When Paul McCartney came to Miller Park in July of 2013, Milwaukeeans made some silent calculations and determined that this would probably be our last chance to see the Beatle perform. Some 43,000 of us coughed up a hundred bucks or more to witness a 71-year-old grandpa play rock star—only it turned out that this grandpa was more like some kind of superhuman, performing for three hours on an oppressively hot night that exhausted fans half his age. We’ll go out on a limb and say that nobody but nobody walked out of that stadium disappointed. McCartney made it more than worth our while with a rock show for the ages. If he still had anything left to prove, surely this was it.
Then, a few months later, he put out a preposterously good new album, NEW, and the live dates kept coming. It still seemed unlikely that the touring cycle would return to Wisconsin, but in the end, how could Sir Paul pass up the opportunity to headline the world’s largest music festival? It was probably the only one left he hadn’t conquered.
The Marcus Amphitheater can only hold about half the capacity of Miller Park, making Friday’s sold-out show feel like a relatively intimate, bonus go-’round for the diehards, and McCartney didn’t disappoint. The “One On One” tour features quite a few changes from 2013’s “Out There” jaunt, and not just the requisite smattering of tunes from NEW. He opened with the Beatles classic “A Hard Day’s Night,” which, somewhat shockingly, he’d never performed as a solo artist prior to this year. Other relative rarities included the soulful Venus And Mars cut “Letting Go” and the bizarre 1980 single “Temporary Secretary,” a geeky delight which got an even less enthusiastic crowd response than the new songs.
McCartney only played three NEW tracks—”Save Us,” “Queenie Eye” and the title track—but he also treated the crowd to a truncated rendition of his 2015 collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West, “FourFiveSeconds,” pushing his voice to its upper limits and somehow pulling it off. Indeed, although he sometimes sounded raspy talking in between songs, he didn’t seem to have lost much clarity since his last Milwaukee visit while singing. He belted out “Maybe I’m Amazed” like he was still trying to impress a new girlfriend, imperfect but impassioned, and his poignant rendition of the civil-rights ballad “Blackbird” was strikingly beautiful, in stark contrast to his struggles in singing this tune over a decade ago at the Bradley Center.
The setlist also delved further into the past than at Miller Park, all the way into pre-Beatles territory for the Quarrymen tune “In Spite Of All The Danger,” which McCartney announced as the first song he and his mates had ever recorded. Another Beatles track making its Paul-solo debut this year: the band’s first single, “Love Me Do,” stirring in its simplicity during a brief acoustic-based segment. The visual backdrop for this portion of the show appeared to be images of rustic townhouses, and it truly felt like we were being taken on a historic journey rather than just singing along to a string of hits. This palpable narrative element was the key detail that set this performance apart from the Miller Park show.
Then again, maybe we were simply amazed that two McCartney shows three years apart could feel so different, despite an overlap of 23 songs out of 38. Aside from a few choice anecdotes he recycles tour after tour, the master craftsman seemed intent on demystifying his songwriting process over the course of the night. When he started strumming a simple descending chord progression while discussing the randomness of inspiration, few recognized that it was actually the Rubber Soul nugget “You Won’t See Me.” He described the genesis of the psychedelic novelty “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” as being ripped straight from a random poster hanging on the wall at John Lennon’s flat.
Songwriting may not be rocket science, but nobody’s done it better, more consistently, across more genres of music, for anywhere near as long as Paul McCartney. Does he have another great album in him? Another symphony? Another tour? In a year that’s seen pop icons dying off at an alarming rate, these two hours and forty minutes felt perhaps more precious and urgent than they otherwise would have. At the end of it all, the living legend paused knowingly and left us with the words, “See you next time…”