It's difficult to decide where - or when - to begin an account of Sir Paul McCartney's "Friendship First" concert last night in Tel Aviv. I could describe the closest train station, a couple of hours before the event where, besides the steady flow of people of all ages wearing Beatles T-shirts there were about 20 women standing in line outside the shirutim (public toilets), presumably because they didn't expect to be able to relieve themselves comfortably at the Hayarkon Park venue. (There were, in turned out, rows of Portapotties lined up near the park's shirutim.) Or I could review the death threats from Muslim clerics; or the comments in The Guardian arguing that it is not hypocritical for someone to demand that McCartney boycott Israel yet, at the same time, enjoy Israeli cell phone and computer technology... Although I saw a security guard single out a lone male for what seemed to be careful questioning, for the most part the people at the gates seemed to be at least as intent on preventing large bottles of water from being brought in as detecting weapons. (The most lax security I've ever seen in Israel was at a reggae concert: at music events I suppose the people who don't belong are easily spotted.) I saw no weapons within the fabric wall. That's understandable, but noteworthy because so many people routinely carry guns in public in Israel.
Two hours before the show was scheduled to start, the area in front of the stage was filled. We spread our blanket a couple of hundred yards back and waited. There was a gigantic vertical screen on either side of the stage and the crowd became a little more energized when pictures form Paul's history rolled down them. No Israeli songs came over the sound system, just British and American music (and one Jimmy Cliff).
Ten minutes after the eight o'clock scheduled start, Paul began with a rousing "Hello Goodbye." Obvious opening choice, but especially canny because the audience couldn't resist joining in with the Hey La, Hey Hey Lo Ah.... Then came "Jet." This pair of songs was a taste of what was to come: 32 songs (if I counted correctly), the vast majority of which were Beatle songs, and only a handful from after 1975...
"Shalom, Tel Aviv!" Paul greeted the audience, who seemed delighted when he added, "Shana Tova!" It was the week before Rosh Hashana: maybe that was why there were so few men with yarmulkes visible - with the notable exception of the Chabad people outside, encouraging concert-goers to don tefilin...
"Baby You Can Drive My Car" was next, with an automobile sequence rolling behind him on the stage's rear wall.I confess I don't know what the next song was: I could blame the poor scrawl in my notebook, but truthfully I didn't recognize it...Next Paul addressed the audience in Hebrew again: "Zeh echad hayashanim." ("This is one of the oldies.) And it was! "All My Loving." The crowd loved it.
Next was "Flaming Pie," followed by "Let Me Roll It." This was, therefore, the second of four tracks - including the title song - from Band on the Run. Later, when he sang "Mrs Vanderbilt" the audience sang along, "Ho, hey ho!" as though we were in a jungle....
The audience listened attentively to his next number, especially since he introduced it, in Hebrew, dedicating it "L'Linda." It was a very moving "My Love." He followed it with another from his post-Beatle songbook ("Someone's knocking at the door"); then came "Long and Winding Road." He played "Dance Tonight" (from 2007's Memory Almost Full), which, apart from "Flaming Pie," I think were the only songs from after 1975! (But you can check the internet...)
Paul then talked briefly about how he and George - this was before they were Beatles - used to sit sometimes and play classical pieces on guitar. He demonstrated a piece of Bach's they used to play, and then showed how he stole a phrase and turned it into...."Blackbird"!
During one of his anecdotal reminiscences, one of Paul's spontaneous asides probably baffled the native Israelis in the audience. "A long time ago," he began, and then interrupted himself with "- this wasn't in Bethlehem." I figure he wasn't referring to his trip to the Church of the Nativity; instead he was alluding to the '50s song that began "Long time ago in Bethlehem" about Mary's Boy Child... This seemed to be the only Christian reference in the evening. (He has stated that the mother Mary in "Let It Be" was actually his own mother, Mary.) But he did make a point of saying "Ramadan Karim" twice during the evening, the second time almost asking us to be fair. (Sorry, I didn't catch his exact words.)
