tiers, and two tall ones on either side.
The video projections were vibrant, and punched all the way to the furthest audience member. Some were abstract, like grids of dots for “A Hard Day’s Night”, Tron-like vector graphics for “Temporary Secretary”, and psychedelic pastiches for “Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite!” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”. Some were straight-up music videos, like “My Funny Valentine”. Several employed Beatles iconography. And there were the fireworks for “Live and Let Die”—now a set-piece in McCartney’s concerts, but still a joy to behold.
The greatest visual, however, was of McCartney himself. The One on One tour was marketed as an intimate experience; one that would allow him to connect with every audience member directly, despite being in an arena. Here’s how it was achieved: the two enormous vertical screens next to the stage displayed a feed from a camera constantly pointed at Macca, framed such that you saw his full height, rather than just his face or upper body. This sleight of hand made him feel like a 50-foot giant standing in front of everyone. We were right there with him. The illusion never broke.
LISTEN TO WHAT THE MAN SAID
Clever staging was just half the reason this worked. The other was McCartney’s consummate skill as a performer. He is perfectly at ease in front of thousands; absolutely natural before a camera; every inch a charmer. Surely he couldn’t have made out one single face in the crowd, but he still spoke to whatever he saw as if it were an old friend.
He told stories of the songs he played—of how “Blackbird” was really about the Civil Rights Movement; of how “You Won’t See Me” began as a descending chord progression; of how “Mr Kite” was just built from phrases in a circus poster in Lennon’s bedroom; of how Russian officials told The Beatles backstage that they listened to Beatles records to learn English.
He made quips—referring to his jacket removal as “the only costume change for tonight”; knowingly asking how many people have tried learning to play “Blackbird”, before declaring “you’ve got it all wrong”; announcing “a time in every show, when we gotta go” before adding that “it’s around the same time you gotta go, too”.
He worked the audience—doing little celebratory jigs after completing songs; a booty shake during “And I Love Her”; getting males and females to alternately sing the outro of “Hey Jude”; preparing for a stage dive, then shaking his head and wagging his finger; leading the audience on vocal runs for no reason; responding to a sign held by a woman asking for him to autograph her, by actually autographing her shoulder.
And he played. Boy, did he play. He’s 74 years old, but he performed like he didn’t know it, powering through over 160 minutes of music. He broke out those melodic bass grooves he’s known for, some tender acoustic fingerpicking, lively piano flourishes, and that voice. My goodness, that voice. A little rounder at the edges in his senior years, but still capable of frying the highest notes. And did he not take a single sip of water that whole time?
CAN’T BUY ME LOVE
All things considered, it made little sense to fly all the way out to Hershey for the concert. My top-tier ticket alone cost 400 SGD—more than a three-day pass for many festivals. The flight into Hershey, which was a detour from the holiday my fiancée and I planned, cost another 300 SGD. Airport transfers and private taxi rides, which were unavoidable because Hershey has no public transport, cost close to 180 SGD. And I haven’t even touched on the accommodation.
But it was worth it. Attending a Paul McCartney concert reminded me that he is one of the greatest songwriters of our time, and also revealed to me he that is one of the greatest performers. He is an enormous talent whose stagecraft has been polished over decades. The experience of watching the legend was simply priceless.
… still there’s more …