Paul McCartney said on PBS tonight. “This” was traveling to the White House, which he did last month to accept the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. A properly all-star concert was convened to befit the occasion, and while bits and pieces of the event have leaked out on YouTube since then, tonight the whole thing (or most of it) aired as part of PBS’ “In Performance at the White House” series.“I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but never this,”
The show opened with some stirring words from President Obama. “It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly half a century since four lads from Liverpool landed on our shores and changed everything overnight,” he reflected. Then it was time for a cavalcade of stars old and young to pay homage to the voluminous back catalog that earned McCartney this honor.
High points were in abundance. Stevie Wonder’s super-tight “We Can Work It Out” featured a mean harmonica solo, while Elvis Costello’s faithfully jaunty “Penny Lane” boasted an even nicer piccolo trumpet solo. Emmylou Harris shone on an acoustic “For No One.” Dave Grohl wore the night’s biggest grin as he tore through “Band on the Run.” Jack White’s tender “Mother Nature’s Son”/”That Would Be Something” medley captured something of McCartney’s starry-eyed charm.
Intermixed with these were some…not quite as highs. I’m not sure anyone other than Sasha and Malia Obama needed to hear the Jonas Brothers’ competent if cutesy “Drive My Car.” (In fairness, McCartney and Wonder were visibly grooving during this performance.) Jerry Seinfeld’s random stand-up routine fell flat as he riffed from Beatles lyrics to stale “marriage, am I right?” shtick. Faith Hill’s “Long and Winding Road” was a bit schmaltzy for my taste.
McCartney himself was wonderful throughout, humble and jocular. Anyone who’s seen him in concert recently can tell you that he’s still all youthful energy at 68, even if his voice sounds a touch rough at the edges here and there. He had a grand old time with songs including “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Michelle” (for the first lady in the audience), “Ebony & Ivory” with Wonder, “Eleanor Rigby,” and ”Let It Be,” as simply moving as ever. ”I don’t think there could be anything more special than for us to be performing here,” McCartney remarked, right before the all-inclusive “Hey Jude” singalong. “And we’re thinking of making it a regular thing. Lunchtimes, we could come around.” If only!