My ideal concert venue is an abandoned barn.
Hear me out: It’s surrounded by empty fields, all quiet and attentive to themselves. It’s dark, but not frightening: you feel welcome, you’ve only stopped here for the night. The roof is patchy, the windows and doors open to the night air, the sky wild and soft. A single ukulele is strumming lightly, and all around the countryside, the stars turn and drizzle like rain.
The thing is, I didn’t even know this was my ideal concert venue until last night. I know now because I experienced it — that same barn, that same soft night — inside a stadium full of thousands of people. The countryside was in the middle of Detroit, and the person strumming the ukulele was Paul McCartney.
This sounds cheesy, so I’ll backpedal a little. This was my second time seeing McCartney live. Walking into the venues (which are almost invariably enormous), it’s not hard to get a sense that the concert has already started. Even if the lights are still on and the artist is nowhere to be seen, the other aspects that give the concert value — the hype, the variety, the feeling of togetherness — are already present. Fans mill around, buying drinks, finding their seats. Some of them are elderly, some are teenagers and children. Many wear shirts declaring their primary allegiances — The Beatles, Wings, even solo McCartney.
And everyone, it seems through my rose-colored glasses, is excited. Everyone is smiling. The stranger in the seat next to mine tells me he’s never seen McCartney before, but he can’t wait, he’s wanted this for so many years.
When McCartney comes out, he does it with a bang. He waves hello, and from his open-faced smile, you’d never know he’d played this exact same venue the night before. You’d never know that none of this was strange to him — at least, one wouldn’t expect for it to be. He slams the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a chord that sends everyone in the stadium into instant cheers, and then he’s off. We’re all off.
It quickly becomes clear that it wasn’t just the opening song — the entire concert is going to happen with a bang. He reels through fast-paced rockers like “Save Us,” “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Drive My Car,” and classic seventies-guitar songs like “Letting Go” and “Let Me Roll It.” He launches from the middle of “A Day in the Life” straight into the refrain of “Give Peace a Chance.” Stagelight explores the far reaches of the stadium, showering us in colors that seem to shift with every minute. Balls of fire and literal fireworks explode onto the stage multiple times during the chorus of “Live and Let Die.” Later, when he sprints back out for an encore, confetti bursts from cannons, and McCartney and the other musicians run across the stage with giant flags rippling behind them (American, Union Jack and rainbow). When the show is finally over, he disappears magician-style behind white clouds of smoke and confetti that will probably take at least half an hour to disappear from the stage.
The special effect that remains throughout the entire show is the screen behind the stage. Every song is complemented by some sort of visual counterpart. There are reanimated photographs of Wings members during “Band on the Run,” and of himself and his baby daughter when he sings “Maybe I’m Amazed” in honor of the late Linda McCartney. A montage-style video plays in the background while he slams through “Lady Madonna” on the piano, showing photographs and footage of working women and mothers, all over the world and from all different time periods, dancing in unison, sprinting across finish lines.
It’s maybe a third of the way through the concert when the old barn assembles itself on the screen. The stars prop themselves up one by one around the stadium as people turn on the flashlights on their phones and lift them high. They’re closer than real stars — tangible, the kind you might actually risk a wish on. McCartney tells us a story about how he and The Quarrymen recorded this song on their first demo ever, and then he and his fellow musicians play “In Spite of All the Danger,” with harmonies so fine-tuned you wouldn’t think they were live, or coming from live people. It’s a perfect moment and it feels as though he’s singing with all of us, as individuals.
There are plenty of loaded moments throughout the concert, which is three hours long and practically nonstop. There are the tributes to George Martin (“Love Me Do”), George Harrison (“Something”) and, of course, John Lennon (“Here Today”), which comes along with a word of advice from Paul to never wait to tell people you love them, even if it feels silly, because you never know when it might be too late. There’s the performance of “Blackbird,” during which a platform slowly raises McCartney up and digital flowers appear blooming on the new wall beneath him. There’s “Hey Jude,” the last song before the encore, which has the entire stadium on our feet and singing in total unison. He even brings people up on stage: a father with a daughter who gets her arm signed by McCartney, and two excited fans here all the way from Japan.
But later, when I bring myself back to the present and look back, the moment that has lasted with me the most is the barn, with the stars of strangers lighting up all around. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Midwest, driving through empty fields and exploring old buildings and making haphazard wishes. If you ask someone else who went to the same show, they’ll probably have found home in a different moment: maybe the pumping singalong of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” or the hardcore metal of “Helter Skelter,” or the Abbey Road medley that closed out the encore.
But I think that’s one of the things that makes McCartney’s concerts so special: He wants you to find a home in his work. He’s one of the most famous and enduring popular musicians of all time; he could probably charge the same amount of money for a shorter concert with half as many special effects. But he wants you to find something that really lands with you — or, at least, he gives the genuine impression that he does. And he wants to give everybody a complete experience; it’s like he doesn’t want to leave you wishing for anything if he can help it.
“We’re gonna play some old songs, some new songs and some in-between songs,” he said, right before launching into “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and so he did — spanning all the way from the oldest major song in his repertoire (“In Spite of All the Danger”) to the latest (“FourFiveSeconds”). Whether you were one of those fans who were here for The Beatles or for Wings or just for whatever McCartney felt like playing, your bases were covered.
McCartney also made it clear that he could easily tell which songs we all liked, because the stadium would “light up like a galaxy” whenever he played an old Beatles song, but when he switched to something newer, it would be “like a black hole.”
“But we don’t care!” he added. “We’re going to play them anyway!”
And he did — he played “My Valentine” on the piano for his wife, Nancy, and ripped through songs like “Queenie Eye” and “New” with the same boundless energy that would overtake him during the popular Beatles songs.
The slower songs were confessional and heavy, the faster ones lively. We swayed with McCartney through “Let It Be” and “Yesterday,” and we jumped and pumped our fists with him during “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” and the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
But it wasn’t just the music that gave off the feeling that we were experiencing all of them joined with him; it was also deeply ingrained in the way he spoke. He told us stories about meeting Keith Richards and Mick Jagger on the streets of London and giving them the “I Wanna Be Your Man” single, and performing “Back in the USSR” twice in one concert at Red Square. When he asked everyone who’d ever tried to learn “Blackbird” on guitar to raise their hands, he joked, “And you all got it wrong,” before thanking us and saying, “That makes me feel really good.”
By the time the three hours were up and we filed out of the arena, back onto the streets of Detroit and under the sprawl of the faraway stars we’d known before, it felt like the close of a years-long journey. In a way, maybe it was; many people wait lifetimes to see the people they most look up to in person, and hearing these age-old anthems felt like the most recent tying-off of an experience that really began ages ago, whenever it was that we first heard them.
This is something I love about this type of concert. Of course, any concert can have energy, can grip you, and I’ve had so many fulfilling experiences with live music that it seems like a strange arena in which to make any comparisons at all. All I know is that it felt like magic to live through that show, with people of all different ages and backgrounds — many of whom have known this music longer than they can even trace back, so long that by this point it feels less like something learned and more like something intrinsic and felt. To be alive at the same time as someone you admire, out of all the times you could possibly have been alive, that is the feeling: a moment of real consequence joined, a home found, a wish granted.