When it comes to Beatles cover versions, I have to hold my hands up – I’m generally not much of a fan. True, not all of them are terrible and, yes, occasionally they can be interesting (usually when someone takes the song in a completely new direction). But, really, when you’ve got the originals, why would you bother with counterfeit goods? They’re never going to be as good. If you’re the person who wrote the song, though, I guess you see it differently, and the Fabs have always been appreciative of other people interpreting their songs, Paul especially so. Which is just as well, as he’s been the subject of a number of gala tributes over the past 15 years or so, where other musos line up to tug their forelocks and perform his material. One such event was the MusiCares tribute in February 2012 in Los Angeles.
MusiCares is a US charity which helps out musicians who’ve fallen on hard times, and every 12 months honours a ‘Person of the Year’ at a star-studded black-tie fundraising bash in LA. Previous honourees include Stevie Wonder, Pavarotti, Paul Simon and Brian Wilson, and in 2012 – conveniently, a few days after the release of his Kisses On The Bottom album – it was Macca’s turn. An audience of the great and the good – including David Crosby, Smokey Robinson, the inevitable Tom Hanks and, er, Piers Morgan – sipped champagne while a bunch of famous faces dipped into the McCartney songbook, including the man himself. The resulting show was released on DVD in 2015 (why the long delay, I have no idea), and is available on YouTube. My recollection was that it was the proverbial curate’s egg but, watching it again recently, it was better than I gave it credit for. Or maybe I’m just becoming more forgiving in my old age.
After some fiendishly clever whirling and twirling acrobatics from the The Beatles Love Cirque du Soleil cast sets the scene, Paul and his touring band kick things off in fine style with ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and ‘Junior’s Farm’. The latter is particularly good, a zestful performance with Macca’s bass high in the mix. Then he returns to his table to catch up on the canapés while a succession of guest artists (often backed by Paul’s band) take to the stage to pay homage. And what a curious bunch they are. First up is Alicia Keys with ‘Blackbird’. It’s okay, though I feel her bombastic vocal style pulls, stretches and batters what is meant to be a delicate song to within an inch of its life, while the piano backing curiously makes it seem much more repetitive than it ever sounds on guitar. By contrast, Norah Jones’s reading of ‘Oh! Darling’, also on piano, is more understated and so much more effective. As usual, she also looks very cute as well. And while I wasn’t very familiar with Alison Kraus and Union Station, their lilting, blue-grass version of ‘No More Lonely Nights’ is one of the highlights of the evening. You’d have thought it might have reminded Paul what a truly great song it is and encouraged him to tackle it in his live set but, sadly, it wasn’t to be.
Then it’s time for some old stagers. Paul must’ve enjoyed one of his heroes, Duane Eddy, pick his way through ‘And I Love Her’ though, unless I’m missing something, any half-decent guitarist could have done exactly the same. And he undoubtedly loved seeing long-time pal Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse perform ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, though I really can’t share his enthusiasm. Apologies to any Young fans, but I found this quite painful — a bit like watching a half-cut, eccentric uncle doing karaoke at a family wedding. By the time it got to the second guitar solo, I’d almost lost the will to live. This is followed by Sergio Mendes’ easy listening take on ‘Fool On the Hill’, and it’s like he’s beamed in from another dimension — or, at least, from a happy hour in a cocktail bar on the Costa del Sol. Just bizarre.
I’m not a fan of Coldplay but, after that last segment, their workmanlike acoustic version of ‘We Can Work It Out’ is something of a relief. Then it’s time for more ‘60s/’70s backslapping as James Taylor enters the fray. I’ve never seen what the fuss is about with him, either, and his ‘Yesterday’ is pretty mundane, bringing nothing new or interesting to the table. He’s backed on piano by Diana Krall, and he then returns the favour, accompanying her on guitar as she delivers a low-key but decent ‘For No One’. Her chuckle at the end does somewhat spoil the mood, though.
Then our boy Paul bounds on stage to collect his award with a short and suitably gracious speech, before taking the musical spotlight once more. Backed by Krall on piano and Eagle (and Ringo’s brother-in-law) Joe Walsh on guitar, he sits on a stool to sing ‘My Valentine’, his delicate love song to wife Nancy which was then brand new. Its a lovely, heartfelt performance, though as usual Paul doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands when he’s not playing an instrument. He soon remedies that, however, by moving to the piano to lead the band through a rollicking ‘Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five’. He’d only recently added this to his concert setlist (around 2010, I think), which is a real head-scratcher; it’s got such an amazing groove and is a highlight of Band on the Run, his most popular solo album, so you can only wonder why it took 37 years to make the cut. It’s certainly a show-stopper here — the band really cooks and Paul nails the vocal. On any other night, with any other performer, it would made an awesome show closer. But this is McCartney.
I did like the ‘Sgt. Pepper/The End’ mash-up which he used to close his concerts from 2002 onwards, but I am glad he returned to the full ‘Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End’ medley in more recent years. It’s the perfect finale — poignant, passionate, rocking and celebratory, satisfying in every way. And so it is here, with Paul singing his heart out at the piano, before slinging on his guitar for the customary exchange of solos with wing men Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray to complete the last lap. But, this being a tribute kinda show, they are joined by fellow axe heroes Walsh and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, so the guitar battle now becomes a five-way affair, each man taking a few bars of fretboard frenzy. It’s all a bit much, to be honest, and certainly brings out the ham in Macca. But no matter — it ticks the event’s showbiz boxes, and makes for a rousing conclusion to proceedings.
While most of the guest acts focused on predictable Fabs favourites for the show, Paul went commendably off piste for his choices. Two Beatles numbers, yes, but one from an EP and the other(s) from an album, plus two Wings tracks most of the audience would have forgotten or never heard of, and a brand new song which stood up well in esteemed company. If nothing else, it showed that a 60-minute showcase like this barely touches the sides of his phenomenal canon of material. And he performed his set with real gusto, confirming once more that when you’ve got a Beatle singing their own songs, there’s usually little to be gained hearing anyone else do them.