Paul McCartney, 02 Arena, London

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The simple act of rolling up his shirtsleeves brought Paul McCartney a round of applause at the O2 Arena. It was a night for veneration. And why not? Here was the most successful songwriter in the history of popular music, a man who has brought more pleasure to more people than probably any other living performer. The fan with a sign offering to swap his girlfriend for one of Macca’s plectrums took the sentiment a bit far, but summed up the general mood.

Unfortunately veneration doesn’t necessarily make for a thrilling rock concert. And so it proved with McCartney’s nearly three-hour set, which seemed designed primarily to advertise the 67-year-old’s vitality.

He was on the last date of his “Good Evening Europe” tour, which opened at the start of the month in the Beatles’ old stamping ground, Hamburg. Almost 50 years after he cut his teeth playing to GIs in Reeperbahn bars, McCartney is still slugging away.

Yet there is something disproportionate about his determination to stay relevant in the eyes of the world. Performing on The X Factor this month he resembled a giant trying to cram himself into Lilliput. It’s as if one of the few pop composers to merit the term “genius” still needs public approval to feel he matters.

The set opened with “Magical Mystery Tour” sounding like it was on steroids, with brash chords from two guitarists and hammering drumbeats. The message was clear – Macca still rocks! – but the effect was sludgy. A riff-heavy “Drive My Car” was better, and the Wings hit “Jet” found McCartney, feathery hair hinting at the mullet of yesteryear, in full 1970s power-rock mode.

Like Big Ben’s chimes, there’s something comfortingly familiar about McCartney with his Rickenbacker bass in full flow. His voice struggles to hit the higher notes but he sounded lusty enough on a series of straightforward rockers past and present, from a muscular “Highway” from 2008’s Fireman album to 1973’s “Let Me Roll with It”, which morphed into a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”, McCartney playing lead guitar with effortless virtuosity.

This was followed by a series of piano ballads – clumsily rendered by a backing band that sounded more comfortable rocking out – including tributes for Linda McCartney (“My Love”) and John Lennon (the mawkish “Here Today”). Then came a disconcerting shift in tone with “Dance Tonight”, a mandolin-driven hoe-down from 2007’s Memory Almost Full: McCartney at his most inanely cheerful.

Equally ill-judged was a ukelele cover of the George Harrison-penned “Something”, introduced by a comical George Formby impression. Intended as a mark of respect to his fallen Beatle comrade, who apparently loved the ukelele, it inadvertently came across as a subtle form of disparagement. One
of Harrison’s chief gripes in the Beatles was with McCartney’s rearrangements of his songs.

So the set continued, oscillating wildly between styles, an indulgent self-portrait of McCartney as the Renaissance man of pop. There was Caledonian kitsch in “Mull of Kintyre”, complete with Highland marching band; sentimental seasonal greetings with “Wonderful Christmas Time”; the homily “Give Peace a Chance”; gospel-rock of “Let It Be”; and the Beatles-go-reggae novelty number “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”.

Some focus came with warhorse “Live and Let Die”, announced with fireworks and explosions. A series of encores of punchy Beatles tracks followed, including an electrifying “Helter Skelter”. But the highlight of this overlong, exhausting show came earlier, when McCartney, alone with an acoustic guitar, performed a touching, unadorned “Blackbird”. Even for a musical polymath, less can sometimes be more. ()

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