Paul McCartney headlined Manchester, Tennessee's Bonnaroo festival on Friday, with what was undoubtedly the four-day weekend's most anticipated set. And why would there ever be any doubt that that'd be the case? The man's a BEATLE. And everyone loves the Beatles. They're sort of the default band for any music fan. The fact that, from my spot, I witnessed an incredibly excited 13-year-old boy declaring, "He's a boss!" and yelling out song requests, and well as a woman in her sixties assertively elbowing her way up to the front between two frat-boy types, proved just how universal Sir Paul's appeal truly is and what a perfect 'Roo headliner he truly was.
Yes, from the hipsters to the hippies, the moms to the tots, it seemed like every single person on Bonnaroo's 700-acre farm was watching Macca on Friday night, and not one of them was disappointed.
Paul's whopping 180-minute, 38-song set was positively packed with Beatles classics, from the upbeat and crowd-rousing ("All My Loving," "All Together Now," "We Can Work It Out," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "Lady Madonna," "Day Tripper," "Get Back"); to the sweet and somber ("The Long and Winding Road," "Eleanor Rigby," "Blackbird," "And I Love Her," an acoustic "Yesterday"); to the eternally anthemic (there is nothing more life-affirming than singing along to "Let It Be" or the na-na-na's of "Hey Jude" with 90,000 or so fellow Beatles fans). He even played "Paperback Writer" on the same guitar that he strummed on the original recording, and it sounded as great as it did in 1966.
But there were some more leftfield Beatles selections as well, like Sgt. Pepper's "Lovely Rita" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," which Paul only just started playing live on his current tour, and "Your Mother Should Know." And as for the fans who'd been hoping to hear some Wings Across Bonnaroo, so to speak, they got their wish, as Paul tore through eight Wings classics, from the unexpected but certainly venue-appropriate "Junior's Farm" to the perennial favorite "Band on the Run." (No "Jet," sadly, but I'll let that omission slide.)
However, the standout moments of the show were the tributes Paul made to friends and comrades, like when he played a snippet of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" during "Let Me Roll It," gave a shout-out to jailed Russian punk band Pussy Riot during "Back in the U.S.S.R.," or dedicated his solo cut "Another Day" to recently departed legendary producer Phil Ramone.
But there were some other dedications that were especially touching.
Paul played his recent Kisses on the Bottom cut "My Valentine" for his current bride, Nancy Shevell, and then only a couple songs later, he played "Maybe I'm Amazed" for his late first wife, Linda McCartney, as archival McCartney family photos screened on the jumbotron behind him. Paul's voice-crack during this number may have just been due to his advanced age, but regardless, it only made the song more poignant.
The most poignant moments, however, came when Paul made dedications to his late Beatles bandmates. "This next song's written for my dear friend John. Let's hear it for John!" he shouted to thunderous applause, before performing the ode he penned for the slain John Lennon, "Here Today," a song about "a conversation I wish we'd had." Afterwards, he declared, "If you want to tell someone you love them, tell them — before it's too late."
Later in the set, he picked up a ukulele to play an acoustic cover of George Harrison's "Something," and there was something about the simple, stark arrangement that made the performance hit even closer to home. While it was wonderfully heartening to see Paul, who turns 71 next week, still so full of life and vigor and vitality during his epic 'Roo concert, watching him honor his dear departed peers was a sobering reminder that he too won't be around forever.
But never mind all that. Although the show ended with the bittersweet "Golden Slumbers"/"Carry That Weight"/"The End," the latter segment of Paul's set was bursting with uptempo energy, including a literally explosive "Live and Let Die" extravaganza accompanied by eyebrow-singeing, eardrum-shattering pyro, and a fantastically ferocious rendition of the Beatles' proto-metal classic "Helter Skelter" that proved Macca is THE coolest septuagenarian on the planet. At that point, a fan tossed a stuffed-animal walrus onstage, an obvious "I Am the Walrus" song request in the form of a plush toy. And while Paul did not heed that request, the fact that he serenaded and cuddled the walrus during his final encore probably made that fan very happy indeed.
But happiest of all, apparently? Sir Paul himself. "This is so cool. Hey listen, I'm going to take a moment just to drink all this in for myself," he announced at one point during the show, stopping to stare out in wonder at the sea of screaming Bonnaroo faces. Seeing how a guy who has played countless stadiums, has been knighted by the Queen, was a BEATLE, changed the world, etc. could still get overwhelmed onstage, after more than five decades in the spotlight, may have been the night's most moving moment overall.
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For more Bonnaroo reportage, check out Yahoo! Music's 2013 Summer Music Guide.