"Blackbird singing in the dead of night," Paul McCartney croons, and his voice wavers high and thin as darkness falls on Investors Group Field.
The man is rising skyward now, about 90 minutes into this stop on the Out There tour that stretches to almost three hours, he knows these tickets didn’t come cheap. He is standing on a platform that rises slowly away from the front of the stage, coming to rest about 20 feet above the fans on the floor. The star is alone, for this one, just a legend and his guitar. Its strings quiver and glint as they catch just enough of the light.
From the concourse, if you squint a little, you can still see the outline of a young man with a mop-top boppin’ on a Rickenbacker, but only faintly. Sir Paul has survived to grow past that, the shadow of his legend chased longer by the light of these golden years. He is timeless, which does not mean ageless. He is 71 years old.
"You were only waiting for this moment to be free..."
Oh, you know, Winnipeg has been waiting, we haven’t seen him for 20 years. The promoter of that last show is now the mayor of Winnipeg, but the gig "seems like yesterday," McCartney will say. And doesn’t everyone here believe in that?
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Pause the record, spin it backward, start it again at 6:38 p.m. Sound check at Investors Group Field ran late, the opening of the gates was delayed, and so great masses of people shuffle in streams that snake down Chancellor Matheson Drive, that radiate over plots of grass that dot the university site, that rest against the hoods of cars in the parking lots beyond.
Merchandise tents have sprung up even outside the stadium, and they are thronged with lines. In these lines, fans clutch cash, point furiously at any of two dozen T-shirt designs. They are young men with beards and Lennon glasses and gnarled guitarist fingers. They are silver-haired women in denim jackets and heavy gold necklaces. They are men in McCartney shirts from the 1990s, 1980s, before, maybe they pulled it out of a keepsake drawer where it was once carefully folded and stored.
Most of all, they are here huddled in groups that span generations, Baby Boom grown-ups laughing giddy with their twentysomtething sons and daughters. They have lived in McCartney’s music together, passed it down like the family cabin, so warm when you breathe it in and sweet with last decade’s smoke, and so familiar. And the sunrise still floods its windows, though they are old.
"Bon soir, monsieurs et madames," McCartney says, just over seven minutes in, the show began precisely at 8:30 p.m. On the dot as they say, on the nose. "Oh, hi guys. I think we’re going to have a little bit of fun here this evening."
So that’s it then, just a gathering of a man and his 31,200 closest friends. There was no opening act. When it was time for the show to start, McCartney just walked onstage, his band following behind. He was draped in a long navy jacket and black trousers, with the heels of his boots peeking beneath the hem.
He held up his hand, issued a wave typically seen on kings, and then he stepped to the microphone and he started to sing. We all started to sing. "Hold me, love me," he went, we went, all the people in this brushed silver shell went. "...Eight days a week."
The experience is styled in bright simplicity. There is little onstage that isn’t necessary for McCartney and his band to perform, just video screens looming behind and beside them. When McCartney tosses off his navy jacket about 15 minutes in, he quips that it’s the only costume change in the show, somewhere in the floor seats a man applauds. "Yes, yes, let the music speak for itself," the fan calls.
Even if McCartney had thought to dress flashy — well, there is no time for that. The music flows over Investors Group Field so quickly, it streams up over the canopy and scampers off into the sunset, out to where people without tickets are hanging on the hoods of their cars. Each one has a story, and McCartney cuts some of them short, spins some of them long.
"This song is for the Wings fans," or "I wrote this for my wife, Nancy." Or, at one point, "I wrote this song for Linda."
We are at the latter now, the 10th song in this marathon show, and McCartney’s fingers are dancing over grand piano keys. Maybe I’m Amazed is a love song, but in the climax his forever boyish voice howls, hoarse with memory of the love who died in 1998.
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The tour, it layers songs on songs and sing-alongs on even more familiar ones. When the darkness fully descends, lights are dancing over McCartney’s head, and he’s rocking now, shoulders shaking with each strum and riff and melody. He picks up a ukulele. "George Harrison was a really good ukulele player," McCartney says, and the crowd issues up a memorial cheer. "Actually, he gave me this ukulele."
The song was Something, and McCartney played it then, and the crowd shimmied and swayed and a moment later things really got going, as one of the most famous of old Beatles bops started up and the party began in earnest. Everyone sang, again, and the place came alive.
"Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on..."
And the show goes on. The main set closed on Hey Jude, the anthem of every generation since it was written, and then there was one encore, and then a second: he opened that one with Yesterday, just McCartney and his guitar and his voice a jewel here, and the crowd is still singing.
Then he pauses to bring a little something special: he likes playing in Canada, he says, because of all the Scottish people here. And as his band launches into the boozy Celtic rhythms of Mull of Kintyre, the entire Winnipeg Police Service pipe band marches out onstage, drums booming and pipes piercing the air, this seems a treat for the Winnipeg show.
When they finish, they bow, and tens of thousands of people can’t stop cheering. "We’re getting the feeling you want to keep rocking," McCartney says with a wink, and slams into the chords of Helter Skelter, riding its rawness to take the show home.