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In Halifax, three hours with Paul - and John, George and Ringo

Paul McCartney performs during his open air concert on the Halifax Commons.

ANDREW VAUGHAN

Paul McCartney

  • Halifax Common
  • In Halifax on Saturday

Paul McCartney gave the people of Halifax a rare gift on Saturday night by performing Mull of Kintyre, backed by a local pipe-and-drum band that made the lyrical paean to Scotland - where he has long kept a home - seem as if custom-made for Nova Scotia.

As soon as the 78th Highlanders' bagpipes assembled on stage to start their tell-tale wail, the 50,000-strong audience went mad - screaming and weeping and igniting books of matches.

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The crowd's unbridled enthusiasm for the hit 1977 Wings song (so popular that in England it outsold the Beatles' She Loves You) is linked to its being so seldom performed live that diehard McCartney fans (legion in Halifax on Saturday night) refer to it as something sacred:

"It is the Holy Grail," said Chris Fenn, 43, a submarine-cable engineer who flew in from England to see the Fab One play his only Canadian stop (and the opening night) of a mini-North American tour that takes in New York this coming weekend.

New York will be followed by dates in Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Dallas and Tulsa.

"The sole reason I came to Halifax was the hope that he might sing it. He's only ever played it twice before [live] and he didn't disappoint. I'm ecstatic, really."

Mull of Kintyre wasn't the only nugget that McCartney mined from his golden past for an outdoor concert on Halifax's North Common that rocked from start to finish.

Looking lean, tan and nimble - and younger than his 67 years - Macca The Knife cut sharply through a nearly three-hour intermission-less show that included so many pop classics (35, not including a guitar-riff tribute to Jimi Hendrix) that the concert felt both definitive and poignant, the result of his playing, often with his signature electric Hofner bass in hand, the songtrack to our lives.

Songs such as Eleanor Rigby, Day Tripper, Back in the U.S.S.R., Drive My Car, Blackbird, The Long and Winding Road, Let It Be, Hey Jude and Helter Skelter (the latter forming part of a rousing second encore set of Beatles barnstormers that included the acoustical Yesterday, still the most covered pop song of all time with over 2,500 versions) aroused unadulterated nostalgia for a time when the Beatles were, as the late John Lennon once quipped, more popular than Jesus.

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McCartney paid tribute to his former songwriting partner, murdered at age 40 by a deranged fan in 1980, by singing the classic A Day in Life, which segued into Give Peace a Chance.

He also honoured George Harrison by playfully performing Something on the ukulele that the late Beatle had given McCartney before he died in 2001. .

Several songs were accompanied by projected images of the Beatles on a giant rear video screen in front of which McCartney played, as if superimposing himself on his own legend.

During Live and Let Die, another from the Wings era, the imagery turned incendiary, with fireworks exploding around him. At the end of the evening, cannons of confetti shot up into the midnight sky, raining colour down on the heads of the amazed on the grass.

The pyrotechnics made way for raw emotion when McCartney again turned to the memory of Lennon to sing 1982's Here Today, written as a heartrending appraisal of their remarkable relationship. McCartney's eyes welled with tears, as witnessed on video close-ups of him live on stage, and his otherwise supple and confident voice (still able to hit the high notes) trembled. . Many in the audience choked up, as well.

But the show was more than just a retrospective romp, despite the presence of fans, young and old, who showed up wearing Beatles T-shirts of every vintage, and often carrying Sgt. Pepper's album covers, perhaps in the hope that their idol might climb down from the four-storey-high stage to sign an autograph. It didn't happen.

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Instead, McCartney returned the love by being chatty and personable all evening long, sometimes addressing fans directly if he liked one of the signs held up to get his attention. For example, after he read one out loud: "Would you please autograph my arm, so that I can get it tattooed?" he invited the young woman up on stage, where he did pen her arm, to delighted shrieks from her and the audience.

Backed by long-time band mates Paul "Wix" Wickens on keyboards, Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums and Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson on guitars - assured musicians who matched McCartney in prowess, if not stamina -McCartney also used the evening to air some recent - and wildly uninhibited - work created under his pseudonym, The Fireman, in collaboration with underground record producer Youth.

The euphoric 2008 Sing the Changes and the blues-thumping Highway showed McCartney (always the most avant-garde of the Beatles) continuing to inject his music with freshness and verve, despite being a senior citizen - and a knighted one.

When he told the audience at one point, "You can do anything you want to do," there was a feeling that, where McCartney is concerned, the sky's his only limit.

When he launched into The End, a song from the Abbey Road album that contains the line, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make," he left the impression that the reason he is so adored is because he offers so much of himself. The hope is that, as the old Beatles song goes, he continues to do so, "many years from now ...."

The presence of so many people wearing Let It Be T-shirts (in anticipation of Saturday's concert) made Halifax feel like a Beatles convention. Crowds grew thick outside the Lord Nelson, the hotel where McCartney stayed, with shouts of "We love you, Paul" hurled outside his window by people for whom When I'm 64 is becoming less a song than a reality.

Rose Van Teylingen, 58, flew in all the way from the Netherlands for the occasion. For days, she walked the streets of Halifax on the lookout for McCartney's chauffeured black SUV, camera in hand, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the artist she calls "sweetheart," even in the presence of her husband, Jan.

Bob Becker, 49, who works with the U.S. Senate in Washington, has seen McCartney 24 times, travelling as far as Sweden and Liverpool, often as part of the same group of diehard fans: "It all comes down the music. It binds us not only as friends," he said. "It is the soundtrack of our lives."

D.K.

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About the Author

Deirdre Kelly is a features writer for The Globe and Mail. She is the author of the best-selling Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books). More

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