Paul McCartney | Pop review

O2 Arena, London SE10

The same week that Paul McCartney finished his first UK tour in six years, Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood's partisan biopic of John Lennon's early years, began its run in cinemas. When casting the young McCartney, Taylor-Wood seems to have opted for the gawkiest actor available, apparently seeking the greatest possible visual contrast to her teen rebel representation of Lennon. It is received Fabs wisdom – John as the cool one, Paul as talented square – something the latter has done much to reinforce over the years.

Think Wings, the Frog Chorus, the dyed hair and his appearance on the final night of The X Factor, which upset only those fusty guardians of rock history so absorbed in endless Beatles reissues that they hadn't realised he's been flirting with light entertainment for decades. It's a bit late to start moaning about what he should or shouldn't be doing with his legacy – "Give My Regards to Broad Street" was 25 years ago.

Equally pat is banging on about how McCartney must be edgier than we think because he wrote "Helter Skelter", which helped invent heavy metal and was so dark it tipped Charles Manson over the edge, man. On the face of it, someone who, having appeared on The X Factor, then hedged his bets by backing Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No 1, as McCartney did two weeks ago, appears only interested in one thing: the biggest possible audience for his new DVD, Good Evening New York City. In case anyone misses the point this evening, the walk to the O2 arena is plastered with ads for the release, rather taking the edge off the nearby Christmas fair.

Inside, it's a different matter, a seasonal wonderland sprinkled with Santa hats and Sgt Pepper's uniforms, families and a strong international contingent keen on homemade banners that proudly declare Brazilian, Japanese and Philippine heritage. Jostling with the fervour of pan-global Beatles obsessives is the feeling of a giant Yuletide night out, with McCartney as convivial host, a Val Doonican for baby-boomers and their grand-children, the chunky cardigan replaced by a signature Nehru jacket.

So it hardly matters that the set list roughly mimics that DVD and isn't hugely different from the one rolled out at Glastonbury five years ago. Not only does his songbook remain timeless, it can withstand anything, whether chirruping X Factor contestants on backing vocals or, tonight, a grimly generic backing band, all shaggy hair, guitars slung too low and drums set to "rock".

Weighing in at 37 songs and two-and- a-half hours, only the set's more recent material drags: a pair of tunes from the last year's Electric Arguments, recorded as the Fireman, may as well have been accompanied by giant signs pointing towards the bar and lavatories. Otherwise, those 60s and 70s melodies remain rich enough to retain some of their potency. There's still instant drama in "Eleanor Rigby", an easy-going elegance to "The Long and Winding Road" and multilayered perfection wrapped inside the short, sharp, nowhere-near-as-simple-as-it-seems "Paperback Writer".

Perhaps it's the time of year, but despite McCartney's clunky, arms-aloft body language, and unnecessary standing ovations for every single Beatles tune, it doesn't always seem as if he's phoning in the hits. The most emotional moment is the smallest: "Blackbird" rendered alone on acoustic guitar, his voice wavering through the chorus. The 02 is vast, a sterile, unforgiving shed whose scale can crush junior talents. For two-and-a-half minutes, he shrank it to the size of his sitting room.

Welcome signs of eccentricity are creeping in too. As ever, respect is paid to his late wife, Linda, and to former Beatles colleagues, but George Harrison's tribute comes in the form of rendering the first half of "Something" on a ukulele he gave McCartney before his death in 2001. And pointing out that some of the show's projections are drawn from Richard Prince's fashionable Nurse paintings is the kind of oddness only a millionaire former art student and occasional painter could get away with.

The conclusion is a spectacular 10-song sequence that only a Grinch could find fault with. Which is the best sing-a-long? "Live and Let Die", with its indoor fireworks, or the more sanctified "Hey Jude"? How about the wistful "Yesterday" or the rarely played "Mull of Kintyre", a Christmas No 1 22 years ago and fleshed out with a full compliment of Scots Guards pipe and drum? Sure, it's a little cheesy to exit on "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" ("We hope that you enjoyed the show!"), but he's Paul McCartney, so most things come with a side order of cheddar. Besides, you can't argue with those tunes.


Gareth Grundy

The GuardianTramp

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