When it comes to a Paul McCartney concert at a sports venue in 2009, you know what you’re going to get– a little Wings, maybe some solo stuff, a whole lot of Beatles, and some stadium-sized production values, with a fair helping of do-you-feel-like-I-do stage banter. The CD portion of Good Evening New York City cuts to the quick, however, omitting as much banter as possible despite being spread out over two discs. At first, this seems to defeat the purpose of the live-concert-on-disc experience. Without the between-song bits, listeners are left with highly energetic and ruthlessly faithful takes on well-worn songs that more often than not fail to live up to their studio counterparts.
In the case of the truckload of Beatles tunes essayed over the course of Good Evening, the qualitative gap between Citi Field and Abbey Road can be Grand-Canyon-esque. Some might chafe at the decision to use of synthesized strings and horns over actual catgut and brass during tunes like “A Day in the Life”, “Got to Get You Into My Life”, and “Eleanor Rigby”, but that’s as much a matter of logistics as anything– recreating those bits of music for a country-spanning stadium tour might be a task that’s too Herculean for even someone of McCartney’s stature. As for the Wings tunes: old standbys like “Band on the Run”, “Jet”, and “Live And Let Die” are about what you’d expect, as is the sappy/heartfelt dedication to Linda McCartney, Red Rose Speedway’s “My Love”. A pleasant surprise is “Mrs. Vandebilt”, a jaunty Band on the Run cut that might surprise folks that only think of the more famous Band singles when considering Wings.
As contrarian as it might seem to say, McCartney and friends sound their best when they sidestep the greatest-hits cavalcade and give the audience something a little different. These offbeat selections certainly don’t get the same reception as the more famous tunes, but it’s nice to see McCartney give some of his more recent work a proper airing. He actually dips into that well after the first two songs of the show, following up “Drive My Car” and “Jet” with “Only Mama Knows” from Memory Almost Full and the title track from Flaming Pie. For “Only Mama Knows”, the replacement of the original’s real strings with canned ones is actually an improvement, and hearing someone of McCartney’s advanced years sink his teeth into this sordid little ditty about airport-lounge hook-ups is a pleasant surprise. The same goes for “Flaming Pie”, with the live version injecting the song with a sense of playfulness that the version recorded for the album sorely lacks.
The highlight of the concert’s eclectic first-half could be a moving emotionally overcome performance of Tug of War’s “Here Today”, a song written shortly after John Lennon’s death that can still get something in a listener’s eye. McCartney also gives the crowd pleasing versions of Flaming Pie’s “Calico Skies” (one of the better ballads in Macca’s post-Beatles catalog) and the mandolin-driven iPod-shilling single from Memory, “Dance Tonight”, as well as two songs from the Fireman’s Electric Arguments.
After that album’s “Sing the Changes” gives way to “Band on the Run”, though, the concert becomes pure fan service, which, if you can come to terms with some of the show’s aforementioned shortcomings, isn’t half bad. There are some speed bumps along the way, like the treacly “Day in the Life” / “Give Peace a Chance” medley, and a totally duff sped-up and blister-free outro tacked onto an already lackluster run through “Helter Skelter”. On the other hand, “Hey Jude” gives listeners a more palatable sing-along moment, the band rocks more much convincingly on “I’m Down” and “Paperback Writer”, and Macca’s tribute to George Harrison (a take on “Something” that begins with McCartney strumming a ukelele gifted to him by Harrison, with the rest of the band gradually entering the fray as the performance transforms into the version of the song most fans recognize) is the highlight of the entire show.
So while the audio portion of this package loses something in the translation from event to document, the performances are good enough to make some listeners wish they were there to witness the spectacle, which is really all one could ask from a set like this. One would think that the live DVD packaged with Good Evening would make that regret grow a little fonder. One would probably stop thinking that after hearing Alec Baldwin’s hopelessly portentous introductory voice-over. (If Baldwin’s introduction doesn’t wear down your resolve, his equally bombastic outro, paired with a somewhat scary “message to Paul” from an overamped fan, will no doubt do the trick.)
