December 6, 2011 1:06 pm

Paul McCartney, O2 Arena, London

Paul McCartney hit the nail on the head when he sang, “You say goodbye, I say hello,” on his opening number, The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye”. As he approaches 70, people come to his shows in the expectation he can’t go on forever. Yet McCartney plays on precisely as if he will go on forever.

He is a Cliff Richard-ian vision of eternal youth with his chestnut thatch of hair and amazing repertoire of cheesy stage gestures: lifting a finger and pretending to burn it – as in “Yow, that version of ‘Hello, Goodbye’ was hot!” – or pausing on arrival to scratch his chin and point at the audience with mock puzzlement. You guys are here for little old moi?

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There were “goodbyes” in the show but they were directed at fellow Beatles: his touching tribute to John Lennon, “Here Today”, and a cover of the George Harrison-penned “Something”. The latter was initially played on a ukulele, George being, we were told, “a great ukulele player” – which rather underplayed his talents. But the uke was ditched a few bars in, and McCartney and his backing band proceeded to play a respectfully powerful version of the song. Lennon’s and Harrison’s mortality was properly acknowledged – and so was the happier fact of Macca’s endurance.

It was a marathon set lasting 160 minutes but it didn’t sag. His touring band, with him since 2002, was stripped-back and focused: just two guitarists, a keyboardist and a drummer. McCartney ranged fluently between bass, electric and acoustic guitars, a mandolin, the wretched ukulele and a grand piano. His guitar solos were superb: he appears to be reinventing himself as an axe hero in his dotage.

The opening suite of songs mixed rockier Beatles tracks (“Paperback Writer”, a dynamic “Drive My Car”) with 1970s rockers such as Wings’ “Juniors Farm”, a terrific power-pop stomper. “Long and Winding Road” announced a downwards shift in tempo, leading to “Blackbird”, played alone on an acoustic guitar: McCartney, voice crumbling a little, uncharacteristically fluffed a note. The fallibility added to the song’s frail tenderness.

A knockout “Back in the USSR” ramped the mood back up while “I’ve Got a Feeling” was a scorching guitar workout with a wild lead vocal from Macca. Then it was into the reliable old warhorses: “Live and Let Die”, “Hey Jude”, “Let It Be”. Ronnie Wood made a guest appearance, adding a sleazy Stonesy swagger to “Get Back”. On his way offstage, McCartney, as if struck by an afterthought, walked back to the microphone. “We’ll see you next time,” he announced brightly.

4 stars

www.paulmccartney.com

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