[Hear Music; 2009]

The concept behind Paul McCartney’s latest live offering, Good Evening New York City, is a simple one: since The Beatles’ legendary 1965 performance at Shea Stadium quite literally invented the stadium show as a rock-and-roll idiom, why not have McCartney perform the first rock concert at Citi Field, the New York Mets’ shiny new replacement home? It’s a move that makes complete sense, and for his part, Sir Paul and his excellent touring band deliver a two-hour set that does no disservice to his reputation as a live performer, even if it is only occasionally truly memorable.

There’s not a whole lot to say about McCartney’s live shows that hasn’t been said a million times before. His longtime backing band, featuring guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray, keyboardist Paul Wickens, and drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr., has only grown tighter over the years, and do a commendable job of faithfully recreating Beatles classics and injecting energy into McCartney’s sometimes stiff solo material. The setlist is about what you’d expect it to be, getting the recent stuff out of the way early on and devoting pretty much the entire second half to Beatles songs. The Beatles selections are, of course, unassailable, leaning heavily towards the “Hey Jude”/”Let it Be”/”Long and Winding Road”-level anthems but occasionally surprising with smartly chosen nuggets like “Paperback Writer” and “I’m Down.” The Wings and solo songs range from very good (“Jet,” “Band on the Run,” “Live and Let Die”) to utterly forgettable (“Mrs. Vanderbilt,” “Under Calico Skies”), but the show is paced well enough that they never feel intrusive.

The major flaw with Good Evening New York City is that it does away with all of the between-song stage banter. Granted, not all of it is essential, but McCartney’s rendition of “Something” feels weirdly empty without the touching anecdote he tells at his shows about George Harrison giving him the ukelele on which he plays part of the song. It’s one of the highlights of the show, especially when the rest of the band comes in halfway through to finish the song in a manner closer to the Abbey Road original. The fact that this particular speech was edited out makes me think that McCartney probably wasn’t that heavily involved in the editing process. I’ve seen him live twice, seven years apart, and he told the same story both times, so he must consider it important, which leaves me scratching my head as to why it was left out. The same goes for Billy Joel’s cameo in “I Saw Her Standing There,” rendered completely pointless without the context, which is that McCartney guested at Joel’s 2008 show that closed Shea Stadium. In fact, if it weren’t for a brief “Billy Joel, everybody!” at the end of the song, you wouldn’t even know he was there. The lack of audience interaction leaves Good Evening New York City feeling like an impeccably executed greatest hits collection that nobody would ever choose to listen to instead of the original versions of the songs.

I saw McCartney’s headlining set at Coachella this past April, and it was a blast. I would absolutely recommend his live show to anyone if they’ve got the cash. But a huge part of the appeal of a Paul McCartney concert – the reason people continue to drop upwards of $250 on the best seats every time he tours – is that several times during any given show it will suddenly dawn on you that the guy onstage right in front of you used to be in The Beatles. And he’s playing Beatles songs live, and you’re seeing it in person. The God-in-the-flesh element just doesn’t fully translate to a live album. The bottom line: Beatles fans could do a whole lot worse than picking up Good Evening New York City, but it’s far from essential.