In case you’re not up on your Beatles history: One of the biggest concerts in the Beatles’ career took place in 1965 at Shea Stadium, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets. The McCartney concert documented here takes place across the street from that site at Citi Field, the current home of the Mets. Shea Stadium was closed in 2008, with one of the more notable non-baseball events that year being a Billy Joel concert that featured a McCartney cameo. (Joel’s cameo in Good Evening, adding a little extraneous piano and belting to “I Saw Her Standing There”, was McCartney’s way of “bridging the gap” between Mets homes old and new.) In his introduction, over a slow-motion montage of the events in question, Baldwin recounts these factoids with the gravitas that one would expect from a speaker documenting an actual important moment in history (or an NFL Films highlight package), not a prohibitively priced rock concert. There’s also the matter of Baldwin, and McCartney, repeatedly talking about the July concert “opening” Citi Field. While even diehard Mets fans might agree that the music at these McCartney shows was probably the best thing played at Citi Field in 2009, the Mets celebrated the field’s official opening day way back in April, and played plenty of baseball prior to Sir Paul showing up.
Once the concert actually starts, it’s all fine and good so long as the camera stays trained on the stage. However, for the purposes of this DVD, there were multiple cameras scattered through the stadium, allowing fans to film the concert from their vantage point. It’s a nice idea in theory, to make fans feel part of the event and to give those at home a sense of what it was like to be there. That sort of footage makes for great viewing during some of the sing-alongs, or when the stage pyro goes off during “Live and Let Die”. But when the folks in the editing room decide to cut away from the group to show fans dancing in the concourse area, screaming, or sharing some awkward PDAs with innocent bystanders and/or offering their thoughts on how awesome and amazing the show is, it’s a bit distracting.
The only showy directorial flourish that the Good Evening DVD manages to pull off is, on paper, the most questionable one. During the performance of “I’m Down” (one of the songs played by the Beatles during their Shea show), the film flips back and forth between the modern-day footage and film of the Beatles playing the same song during the Shea concert. There’s a slight disjoint in switching between the elder Paul and his much younger counterparts, never mind the atmosphere of the two shows– the Citi Field crowd isn’t lacking for enthusiasm, but they’d need a lot more sugar in their diet to match the unfettered frenzy that the Shea crowd achieves. As McCartney recounts between songs, the band could barely hear themselves over the Shea crowd, thanks in no small part to having their performance pumped through the stadium’s rickety PA system. The performance footage definitely corroborates that– McCartney breathlessly screams out the song’s words, while Lennon and Harrison convene near an electric piano, offering their harmonies in a state of shock and awe, and with Lennon giving the keys a pounding worthy of Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s a shame that the filmmakers couldn’t (or wouldn’t) offer more footage of the Shea show as a bonus to this package.
If anything, one of the pluses of these crowd inserts is they distract from McCartney’s cornier bits of stage patter, as well as some of the more regrettable images used as backdrops. This isn’t to say that it’s not fun to hear McCartney talk about how a faux-classical guitar lick he and Harrison used to play as teenagers became the basis for “Blackbird”, or to see footage of the Band on the Run cover-art photo shoot play behind the band on the big screen. It’s just a bit of a bummer when Macca resorts to tried-and-true Pavlovian call-and-response between-song shtick while switching between instruments, and even the most zealous Obama supporter would probably find it a bit much to see the President’s visage drawn and redrawn in twinkling multi-colored lights during “Sing the Changes”. Of course, touches like this– the banter, the backdrops, the shots of the crowd– are endemic of what Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman called “McCartney’s unwavering dedication to maintaining his cheery, ‘cute one’ persona.” To expect anything different at a show of this magnitude, or of a document of said show, would be expecting too much. But where the music in Good Evening manages to mostly please without much compromise, the visual documentation of said music bends over backwards to make itself palatable to only the most fervent of fans.