Paul McCartney no longer sprints.
When the 75-year-old icon hit the stage Monday at Tampa's Amalie Arena, waving and whooping and firing off enthusiastic double thumbs-ups, he ambled along in his relaxed Liverpudlian way, bouncing and bobbing and taking his time.
But when his band struck the iconic, Pavlovian opening twang of A Hard Day's Night, you half expected the nearly 17,000 screaming, smartphone-waving souls in the building to bum-rush the stage.
No matter that A Hard Day's Night premiered 53 years ago this week, and no one who saw it in the theater it is in much shape to go chasing the Cute One down a crowded city street. The Beatles are forever, and this show sold out the day it went on sale. And after nearly three hours, everyone lucky enough to score a seat got their money’s worth and more.
This was McCartney's first local gig in 12 years, and so much has changed in that span. Many of the Beatles’ influences, peers and acolytes are now gone: Chuck Berry, George Martin, Michael Jackson, David Bowie. Outside the arena, fans who weren’t born the last time McCartney came to town snapped selfies on phones that had not yet been invented, preserving this moment while it’s still possible.
McCartney's had at least one dance with the devil himself, and it happened on that last trip to Tampa, when he fell into a piano pit on the stage, causing heart attacks the world over.
"You know that feeling of slow motion: I'm going down, there's no going back," he recalled Monday. "I'm lucky to be here tonight."
That may help explain why he doesn't play like a man itching to leave the long and winding road. Trim and spry, his mop top a fluffy sandy gray, McCartney and his note-perfect band played, and played, and played, like they could keep doing this for years -- and for a man who once sang of 64 as aged, that's saying something.
A man with McCartney's resume and three hours to kill can take as much time as he likes getting to his biggest hits, those epic stadium-slayers like Live and Let Die and Hey Jude. And so while the first half of his set did include some scream-along crowd-pleasers (Can't Buy Me Love, Love Me Do, the Wings hit Jet), he also dropped in the New Wave oddity Temporary Secretary, a frenetic krautrock freak-out that surely threw some Beatlemaniacs for a loop; covered a bit of Jimi Hendrix's Foxy Lady; and tossed in Let It Be's lovely and not-yet-overplayed I've Got a Feeling. He played In Spite of All the Danger, the dusty, countrified first single Paul, John and George ever recorded together as the Quarrymen; and FourFive Seconds, a song with Kanye West and Rihanna that hit the Top 10 nearly 60 years later.
It was, in spots, kind of quirky shuffle mix, one that showed the breadth of his unparalleled career. Those Wings songs – Jet; Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five; Band on the Run; Hi, Hi, Hi – still plow through of the amplifiers, and a barn-burning, gospel-tinged Maybe I’m Amazed, with McCartney pummeling the ivories of his Yamaha grand, brought the house down.
So, of course, did every Beatles song – and McCartney offered so, so many. More than half the set was Lennon-McCartney material: The sultry, shuffling And I Love Her; the stately Eleanor Rigby, the raw and punchy I Wanna Be Your Man; a sweetly ukulelefied Something; the unabashedly goofy Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. It speaks to the inexhaustible depth of the Beatles’ songbook that in this golden anniversary year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a year that spawned a deluxe reissue and sparked rumors of a full anniversary tour, McCartney devoted but two of his 39 songs to the album some consider the greatest ever made: The reprise of the title track, and the creepy-carnival waltz Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!, which spread an appropriately psychedelic laser show throughout the arena.
It took McCartney years to embrace playing all these songs live; now he seems all too eager to do so. Between every hit – and really, not many songs weren't hits – he’d pump his arms, lift a fist or finger or peace sign, hoist his guitar to the sky, banter with the crowd and tell the same old stories he’s told a million times. For the encore, he brought a mom and son from Lakeland on stage to sing and dance through the chug-a-lugging Get Back.
He was connecting with his worshippers from the pedestal they’d put him on, dutifully playing an endless stream of hits, and allowing the ovations to roar on and on, his shirt soaked through by the end. Good luck finding a better, more crowd-pleasing five-song run anywhere on the planet than Band on the Run, Back in the U.S.S.R., Let It Be, Live and Let Die and Hey Jude. All of an arena singing Hey Jude is more than a sound; it’s a sensation, and one you should be so lucky to feel.
But in between before all the flames and pyrotechnics and long, ecstatic goodbyes, there were moments of genuine minimalist magic – an unplugged Yesterday, say, or the affecting Civil Rights anthem Blackbird, or a solo rendition of Here Today, a song written after Lennon’s death that was inspired by heart-to-heart the pair once had during a Florida layover in 1964.
“If you want to tell someone something,” McCartney said afterward, “tell them now.”
Whether McCartney will return to Tampa a fifth time – he said he will, but they all say that – we may not know for years. And so he, too, took a mental snapshot of the moment. Early in the night, he stepped back from the mic and gazed out.
"This is so cool," he said, admiring the crowd. "I'm just going to take a second to drink it in for myself."
And so we saw him standing there, hand cocked on hip, eyebrows arched, head bobbing, lips pursed into an approving little grin. Yeah, his expression read. Pretty cool. Pretty cool.
The faces he saw in the crowd said the same, from fans who were there at the dawn of it all to the children and grandchildren they raised right, arm-in-arm for three hours of rock 'n' roll history. The Beatles are gone, but the mania lives on. Cool doesn’t begin to describe it.