Bucket list item checked.
I didn’t know seeing Paul McCartney in concert was on my bucket list — one of the bands or singers I have to see live in my lifetime. But after watching him perform 38 of his songs Monday night at Raleigh’s PNC Arena, why wasn’t a McCartney show on my list?
For two hours and 45 minutes, with a quick break at the end before the encore, McCartney’s Freshen Up tour delivered hit after hit — from The Beatles, Wings, as a solo artist, and a song from The Quarrymen, the group that preceded The Beatles. He weaved in stories behind the songs, dedicating them to those who inspired them or wrote them. That included a shoutout to wife Nancy Shevell, who he said was in the audience.
He even made a little Paul McCartney history. He famously doesn’t drink water on stage during his shows — oh, his poor vocal chords — but after clearing his throat a few times during “Here Today,” he broke down. Now mind you, he already had sung more than 20 songs straight, so I’m not really fretting about the quality of his voice. After “Queenie Eye,” a bottle of water was brought to his piano.
So momentous was the occasion, McCartney called attention to it, and the sip was taken with a drum roll.
“One of the things that people say to me when they’re seeing the show, ‘You didn’t take a drink of water the whole time,’” he told the crowd between sips.
“But tonight I’m going to,” he said. “A rule is broken. That’s what rules are for.”
Did I mention the pyrotechnics and fireworks?
So, yes, this was definitely a Bucket List-type of concert.
Beatles greatest hits
The Raleigh show was the second stop on the U.S. leg of the tour, having played already in South America, Asia and Europe.
McCartney was in fine form, kicking off the show by strolling on stage, giving the audience a little wave and immediately launching into “A Hard Day’s Night,” the first of 22 Beatles songs performed over the course of the night.
“You know I feel all right,” he sang.
And it was clear that while he’s about to turn 77 next month, he felt more than just all right.
“Hello, Raleigh, it’s been 17 years ago,” he said early in the show. “We’ve got some old songs for you, some new songs, some in-between ones.”
Unlike other shows today that have backup dancers, multiple wardrobe changes and opening acts, McCartney let his songs, and his impressive band, do the talking.
At one point, he removed his black jacket to cheers. He feigned surprise at the reaction.
“That was the big wardrobe change of the whole evening,” he said. “That’s it.”
I tried to note the instrument changes, eventually just losing track. The list included guitar (a few different ones), piano (both baby grand and a psychedelic-painted upright), ukulele and mandolin.
His touring band of Brian Ray, Rusty Anderson, Abe Laboriel Jr. and Wix Wickens have undeniable chemistry. They threw in a harmonica and accordion in addition to their usual instruments. Laboriel stole the show a few times on drums, with his energy and with a seemingly unscripted dance medley during “Dance Tonight.”
“Thank you for the choreography,” McCartney said. “We don’t need 40 dancers. We’ve got Abe.”
On occasion, the band was joined by a traveling three-person horns section, who made their debut in the middle of the audience during “Letting Go.”
The accompanying lights and video imagery mostly enhanced the show, transporting the audience to just the right place for certain songs. Vintage clips of the Beatles in their heyday, with girls madly running after them, were fun. So was footage of McCartney with Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison.
I found some of the videos with McCartney’s famous friends a little out of place. Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp interpreting “My Valentine” in sign language (in black and white) was OK. But Depp showed up again in a video backing “Queenie Eye,” alongside a random group of celebrities all dancing to the song. I recognized James Corden, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman and Meryl Streep (huh?). This was a minor quibble overall, but a moment where I was distracted and didn’t pay as much attention to McCartney as I tried to guess the famous people’s identities.
It’s hard to pick favorite moments in a greatest hits show like this. I’m more familiar with some of the Beatles numbers, than, say, the Wings songs, or some of McCartney’s newer material. Three songs came from 2018’s “Egypt Station.” The setlist included most every major song you can think of, with the exception of “Yesterday.”
McCartney shed his band for two solos, “Blackbird” and “Here Today,” and made them feel new and special. In one of the only times of stage acrobatics, McCartney was lifted high up on a stage that towered above the audience on the floor. Digital fireflies darted on the newly raised stage, until a view of Earth from space was revealed.
He explained that “Blackbird” was inspired by the civil rights movement. “Here Today,” meanwhile, was written after John Lennon’s death, McCartney shared. He urged the audience to tell people how they feel, in case that chance doesn’t come again.
“Us guys from Liverpool, you couldn’t say, ‘I love you,’” he said.
Lennon knew McCartney cared for him, and vice versa. But the words were never said. “Here Today” represented a conversation McCartney said he never got to have with Lennon.
“Live and Let Die” wasn’t an encore song, but could have been. Those pyrotechnics I mentioned? No sooner had I written the title of the song in my notepad, I jumped as flames shot up in the air at just the moment the song built to the chorus, followed by fireworks.
Speaking of encores, when McCartney and the band returned to the stage for six more numbers, they arrived carrying huge flags: for the United States, the United Kingdom, North Carolina and a rainbow flag for gay rights. It seemed significant. (Laboriel, the drummer, carried a glass of wine, solidifying his status as scene-stealer of the night.)
Probably what I’ll remember most are the arena singalongs, like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Hey, Jude” and “Let it Be,” complete with swaying hands and cell phone flashlights flickering in the crowd.
When you’re singing the same song with thousands of strangers, you can’t help but feel joy and a sense of unity. As you listen to the decades-old lyrics, the ones that stay with you after the confetti has been swept off the arena floor, they still provide hope in a world that could surely use some.
Paul McCartney Concert Setlist at PNC Arena, Raleigh, NC
Here’s what McCartney played when the Freshen Up tour came to Raleigh with songs from The Beatles, Wings, his solo career and even The Quarrymen, which preceded the Beatles.
1. “A Hard Day’s Night” (The Beatles)
2. “Junior’s Farm” (Wings)
3. “All My Loving” (The Beatles)
4. “Letting Go”
5. “Who Cares”
6. “Got to Get You Into My Life” (The Beatles)
7. “Come On to Me”
8. “Let Me Roll It” (Wings)
9. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (The Beatles)
10. “Let ‘Em In” (Wings)
11. “My Valentine”
12. “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” (Wings)
13. “Maybe I’m Amazed”
14. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (The Beatles)
15. “In Spite of All the Danger” (The Quarrymen)
16. “From Me to You” (The Beatles)
17. “Dance Tonight”
18. “Love Me Do” (The Beatles)
19. “Blackbird” (The Beatles)
20. “Here Today”
21. “Queenie Eye”
22. “Lady Madonna” (The Beatles)
23. “Eleanor Rigby” (The Beatles)
24. “Fuh You”
25. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” (The Beatles)
26. “Something” (The Beatles)
27. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (The Beatles)
28. “Band on the Run” (Wings)
29. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” (The Beatles)
30. “Let It Be” (The Beatles)
31. “Live and Let Die” (Wings)
32. “Hey Jude” (The Beatles)
33. “Birthday” (The Beatles)
34. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)“ (The Beatles)
35. “Helter Skelter” (The Beatles)
36. “Golden Slumbers” (The Beatles)
37. “Carry That Weight” (The Beatles)
38. “The End” (The Beatles)