A McCartney Tour Guide

Usually, when a music legend announces, "And here's a song from my latest record," the unspoken response from the audience is "OK, but you'd better follow it with some hits." Sometimes this dynamic makes sense; mega-artists tend to draw big crowds even after the muse of inspiration has long since left the building. But as Paul McCartney prepares to play seven dates in four U.S. cities this summer, he happens to be floating on a raft of recent material that ranges from good to great. You could draw up a fascinating set list just from the snappy Memory Almost Full, the sophisticated Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, and the wild-as-"Helter Skelter" Electric Arguments (released under The Fireman moniker in 2008). The sad thing is we'll probably never hear that kind of Macca concert.

There are two reasons. The more obvious one is that nostalgia-seeking boomers would drown out the music by screaming bloody murder. The less evident—and more mysterious—explanation is that McCartney doesn't appear willing to challenge us in concert the way he still does on record. With McCartney, more than any other artist of his longevity and stature, there's a disconnect between the songs he writes and the ones he performs for crowds. Bob Dylan, for example, is still configuring radically new versions of old classics with his current road band. Yet who else of McCartney's generation is flexible enough to stretch his or her boundaries in the studio by working with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, or by making left-field electronica with an ex-member of Killing Joke? If you didn't know about those records, that's probably because in concert—and on TV broadcasts—we get quite a lot of "Drive My Car" from Sir Paul.

Please stop composing your angry letters. No one in his right mind would seriously advise McCartney to abjure the Beatles' catalog altogether in concert. Some songs you just have to play—no argument. Selecting tunes from McCartney's back pages for a two-hour show is a difficult task—but, as they say, it's one of those good kinds of problems. This tour will be even tougher than others. There's no fresh album to promote, and McCartney will likely feel the need to tip his hat to Michael Jackson, perhaps by playing one of their co-written numbers. That's all fine; tending to the memory of the departed is part of a survivor's duty, after all. But perhaps some of his less essential material—think "Mrs. Vanderbilt"—can be replaced with more modern tracks, and not just the recent songs that sound like Wings-era outtakes. McCartney doesn't always get his due as an experimentalist on par with John Lennon, but in order to right that reputation, he need not devote so much time lobbying for the release of oddball Beatles material such as "Carnival of Light." Happily, he has some fresher arguments to make—if only he'd take a cue from the title of one of his newer (and superb) songs. It's called "Sing the Changes."

A McCartney Tour Guide | Culture