Joel Goldenberg: Paul McCartney's Montreal concert-musical triumph and vocal tragedy

Paul McCartney now.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled S list to bring you my take on Paul McCartney's Sept. 20 concert at the Bell Centre. More from the S list next time.


There are many, many music fans out there who are willing to let performance deficiencies slide, just to spend a few hours with one of their icons.

I may be guilty of that later this year when I hope to see Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, either in Montreal Nov. 22 or in Florida in December. His voice — which has had its ups and downs over the years, especially in his hoarse mid-1970s era — seems to lack control in terms of staying in tune, but at least his voice is clear. He has also been suffering lately, having had back surgery not long ago.

And I just love Brian to pieces anyway.

But my expectations are much higher for Paul McCartney. The former Beatle and leader of Wings has had one of the best singing voices in history, whether on ballads like Yesterday, Let It Be and Hey Jude from the 1960s, to throat shredding exercises like (with The Beatles) Helter Skelter, Long Tall Sally, Oh Darling and (from his solo catalogue) Maybe I'm Amazed and the lesser known The Pound Is Sinking.

His general energy is quite amazing. At the age of 76, he is still putting on three-hour concerts, and at the Sept. 20 show, he performed 39 songs. He also looks good, physically.

Also, almost everything about the concert made it one of the best I've ever seen. The musicianship from McCartney's band is absolutely stellar (the transition from the ukelele-only backing of George Harrison's Something to the full band taking over can send chills down your spine), the special effects were fantastic (especially the ear-splitting cannons for the climaxes of Live and Let Die and the colourful backdrop for Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite) and the videos and images on the giant screen were glorious, including the pre-concert video of an endlessly multi-level building with Beatles, Wings and solo McCartney images.

There was only one flaw at that concert (okay, two, the somewhat muddy acoustics in the Bell Centre), but it was a big one — McCartney's voice.

I was braced for this. I saw some footage of McCartney's streamed pre-tour concert at Grand Central Station in New York City.

Mercifully, the acoustics at the Bell Centre and the backing harmony from McCartney's band members hid some of McCartney's vocal stylings.

But there's no getting around it — the once stellar singer's voice is ravaged, hopefully not beyond repair. The night after the concert, CTV News in Montreal played a clip (probably straight from the soundboard, as it was a clear mix) of McCartney singing Can't Buy Me Love. It was horrific, Paul sounded like an (ill) 96-year-old. His voice was not only wavering, but feeble, and that was also the case for parts of the same song that was performed at the Grand Central Station concert.

It's not like all senior singers suffer voice deterioration. Brian Wilson's voice was quite all right until the last year or two (it was good at the Beach Boys 50th anniversary concert, also at the Bell Centre). And 72-year-old Murray Head's singing at the recent Strangers in the Night fundraiser in the West Island was nicely gritty.

Even when I saw McCartney at the Bell Centre in 2010, when he was 68 years old, his voice was a whole lot better. The only vocal deficiency I remember was an audible crack when he reached for the high note in his massive solo hit My Love, which he did not perform in Montreal.

And that's another thing about the Sept. 20 Montreal concert. What the heck is McCartney doing singing songs that are clearly out of his once-wonderful range? Maybe I'm Amazed, Helter Skelter, and Golden Slumbers (the throat-shredding part) should not be part of his repertoire, or the keys or arrangements of those songs should be adjusted so that he could sing a bit lower.

I admire the guy, I love that he does some lesser known material in concert (especially my favourite of his solo songs, Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five) and that he endeavours to give his fans their money's worth.

But something should be done. When I watched video of parts of the concert afterwards, I cringed numerous times at McCartney's voice, even with the lack of clarity in the acoustics.

However, McCartney's vocal frailty did work on at least one song — his touching John Lennon tribute Here Today. McCartney's shaky voice added an interesting poignancy to the song.

I am far from discouraging anyone from attending a McCartney concert. The songs and his band's musical prowess are too good to miss, and you will be in the presence of an icon.

Just lower your expectations — a lot.

Next time: The S list resumes.

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