I watched virtually all of the concert on one of the screens. I think it was during "Let It Be" that I turned around to see the lights of a thousand cellphones held up instead of candles. At one point I went forward and stood on my toes and craned my neck and peeked and finally caught a glimpse of the tiny figure in a pink shirt, so I can say I actually saw Paul with my naked eye, albeit from a couple hundred yards away. During the show he addressed the people he could see outside in the park proper. I turned to see what he saw: thousands of people who didn't pay and who, sitting or standing on a hill, probably had a less obstructed view of the stage than many of the paying audience. He had nothing to gain by greeting them. Paul was playing for the people - not simply for the money."I'll Follow the Sun," "Mrs Vanderbilt," "Here, There and Everywhere." After "Eleanor Rigby" (with keyboard synthesized violins), Paul addressed us in Hebrew again" "Hashir hazeh l'George." And he played "Something" - on the ukelele! The band joined in after the middle eight, so it ended up sounding quite like the album version, with thousands of people singing along....Next he announced, "This is for John." I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the audience surprised - and delighted - to hear "A Day in the Life." It's just not something you'd expect at a concert (unless Phish decided to perform "Sgt. Pepper!). It was amusing to watch one of the band members on the big screen panting just before the "Woke up, fell out of bed" segment. Without the London Symphony Orchestra present, there needed to be a new ending - it was Paul singing "Give Peace a Chance." Clearly, Paul's tribute to John was, as Lennon himself would probably have wanted, a powerful political and very human declaration. Before the show I'd lamented that it's too bad that no one but Lennon could really sing the lead vocal. So I was happily impressed that Paul led about fifty-thousand Israelis in an indisputably sincere rendition of the plea for peace. I confess I felt smug, convinced that nowhere else in the Middle East could this anthem be sung by so many people. (Oddly, for me, this was not the most moving experience of the melody: the first time I heard "Oseh Shalom bimromav, etc." sung to "Give Peace a Chance," [at Kol Rina, in Jerusalem] tears came to my eyes: All we are saying...O-oseh shalom...)
"Band on the Run," "Back in the USSR" (with amusing old films of Soviet dancing in the background). Then "I Got a Feeling" with an extra hard biting extra ending...There were fireworks for "Live and Let Die." Rockets shooting up, mostly white, with some glowing red balls. Not the most expensive or elaborate pyrotechnics, but especially effective because they were unanticipated and because they emphasized the sudden violence of the title. I took it as a kind of affirmation. "Live! and (if those crazies want to go around killing each other) Let Die...""Let it Be" - more inspiration, instruction for the weary - but not, like Olmert and his gang, hopeless - Israeli. And "Hey, Jude!" Paul playfully acknowledged different sections of the audience, singing "Na, Na, Na, Nanananah". "Rak Hanashim!" (Only the women!) he called, hand on hip, mincing across the stage...He'd performed for two hours.
Now the end of the show approached. The first, faux end. Stage empty, screens blank for a minute, while they took a quick break. First encore? What would it be?"Lady Madonna." Then "Get Back." he chatted with the audience again, asked if they weren't real old rock and rollers, before he slammed into "I Saw Her Standing There." What was left? Of course: "Yesterday."He bid the audience goodbye again. Introrduced the musicians. Thanked everyone. Declared that the crew was the best in the world. (Maybe they were; but someone I was with said that the sound was off. I didn't know. I couldn't tell. I didn't care.)"Shana Tova! Ramadan Karim!"The final encore: "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (Reprise: "We're sorry but it's time to go...") And finally, "The End."Wow! From "Hello, Goodbye" to "The End." Great set. Great show.
Paul McCartney is an amazingly talented composer and performer. It was a privilege to see him live in concert. He clearly is genuinely devoted to peace and love. His tribute to Linda was an act of personal courage, exposing himself as a vulnerable human. His tributes to George and John were similarly mentschlich. The fact that he ignored threats and criticism from the Blue Meanies, exposing himself to the possibility of physical danger and censure from some of the media, show him to be a seeker of justice.Thank you, Paul.