Live: Paul McCartney at the Hollywood Bowl


It’s hard to think of much in the pop music world more impressive than a 67-year-old musician holding forth for nearly three hours, outdoors on a chilly March night, while delivering some three dozen songs, the least of which would be a career highlight for almost any other artist.

Perhaps the only thing more mind-boggling than that description of Paul McCartney’s sold-out show Tuesday on the first of his two nights this week at the Hollywood Bowl was the realization that without much trouble and no serious dip in quality, he could have filled another set of that magnitude with all the choice Beatles, Wings and solo tunes he didn’t get around to: “She Loves You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Getting Better,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Hi Hi Hi,” etc., etc., etc.

It was a no-brainer that he opened Tuesday’s concert with “Venus and Mars” / “Rock Show,” what with its line in the chorus celebrating “rock ‘n’ roll at the Hollywood Bowl.” The rest was a romp through nearly half a century of some of the most enduring rock music ever written.

And that’s just McCartney’s portion of it. He did, of course, make generous nods to his two departed colleagues, merging “A Day in the Life” and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” pretty much as he did it at Live 8 five years ago, then saluting George Harrison with a reading of “Something” that went from a light-hearted opening, played on the ukulele Harrison gave him, to deeply moving, something McCartney does effortlessly.

It was 40 years ago this month that the world read the news that the Beatles would go on no more. If we’d known then what McCartney demonstrated so confidently Tuesday night -- that the group’s music and memory would be alive and well decades into the future -- the breakup might not have hit quite so hard. For years after that, given the bitterness in the dissolution, McCartney distanced himself from the group and what he’d created with it, focusing on his solo and Wings music while touring in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

But as he communicated when he sang the poignant “Here Today,” his ode to Lennon after the death of his songwriting other half, many things people take for granted in their youth become more precious as time goes by. So over the last decade or two, McCartney has fully embraced his role in the Fab Four while still looking forward to new vistas, such as the Fireman, his groove-minded side project represented Tuesday with a pair of songs.

He was the gracious and politic host he’s always been, dedicating his 1973 hit “My Love” to the woman who inspired it, Linda McCartney, who died in 1998. The closest the show came to a barb was the subtle placement of “I’m Looking Through You” right after that. With its caustic message of romantic disillusionment -- “I thought I knew you / What did I know?” -- it was hard to resist thinking that he might have had ex-wife Heather Mills in mind as he sang that Beatles chestnut. But that’s not McCartney’s style.

McCartney’s ace four-piece band re-created the sound of the various original recordings accurately, without being slavish, although some string and horn parts delegated to keyboardist Paul Wickens to handle by way of synthesizers were a disappointment in “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lady Madonna,” “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Yesterday.”

If Paul McCartney can’t scare up some bona fide orchestral players, in Hollywood no less, who can?

The show’s star was relaxed as ever, downplaying his musical achievements, and even if it wasn’t spontaneous, his brief pause early on to step back from the microphone, cast his gaze around the Bowl’s expansive territory -- where the Fab Four had made historic visits 4 1/2 decades ago -- and “drink it all in” was clearly heartfelt.

The set hewed considerably closer to the mainstream than his edge-exploring performance last year at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, and it included a couple of selections he said he’d never played in the U.S. before this tour: “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” from “Band on the Run” and the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

That perfectly suited Hollywood’s middle-of-the-road crowd, consisting of old-school Beatles fans revisiting their formative years side by side with a sizable contingent of teens and preteens smack dab in the middle of theirs, with McCartney and the Beatles as the bond between them.