Sir Paul McCartney had a word to describe the scene at Amoeba Music in Hollywood on Wednesday night: surreal. The ex-Beatle used that adjective twice during his 1 1/2-hourlong set, gazing out at the delirious crowd pushed up against the record racks during what might just have been the greatest in-store performance this ground zero of in-stores has ever seen.
"I'd just like to take a little moment to ... just take this all in, OK?" McCartney said, having gotten up from the piano after "The Long and Winding Road." He sang a quick "Happy Birthday" to somebody near the front, then opted for audience participation.
"You look like the creatures in 'Village of the Damned,' " he joked, referring to the English horror film.
McCartney then asked the crowd to imitate the film's creatures, adopting a slack-jawed monster face himself. His fans, some of whom had lined up two days earlier for this ultra-rare gig, concurred only briefly. They couldn't keep the smiles off their faces.
Bouncing through a tight set mostly consisting of Beatles standards and new tunes from his Starbucks-sponsored return to form, "Memory Almost Full," McCartney seemed genuinely jazzed by devotees at his feet. He talked about how silly he was getting during these intimate shows -- he's also made stops in London and New York -- and blew funny little kisses to prove it. The music itself was well-rehearsed and uncluttered, but in the midst of it, McCartney let go.
His delight proved that Amoeba was the right spot for this event. A club or theater might have made for better sightlines and more predictable sound (actually, the sound was fine), but it wouldn't have had the communal aura of this fan fair. Here, the 800 or so folks in their Wings T-shirts and Sgt. Pepper jackets -- plus a few hard-to-spot celebs, most notably Ringo Starr, who got a shout-out from his old pal at show's end -- could bask directly in each other's joy. And with no fourth wall to protect him, McCartney could let that mood get under his skin.
Joy is what the artist formerly known as "the cute Beatle" is all about. McCartney has written some exquisite sad songs; he silenced the room with "Blackbird" and choked up as he picked an acoustic guitar during "Here Today," the meditation he penned after John Lennon's death (now also meant for his late wife Linda and bandmate George Harrison). But the music always turned back toward bliss, brought there by the weightless melodies and effervescent rhythms that still make McCartney pop's irresistible Cupid.
Moving nimbly from bass to guitar to piano to mandolin, McCartney led his faithful touring band through interesting choices, including the Wings B-side "C Moon" and "Matchbox," a Carl Perkins song the Beatles first recorded live in Germany in 1962, without skimping on the necessities. Songs such as "The Long and Winding Road," "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Hey Jude" can't feel fresh to McCartney -- they don't feel fresh to virtually anyone with ears. But he gave them his best for the millionth time, spinning out piano flourishes on the ballads and tasty licks on the rockers.
What saved those old songs, in a way, were the new ones. "Memory Almost Full" is a reawakening, and the songs McCartney chose from it had that alarm-clock effect. "Dance Tonight" was a return to the jaunty haiku of his early solo albums; "House of Wax" proved an experiment, its eerie tone touching on progressive rock. This looseness touched the old material too; you could hear it in the extra whoops McCartney nailed during "I've Got a Feeling" and his vampy almost-scatting of "Get Back."
There was even a point, during "Hey Jude," when it seemed like he might start beat-boxing. But then he cast his glance back at the crowd, unwaveringly engaged in the inevitable chorus of "Nah nah nah." Smiling, he rode the wave.
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What he sang
Paul McCartney's 20-song set list for his performance Wednesday night at Amoeba Music in Hollywood was the same one he used in previous small-scale shows June 7 in London and June 13 in New York:
"Drive My Car"
"Only Mama Knows"
"The Long and Winding Road"
"I'll Follow the Sun"
"That Was Me"
"Back in the U.S.S.R."
"Nod Your Head"
"House of Wax"
"I've Got a Feeling"
"Let It Be"
"I Saw Her Standing There"