You're a treasure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2007, 12:00am

With the final bars of opening number Drive My Car still ringing in their ears, Paul McCartney raised his index finger to his lips, licked it and then lifted it in the direction of the 1,000 assembled for his first British show since 2004. Of all the performer-to-audience icebreakers, this 'You're hot' to the rogue's gallery of monied middle-aged faces assembled in London's Electric Ballroom - most of whom looked as if they'd rustled a free ticket - seemed almost entirely inappropriate.

This isn't to say there wasn't enthusiasm in the air. This was, after all, a rare opportunity to see a Beatle playing the Beatles in a venue chosen specifically for its intimacy, but a sense of sheer curiosity seemed to be keeping the temperature in check.

There was also a distinct air of sobriety. Anyone under the age of 25 - and there were few - appeared to be accompanied by well-heeled parents. The concert was supposed to have been secret, but in these days of PR spin, this had become a marketing tool in itself. London's The Evening Standard had even offered tickets to 10 callers to a premium-rate telephone hotline, and the show was publicised, rather desperately, on the radio and internet.

The large crowd that had gathered outside, ostensibly to grab a quota of first-come-first served admissions, seemed to have swelled by the time the show was over, suggesting that most were there to gawp at the celebrities on the guest list leaving rather than to see the great man perform. (That this list included former 007 Pierce Brosnan, former Arsenal FC David Dein, actress Emma Thompson and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour - no sign of Oasis' Gallagher brothers, although Kate Moss arrived belatedly - might have proved a disappointment and underlined the fact that, for all the publicists' efforts, this wasn't to be the hippest night on the London calendar).

And although he has always seemed to insist that, with him, it's all about McCartney the music, on this evening it was going to be a great deal about McCartney the man. The reasons for this were simple: a lot of troubled water has passed under the McCartney bridge during the past three years, not least the divorce from second wife Heather Mills, a split to which the word acrimonious doesn't begin to do justice. It's not that anyone in this audience surely could have believed the stories from her camp of his drunken, cruel and misogynist behaviour. But they've left a few nagging questions about a character we'd taken for granted as reliably nice for so long.

And here was the man himself, conveniently up close. Perhaps a momentary steely gaze or a stolen shrug might betray an insight into a personality different to one that we'd assumed for all those years.

Then there's the small matter of McCartney's new deal with Starbucks' Hear Music, after his departure from long-term label EMI. Sell-out has been the cry. Even Mick Jagger joined the chorus of disapproval.

McCartney chose to put it this way on a video feed at distributor Concord Music Group's annual general meeting. 'It's a new world now and people are thinking of new ways to reach the people, and that's always been my aim.'

Perhaps this concert would tell us whether this defence is valid and whether his new album, Memory Almost Full, is good enough and relevant enough to merit doing a deal with a company that many would rather protest against than accept their cheques.

But the perennial question on everyone's lips was: Has the newly single McCartney, with a new label and album, the man who wrote Yesterday, Let it Be and Blackbird, still got it in him to write a modern melodic masterpiece?

Flanked by the muscular forms of guitarist Rusty Anderson and bassist Brian Ray, both of whom seemed to be bursting out of crisp black shirts, Macca looked almost frail in a shapeless striped T-shirt, tucked into black jeans that made no attempt to disguise his wide hips.

McCartney has always looked like a man whose aesthetic expression skills stopped developing in his early teens and he's been putty in the hands of a succession of gay managers and women of varyingly good choice, in this respect, ever since. Mills reportedly complained of, and tried to adjust, his dress sense during their marriage, although quite why she thought he would listen to her rather than his fashion designer daughter Stella might offer the divorce lawyers a clue about his second wife's grip on reality.

What seemed clear was that he certainly doesn't resemble a man who drinks too much, exercises vainly, basks under artificial ultraviolet rays or frets in fashion designer stores. He looks like a healthy 64-year-old more than content in his own skin and clothing. There was no mention of the divorce nor of Hear Music - just a genuine-sounding, 'It's been a long time since we did a show like this. We ought to do it more often.'

And so, armed with a ukulele and with that inimitable lollop of the head - for McCartney, music has always come from the neck, not from the loins - he began to make a case for his new material with the typically chirpy Dance Tonight. For a supposedly ring-rusty performer, he soon dispelled any doubts about whether he can cut it live.

The band helped - Anderson and Ray were more than happy to help shoulder the showmanship responsibilities - and McCartney's forays into dubious classical cross-over projects haven't dented his ability to knit into a rock'n'roll unit. But what Dance Tonight and the other new material on show lacked was that quality almost all McCartney classic compositions possess - an element of harmonic surprise (you don't have to look as far back as the Beatles for that; think Live and Let Die or even Band on the Run by the much-maligned Wings). Had any other musician performed it, somehow it wouldn't have been so noticeable, but the chord progressions were somehow too predictably McCartney to stand out as potential classics.

Two more Memory Almost Full tracks followed and I don't think I was alone in growing impatient. The monotony was wonderfully broken with a cheery Follow the Sun, but it wasn't until McCartney completely surrendered to the call for the Beatles archive that the mercury really started to rise.

A solo Blackbird was greeted with whooping applause, as was a heartfelt Here Today, plucked from 1982's Tug of War, dedicated to late wife Linda, John Lennon and George Harrison. But the highlight was a cracking rendition of Back in the USSR - possibly owing to the relish with which Anderson and Ray took their supporting roles, but more possibly because it's a song that seems to best encapsulate that moment when young British white men grabbed the rhythm and blues idiom and wrought it into a sound more exciting than anything before.

With momentum now firmly on his side, McCartney followed this with a cover of Carl Perkins' Matchbox, Get Back, Lady Madonna, Hey Jude, Let it Be and Just Seventeen. And with the renditions of these one question was more than resoundingly answered.

For the Brits, at least, Paul McCartney is a national treasure. It's not for his audience-participation skills, it's not for his activism, it's not for his taste in lovers and, cruel though this may sound, it's not for the music he makes today. It's for those compositions of yesteryear. And neither Heather Mills nor some nasty multinational corporation can ever take those away.