Macca appears before his blessed faithful at the Vicente Calderón

by Alberto D. Prieto

You have to put yourself in the shoes of the old guy. Up there in front of 50,000 or 70,000 people. Day in, day out. At 74 years old. For decades now. And with all those intolerant fundamentalists of Beatlemania with their ablutions completed who knows how many times a day since ...when?  Twenty, 30, 40 years ago?  Fifty maybe? There were those there, of course, the wrong side of fifty who had grown up with him. And then there were those who still hadn't learnt their first nursery rhyme at playschool and were already cooing Ob-la-di Ob-la-da in their mothers' arms.  

You have to put yourself in his shoes, I say, to understand that, yes, the Beatles existed and, yes, he was one of them. At least 40,000 of the 50,000 people who filled Vicente Calderón to capacity on Thursday, June 2nd 2016 were not around at the same time as the quartet from Liverpool. When something is mythologized to such a degree, when it's always been there in your life, when they are the centre of everything popular music measures itself by – there were geniuses who sowed the seeds for the rock 'n' roll of Rickenbackers, Hofners, Gretschs, and Ludwigs, and then came John, Paul, George and Ringo to turn those seeds into bloom–, and when that happens, it's hard to believe that the old McCartney up there on stage is truly the same one that they project on the screens framing him.

Not because of the wrinkles, because you already know the effects of the passage of time on the body, no, not that. It's hard to believe because the gods are not of this world. And if so many and such a varied assortment of gods have come after him –all of them harvested from the original Beatles seed–, how can it be that he's still up there, still here, still among us?  

James Paul McCartney must have become aware of himself at some time between Hamburg and his supposed death in a traffic accident on November 9th, 1966. Maybe that's the reason why the repertoire of this One on One Tour reviews the entire musical life of the oldest god of the pop-rock Olympus. From In Spite of All the Danger, when they were a secondary school combo introduced as the Quarrymen, right up to his recent collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West on FourFive Seconds. From being nothing more than a teenager with a friendly face playing at being the bad boy with John, his pills and hookers in the German port city to being a legend so infinite that everyone wants to confirm the alternative option.

Human beings became conscious of themselves at some point between the moment they climbed down from the tree and the time they first buried their dead with a funeral ceremony. Back then, they looked up: outside the cave in search of God and inside, searching for some place where they could express their creativity. And there we were, all the little humans, in the Vicente Calderón, looking up at a god incarnate who was sharing his choice morsels of wisdom with us. And he was looking up, too, at his own particular heaven, where his old friends are waiting for him, reciting one more time –so many times now–, his blessings, the ones he composed with his long absent friends and honoured ceremoniously this night on the ukulele for George's Something and at the piano with the loving Here Today and joyful Give Peace a Chance by John.

Left behind were Stuart Sutcliffe, happy in turning away from fame in exchange for the glory that Astrid Kirchherr, so brilliant behind the viewfinder, gave him; and Pete Best, who missed the train, or they lost him; left behind were the Beatles, Wings, Mersey Beat, soft soul, the grandiose forays into funk and classical, the joint efforts with other gods (Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Michael Jackson…), all that left behind. Today a pedestal is erected every other night all around the planet for old Paul to stand on with his sad, prominent eyes, catlike pout and that familiar voice we've known forever, that trembling voice on the verge of tears.

But the pilgrimage remains the same, because there are songs you have to hear live. Because if music is made for anything, it is to be heard live, while it is being performed and with the person responsible for writing the song among the performers whenever possible.  The left-handed Macca strummed his first guitars upside down in cold post-war Liverpool, in a world that was being reborn and registering new patents every two days. Some were electric guitars, sound amplifiers, vinyl records, cassette tapes... That very thing that entertained him would develop into a business at the same time as his artistic spiral expanded its scope. Stimulated, of course, by the same creative growth of his teenage partner, that madman Lennon. The competition turned them into friendly enemies and their songs became rich in meaning due to the synergy between the collective and the personal.

George Martin
, the first of the 'fifth Beatles’, helped them shape all that. To produce, record and package those essences that were elusive and fleeting before. But nothing is comparable to being warned of the clang of the string plucked by the pick milliseconds before the amplifier emits the processed sound. Only in the sound of a live concert are those shades captured, only in front of the musician do those milliseconds become apparent. The energy that flows from the arena to the stage and back again is a real sacrament.

There are songs you have to hear live and even more if they are those that opened up, every one of them, a whole genre of popular music. If you can assume that something is written by McCartney, whether credited with Lennon or solo, it's because the melodies just pour out of him endlessly. The melodies and the riffs. The melodies, the riffs and the arrangements… It's a natural consequence among geniuses that everything they do, they do well. And if they do a lot, they end up doing completely different things really well too. Up on the stage in Madrid this early June was the guy who wrote the lovely Here, There and Everywhere and also the despicable Live and Let Die, who was capable of inventing the soul-blues of Letting Go coming out of skiffle and the simple Love Me Do.

The powerful band accompanying Paul McCartney is made up of experienced musicians he has been collaborating with for 15 years. To his left stands Brian Ray, a bleached blond from California who covers the bass for 60% of the show, essentially with a Gibson SG. But when Paul grabs the Hofner, Ray breaks out his six-string arsenal (plus one 12-string), including a Les Paul GoldTop, several Taylor acoustics and two huge bone-white axes, a Danelectro and a '59 Gretsch. Rusty Anderson is on his right, another 55-year-old from the U.S. who played with the Police among many others, and whose friendship with Stewart Copeland brought him into contact with McCartney 20 years ago. Since then he has become a fixture with the ex-Beatle: Anderson, his Mesa Boogie and Vox, primarily plugged into a Memphis ES 335 that Gibson custom made for him. Anderson's solos during the show were unforgettable. The percussion is handled by Abe Laboriel, a drummer with powerful arms and an unexpectedly good feel for a bluesy sound. It's not surprising he has toured with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, B.B. King… and alongside him Paul Wickens, Wix, Macca's faithful companion since Flowers in the Dirt in 1989 on keyboards, bass, tambourine... whatever is needed. His instrumental base has been essential to the McCartney sound for a longer period of time than any other musician on Earth.

Art offers an opportunity to change the world and Paul McCartney was given the chance to do that once and stay alive to see the consequences. It's not that he spent five or six decades doing the same thing. We simply remember what the soundtrack was to the world we know, and he wrote it, that talkative old guy looking at us from up high on the stage, who observes his creation every other night and sees that it was good, all of it, from Hamburg to Rihanna, it was good. And although there’ll be time for him to rest, for now heaven can wait. The day after tomorrow, there are more of the blessed faithful to appear before.

(All images: © Cordon Press)