Paul McCartney’s weekend in Memphis began with a trip to Elvis’ home at Graceland, and ended with a visit to FedExForum, as the Beatles legend left a capacity crowd buzzing with his first performance in the Bluff City in 20 years on Sunday night.
Sandwiched in between a pair of Grizzlies playoff games, McCartney’s concert at the arena reaffirmed his place as the popular champion among his ‘60s rock survivors. While he may lack Bob Dylan’s inscrutable air of mystery, or the visceral outlaw excitement of the Rolling Stones, McCartney is an unapologetic people pleaser. He delivered a nearly 40-song, three-hour set of Beatles classics, rarities, tributes and favorites from his Wings and solo catalog, a truly epic and awe-inspiring performance from a man just a few weeks shy of his 71st birthday.
McCartney arrived on stage gripping his signature Hofner bass, wearing a black Nehru-style jacket, Cuban heels, and looking, well, downright Beatle-ish. Kicking off with “Eight Days a Week,” he proceeded to move seamlessly between songs from across his six-decade career.
Backed by a nimble four piece band – featuring guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray, keyboardist Paul Wickens, and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. – McCartney’ nearly flawless musicianship was on display throughout the night. Still playing the songs in their original keys, and managing to hit nearly every high note, he showed his range on early workouts of “Junior's Farm” and “Listen to What the Man Said.” Strapping on a guitar, McCartney offered a rousing take on “Let Me Roll It," before adding an extended coda of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” that found him showing off his fretwork.
“Hey Memphis, hey Tennessee!” greeted McCartney in his familiar Liverpudlian accent. “There’s a party brewing here tonight.”
Winking, pointing, dancing and giving his familiar “thumbs up," McCartney engaged in a running dialogue with the audience, cracking corny jokes and telling nostalgic stories. He came off like an amiable goofball, someone utterly at ease with his iconic status and unfathomable cultural importance.
Much of the music responsible for McCartney’s reputation was included in the set list: “All My Loving,” “Paperback Writer," “I’ve Just Seen a Face," “We Can Work it Out," “Blackbird” and “Eleanor Rigby” were among the 20-plus Beatles classics he pulled out during the course of the evening. Even rare or previously never performed numbers like “Lovely Rita” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” were given an airing, much to the delight of hardcore fans.
Though he didn’t pull out any Memphis music chestnuts during the show -- after apparently playing a few Sun Records numbers during soundcheck -- McCartney was still mindful of his surroundings, and paid homage to the Bluff City. “The memories from when we kids, hearing the music coming out of here… it was so influential,” he said. “Don't think we would've done it without Memphis -- that’s the truth.”
The set included a couple tributes to his fallen Beatles comrades. McCartney delivered a heartfelt ode to the late John Lennon with “Here Today” (“This is a song, in the form of a conversation, that we didn’t get to have,” he said). He also recalled George Harrison with a ukulele- led version of the timeless love song “Something.”
Seated at the piano, McCartney played the opening notes of “Live and Let Die” which soon turned into a feverish burst of pyrotechnics – the stage suddenly exploding in flames and fireworks -- before he brought things to close with a communal sing-a-long version of “Hey Jude.”
But he was far from done. McCartney emerged for an encore waving a giant Tennessee state flag, and proceeded to peel off three galvanizing rockers in “Day Tripper”, “Hi Hi Hi” and “Get Back.” A second encore found him armed with an acoustic, strumming a plaintive “Yesterday” before switching gears for a magnificently bombastic and edgy “Helter Skelter.” A fitting finale came with the last track off the Beatles swansong, Abbey Road, as McCartney, Anderson and Ray, traded off solos on a medley of “Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End.”
While the audience may have been exhausted, both emotionally and physically, from McCartney’s tour de force effort, aside from a sweat soaked dress shirt, he seemed completely unruffled – still waving, grinning, and giving a beatific thumbs up to the last.