Beatles vs. Stones. 'Twas the great cultural debate of the 20th century, and here in the 21st -- all the really cool Beatles dead, all the surviving Rolling Stones undead -- the conundrum shifts to which exorbitantly priced nostalgia-pimping arena tour will embarrass and horrify you less. So what'll it be? Paul McCartney trudging through "The Long and Winding Road" at San Jose's intimate HP Pavilion, or Mick Jagger and the boys giving "Jumpin' Jack Flash" its 20,000th spin upon a ludicrously extravagant stage at SBC Park?
Both, you say? Don't feel like paying rent this month, do ya?
Paul has a few key advantages. Gala opener "Magical Mystery Tour" joyously dropped like a bomb on last Tuesday's HP crowd, and nearly half of the two-hour-plus hoedown that followed exploited old Beatles tunes so dominant you hardly need to hear them anymore -- if you honestly require an alt-weekly music critic to sell you on "Drive My Car" or "Blackbird," you're a bigger doofus than the guy who wrote it. And that, after all, is McCartney's other great strength: He's a doofus. Proudly. His presence and stage banter is pure arena rock cheese. He's a ham. He's your dad. He's Woody Allen with self-confidence. But that lack of pretension -- his alarming disinterest in projecting any kind of Cool whatsoever -- makes him infinitely more tolerable.
So enjoy the doofus, whether he's turning "I Will" into an indisputably lovely solo picnic serenade or commanding his cadre of far more Rockstar-affected sidemen -- by all means introduce the band, Paul, but don't let them talk -- through the cream of his post-Beatles crop: "Jet" and "Let Me Roll It" retain a corny '70s stadium-rock charm. Don't be surprised if that whole Wings era undergoes a hipster renaissance in coming years, with MySpace Generation kids scrambling to re-create the awkward grandiosity of "Live and Let Die." (Trust me, it's not nearly as terrible a future as it sounds.) Even the obligatory cuts from his new sorta-okay baroque-pop album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, didn't send everyone scrambling for more nachos, though Paul wheezed through "Jenny Wren," perhaps distracted by an audience sign reading "My Grandma Saw You at Candlestick Park."
Otherwise, "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" seemed to thrill die-hards clamoring for Beatles deep-cuts, and "Let It Be" -- here performed by candlelight -- remains one of humanity's greatest cultural achievements, slotted comfortably in the Top Five between Internet porn and the half-cherry/half-Coke Icee. And you have to admire the love Paul still inspires -- every song triggered thirty seconds of standing ovations and deep bowing. By all means, let him roll it.
Mick Jagger, conversely, is most definitely not your father, and he gyrates about as though intent on fathering multiple litters of illegitimate pebbles yet. Sunday night's SBC Park soiree was deadly serious business, from the enormous stage (built to resemble -- and I can't explain this -- an airport parking garage) to the big-shot opening act: Metallica. Yikes. The well-adjusted, egoless stars of Some Kind of Monster thrilled half the sellout crowd and terrified the rest: "This doesn't sound like something I'd dance to," noted one graying and balding gent to another as they held court at respective urinals as Metallica lurched through "King Nothing." No deep cuts for superfans here -- just sleepwalking jaunts through "One" and "Enter Sandman" and, oddly, "Turn the Page," the band's usually atrocious Bob Seger nod that, in such an outlandish setting, wound up sounding inexplicably awesome.
But the Stones, man. Mick is harder to love than Paul just because he's still desperately trying to project that ultra-sexy Rockstar image, but there's something mesmerizing about Jagger's geriatric sashays and the riveting/horrifying one-two guitar punch of Ron Wood and Keith Richards, who just absolutely cannot possibly be alive. But other than a disastrous two-song interlude with Keith on lead vocals -- by all means introduce the band, Mick, but don't let them sing -- the Stones made megalomaniacal machismo seem perfectly natural and highly enjoyable. Their patented Airport Parking Garage stage proved quite resourceful, with a couple hundred fans packed into its upper levels, and a motorized mini-stage trolley that slowly pushed the boys through the crowd. It's tough not to be awestruck as Mick belts out "Honky Tonk Women" as a rapt, panoramic audience exults all around him. Even the absurdly oversexed stuff worked. A salacious cover of Ray Charles' "Night Time Is the Right Time" -- Mick gleefully molesting his duet partner as she soul-shrieked her accompaniment -- brought the house down, and the last forty-minute sprint ("Sympathy for the Devil," "Paint It Black," etc.) was a dogpile of classic rock Mount Olympii.
It's awfully tempting to dismiss these sorts of shows as boomer-gouging cynicism, or lament the lack of current bands that'll gouge us twenty years from now -- will we drop $500 large to behold Death Cab for Cutie in Google Arena? But having never witnessed a Beatle or a Stone in the flesh before last week, I am relieved to have done so before those mortal coils start shuffling off en masse. You feel a variety of conflicting emotions during nostalgia-pimping arena tours, but regret, thankfully, is not among them.
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