One of the year's most anticipated concerts happens tonight at Investors Group Field, and it's not by a hot new buzz band or a Top-40 darling. It's by Sir Paul McCartney, one of the most important and enduring singer-songwriters of the 20th century, not to mention the most commercially successful.
He's rock royalty. He's a Beatle.
To McCartney's credit, those are designations he hasn't rested on in the years since the Beatles' heyday. He's still working. His Winnipeg gig, which at press time had not sold out, is part of his four-leg, four-continent Out There! tour, which was immediately preceded by an equally vast 2011-12 world tour. He may be 71, but he's a spry 71.
People are willing to pay big bucks to see him -- Winnipeg's tickets topped out at $250, not including service fees -- and his draw is easily explained: McCartney is a living legend, the kind of performer people want to see before they die. Or he does.
"For a lot of people, this event is about the chance to see a real live Beatle," says John Einarson, a noted local rock historian. "I was talking with a friend and he said, 'It's thrill enough just to be in the same stadium.' I can relate to that. I felt the same way in 1993."
Einarson is definitely not the only one who has fond memories of McCartney's last 'Peg appearance -- at Winnipeg Stadium on May 21, 1993 -- and many will be looking to relive the experience tonight. Einarson, however, will not be.
"I've seen it, and he's not any better than he was in 1993 -- I want to hold on to that memory," he says. "The voice just isn't there anymore."
Chris Burke-Gaffney, a respected local musician, artist manager and founder of CBG Artist Development, would disagree. In 2009, one of his artists, fiddle wunderkind Sierra Noble, was selected to open for McCartney in Halifax. He flew out east with his son to catch the gig.
"We felt like rock stars, going to see the ultimate rock star." And, as far as Burke-Gaffney's concerned, the ultimate rock star delivered.
Many of the reviews from this tour and others are almost unanimously glowing, marvelling over the breadth of McCartney's catalogue and his sheer love of performing it. McCartney's been known to play sprawling three-hour sets and, by many accounts, his energy is infectious. He was recently ranked No. 15 on Rolling Stone's 50 greatest live acts right now.
Still, if you ask Einarson, McCartney's legend status is a big part of his pull. "When Frank Sinatra was pushing 80, he was still selling out because people were seeing the legend," Einarson says. "It's a big-dollar ticket, and I get it. It's about saying, 'I've seen Paul McCartney.'"
Based on past setlists alone, it's obvious Paul McCartney is also acutely aware the people are there to see Paul McCartney -- and, more specifically, a Beatle, which is why he doesn't shy away from canon classics such as Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Blackbird and Hey Jude, despite having discs upon discs of newer material to pull from. He's even keeping it fresh for ardent Beatles fans, adding All Together Now, Lovely Rita and Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! to the set.
McCartney is still contributing to pop music. He recently collaborated on a track with Dave Grohl and has played the odd gig as part of a line-up dubbed "Sirvana" with the Foo Fighters frontman/ex-Nirvana drummer and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. And you can expect a new McCartney solo album sooner than later.
The quality of his current output, however, is debatable. When you're responsible for some of the greatest material in the rock 'n' roll canon, it can be tough to follow that up.
"I'd bet my house and my pension that no one is going to see Paul sing something new," Einarson says. "It's a nostalgia act. It's not at McPhillips Station Casino with all the other nostalgia acts, but it's still a nostalgia act."
In an iTunes era in which music is consumed like fast food and musicians struggle to carve out a living, there's something to be said for artists who can sustain visibility and popularity into their 70s.
"I think the fact that people are still willing to pay that kind of money to see him says a lot," Burke-Gaffney says.
Indeed, old doesn't have to mean obsolete. For other fans, rock 'n' roll is so inextricably linked to youth it's hard to reconcile the songs with the aging person singing them.
"It does seem weird to see a guy in his 70s up there," Einarson acknowledges. (For the record, Einarson is also not a fan of Paul's dye job.) "But I think the fact he's still doing it speaks to the quality of the songs. His music is timeless."
A McCartney show comes with a certain kind of built-in quality control, an assurance it will be an unforgettable night. "Beatles music has transcended multiple generations," Einarson says. "These songs are never going away. It's not just going to be boomers like me at the show. Beatlemania was 1963 -- that's 50 years ago. Talk about an enduring legacy. The music will outlive Paul and Ringo."
And that's why you should see Paul, while you still can.