"This is the biggest gig we've ever played," said Paul McCartney, right as he took the stage at the intimate Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, Calif., on Thursday night.
On the contrary, it had to be one of the smallest gigs he'd played since the Beatles were a knock-around bar band in Hamburg, Germany. But it was maybe the most ecstatic, completely improbable night of live music one could ever hope for in Southern California.
A Beatle, in a desert-city bar like this. How?
The idea was ludicrous when news hit Thursday afternoon: Sir Paul McCartney, playing a 300-capacity roadhouse dive between bouts of the mega-festival Desert Trip. Fans lined up for hours on the side of the sandy embankment, just praying for a stray +1.
"I flew in from Louisiana, I was having coffee with my brother, and he said, 'Hey, wanna try and see Paul McCartney tonight?' I mean, absolutely," said Sarah Lambremont of New Orleans.
She's 32, but like everyone else, she was brought to '60s-era transcendence on the Pappy's dance floor. If the Desert Trip idea was meant for anything, it was that feeling — some of the best rock songs ever written, played like they were meant to be back then.
"We have a farm up the road, we knew something was suspicious because there was no posting for a Thursday show," said Nancy Saw, 71. "It's amazing. I've seen people like Lucinda Williams here but I had no idea this was going to happen."
The crowd was mostly locals and a few Desert Trip diehards. The festival, boasting the likes of McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and more, has a capacity of about 75,000. Even those who caught McCartney last weekend — he plays again Saturday evening at Desert Trip — were reeling with glee to see him here.
"I saw him at Desert Trip and it was nothing like this," said 40-year-old Raj Kadevari of nearby Pinyon. "There are a lot of last-minute shows here, but this is something else."
Something else, indeed. On one side of the room there was Emma Stone dancing her soles bare. On the other, a leather-clad biker couple pulling spins and grinning in sheer disbelief at their luck.
And Paul? Paul was great.
The set covered almost every Beatles hit you could need from him — "I've Just Seen a Face," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "A Hard Day's Night," "I Saw Her Standing There."
Surreal is the wrong word for the feeling these songs carried — it was more of an actual time machine, back to Liverpool where four mop-tops were rewriting everything we knew about rock. If you squinted, the bar looked to be about the same size as those gigs that made them the Beatles.
It's always strange to be at a concert where everyone is purposefully soaking every drop of it in to remember it for the rest of their life. If Desert Trip was a once-in-a-generation festival, hearing those songs in this room was a set you couldn't even think to ask for.
For the McCartney-obsessed, there were Wings staples, a few new songs, like a lovely piano ballad for his wife Nancy, and heartfelt musical allusions to Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie.
But the point was being inside that tiny club and feeling some kind of inter-generational wavelength that these songs helped bridge.
At every turn, this young writer thought about his mom, playing these songs on her hi-fi as a little girl in South Carolina. She never got to see a Beatle. I feel I know her better for seeing Paul here.
And of course there was "Hey Jude" at the end, perhaps the most hug-your-neighbor festival-closer ever written. Not a glass was unlofted, not an eye was dry as McCartney led the na-na-na's and the ceiling shook.
As Lambremont howled with all the volume she could muster, she turned, eyes wet, and summed it all it up with a shout to the classic-rock heavens.
"This can't be real. This can't be real."
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