Thursday night at the Smoothie King Center, the former member of The Beatles and Wings did more than he had to. 

paul mccartney photo by steph catsoulis for my spilt milk
Paul McCartney at the Smoothie King Center, by Steph Catsoulis

[Updated] I give Paul McCartney credit. He doesn’t have to try this hard. He’s wealthy in ways few of us can imagine, and he has been knighted. He’s 76 and only Bob Dylan among his contemporaries tours as frequently. McCartney could lay out on the island of his choosing for the rest of his life, but instead he’s on yet another world tour, and flew from Brazil to New Orleans to play the first show of his North American tour Thursday night at the Smoothie King Center. 

Not only does he stay on the road, but he continues to invest time, money and energy in new material. Billy Joel threw in the towel on new songs and new albums when he realized that his fans weren’t interested in anything but the songs they already knew, and he’s not the only one to do so. McCartney hasn’t gone that way though, and his Egypt Station made Billboard’s Top 50 Critics’ Choices list last year. It made news when it debuted at Number One on Billboard’s album charts the week of its release, but it only held the spot for a week and nine weeks later, it was out of the charts altogether. People are casually interested in his new music—a fact he’s very aware of. He explained Thursday night that he can tell what fans like because he can see the lights of their phones as they shoot videos of Wings and Beatles favorites. 

“We do a new song—it’s a black hole,” he joked. 

But he played three songs from Egypt Station anyway, and one—“Who Cares”—was the earworm I dealt with all morning. McCartney explained that it was an anti-bullying song, which might have been a bolder stance and got more love if there were more than 10 people in the building high school age or younger. Still, there was something at stake for the song and the other newer ones. McCartney doesn’t have decades of seeing them engage the crowd, and he knows that much of the audience would let everything but a few Wings songs go in favor of wall-to-wall Beatles. He and those songs still have to fight for their place each night, to the extent that McCartney has to fight for anything with the adoring crowds that he attracts. 

And for the most part, he succeeded. I had a hard time focusing on “Queenie Eye” from 2013’s New because it was accompanied by outtakes from the star-studded video that his son-in-law Simon Aboud, and I found myself scouring the video to spot celebrity guests Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Meryl Streep, Tracey Ullman and more. The song was pleasant but not strong enough to assert its place in that context, and even though “Dance Tonight” has frequently been on setlists since he released the song in 2007 and won a Grammy for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance, its lyrical emptiness was a reminder that McCartney could do that on occasion. I’ll defend “Wonderful Christmastime,” but it’s a lyrical sketch at most, and he not only recorded the sad faux-music hall “You Gave Me the Answer” on Venus and Mars but on the live album Wings Over America.

Still, the post-Wings material held up just fine, and those songs’ presence in the setlist demonstrates McCartney’s commitment to his present as well as his past. His present occasionally reminds us of his age as his range isn’t what it used to be, but he’s inventive enough to find ways for his band to cover him. Drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. picked up some of the punctuating shouts, and Laboriel, guitarist Rusty Anderson and keyboard player Paul Wickens helped fill out moments when McCartney’s voice showed signs of age. Still, there were occasions when he let people hear him struggle because it added drama. The intensity of his vocal performance on “Maybe I’m Amazed” powered the song when he recorded it in 1970, and that intensity only grew as his voice became more raspy Thursday night. 

Fortunately, McCartney’s idea of the present is largely confined to musical and cultural confines the he understands. His newer songs are well inside his musical vocabulary, and when he added new touches to songs, those elements were ones he and his long-time audience understood. He attached an instrumental jam based on Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” to the end of “Let Me Roll It,” and he played the first verse of his tribute to George Harrison, “Something,” on ukulele—and instrument he and Harrison were both fascinated with. The rhythm briefly changed with it, but the full band kicked in at the chorus and it became the song as fans know it.

Because McCartney’s McCartney, he had access to a substantial archive of Beatles and Wings’ photos and video, and some of the photos of Harrison were pretty great. Similarly, while McCartney played “Band on the Run,” a video ran behind him showing the photo shoot for the cover of the album with him, Linda McCartney, actors James Coburn and Christopher Lee, and a handful of others posing as escaped felons in front of a wall in a spotlight. 

The presentation—not the performance—did periodically reflect on his age in a less assured way. A Cirque du Soleil/“Love” vibe occasionally aged the show by trying unsuccessfully to seem current, such as the opening DJ who played remixes of The Beatles and Wings songs that McCartney wasn’t going to get to, but none reflected any awareness of what remixes in clubs sound like these days. The faux-Peter Max visuals and some A-Ha/“Take on Me” animation of the young Beatles got us as far forward chronologically as the early ’80s, and the inexplicable, psychedelic video that accompanied the closing suite from Abbey Road was simply absurd. At one point, giant battle yaks strode over hills and valleys with lyres stuck to their foreheads as they pounded war drums with the Sgt. Pepper logo. Soon after, AT-AT Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back camel-walked around a globe while floating whales with keyboard faces swam by in the air. I’d love for these images to be evidence of the quality of weed available to someone with McCartney’s resources, but more likely he signed off on visuals that remind us of his age as they highlight the difference between what he thinks is cool and what’s cool.

That said, McCartney knows who his audience is, and while there were young people in the crowd, fifty- and sixtysomethings dominated. They were there for Beatles songs first, then a handful of Wings songs, and that’s what he gave them. Even in that rubric though, McCartney found ways to make sure he ran the show and wasn’t simply their human jukebox. He didn’t play “Yesterday” or “The Long and Winding Road” or “Jet,” and he included “Letting Go” from Wings at the Speed of Sound, “I’ve Got a Feeling” from Let it Be, and “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” the latter with some particularly egregious Cirque du Soleil graphics. Still, the faithful got “Lady Madonna,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let it Be” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” as well as a handful of Beatlemania-era favorites. 

Late in the show, he played “Live and Let Die,” complete with pyro, concussion shells, fireworks and lasers, and he demonstrated the kind of wisdom that comes with more than 50 years on the boards. The excitement generated by the song and the onstage mayhem seemed like a natural set-ender, but McCartney carried on because he has discovered that the only thing people like more than blowing shit up is singing along. He finished instead with “Hey Jude,” with the audience spontaneously singing along passionately. McCartney never had to coax fans to sing, though he did go through the usual sing-along games, getting the guys to sing, then the ladies—who crushed the guys—then everybody. The theatrics were corny, but McCartney has always had a corny streak, and despite them, the moment was much like Diana Ross’ performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” at Jazz Fest. The song itself was fine, but it felt like a genuine moment to hear it while the audience lost its collective mind.

McCartney didn’t hide from his age, nor did he make an issue of it. It is a fact of life so he deals with it, but he also stayed true to his conception of himself as a musician. He kept his band tight with only a drummer, one keyboard player, a guitarist, and a guitarist/bassist. He had a small horn section that appeared when needed, and he carried his own weight as a musician on bass, guitar, and piano. It wasn’t necessary, nor was a show that approached three hours by the end of the encore. He has the dough to hire musicians to lighten his own musical load. He doesn’t have to work this hard.    

paul mccartney photo by steph catsoulis for my spilt milk Paul McCartney on stage in New Orleans, by Steph Catsoulis

Updated May 25, 6:57 a.m.

The photos by Steph Catsoulis were added to the post, replacing publicity art.