Paul McCartney hasn't significantly altered his approach to live shows in the last twenty years. When he toured in the '70s with Wings, he either avoided Beatles songs altogether or limited them to a very minor part of the set list. His first live album, 1977's Wings Over America, featured a mere five Beatles tunes. Beginning in 1989, his first tour of that decade, he loaded the set with Beatles music. A handful of choice Wings-era hits and album tracks added some balance, and a few brand new songs were thrown in just to prove it wasn't strictly an oldies show. Of course, a large percentage of the audience hadn't bought whatever new album he was ostensibly promoting. For all intents and purposes, it was more or less about nostalgia.
Flash forward to 2009 and the release of Good Evening New York City: Deluxe Edition, a 2-CD/2-DVD extravaganza, and longtime fans may find themselves disappointed. Does anyone really need a fifth live recording of "Live and Let Die?" The vast majority of the songs found here have appeared on or more of his previous five concert albums. Seeing McCartney perform in person is a great thrill even though he goes through most of the same paces, such as the singalong concluding "Hey Jude," night after night. When you're right there in the stadium, with thousands of people joining in, it works every time. Hearing it on CD is another story, especially when comparing the newest live version to the all-too-similar previous one.
For my money the only essential McCartney live releases are the aforementioned Wings Over America and 1991's Unplugged. The former documents a time when he could base an entire set around solo material and not disappoint anyone (not to mention still being at the peak of his vocal powers). The latter takes him out of his comfort zone and forces him to scale everything back to a casual, intimate level. The rest of the bunch only serve to emphasize how utterly predictable the man is in concert. No one would walk out of the stadium if he launched into "Junior's Farm" or "Helen Wheels," in fact more than a few diehard fans (myself included) would be tickled pink. Yet he insists on cramming in as many of the same Beatles' chestnuts as possible.
One interesting aspect of Good Evening New York City is that it documents a three-night stadium stand rather than an entire tour. McCartney was called upon to open New York's new Citi Field, which was built as a replacement for Shea Stadium. The Beatles introduced the world, for better or worse, to stadium rock shows when they played Shea in 1965. The entire new album is culled from the three concerts at Citi Field. In the past, with live albums such as 1990's Tripping the Live Fantastic, the individual songs were often composite edits of several different performances. This was done in order to present the best possible live "take." With the new album, there have been allegations of Auto-Tune (or similar pitch-correction software) used in post-production. Whether this is true or not is hard for me to say. McCartney seems to be in fairly strong voice throughout, though his vocals are far from perfect. Perhaps if Auto-Tune was used, it was due to the relatively limited choices allowed by drawing from just three shows.
I strongly enjoyed the two selections taken from McCartney's 2008 Fireman release Electric Arguments. "Highway" powers along like a lost garage rock classic, while "Sing the Changes" surges forth with powerful momentum. It's too bad he didn't feel any other songs from that album were worthy of inclusion. Likewise the two tunes from 2007's excellent Memory Almost Full worked well, particularly the storming "Only Mama Knows." The biggest surprise on the album was hearing a fun rendition of "Mrs. Vandebilt," an obscurity from his 1973 classic Band On the Run. In fact, the entire first disc is exceptionally well balanced, with a full dozen solo songs and only five Beatles retreads.
Moving on to the second disc we find fifteen Beatles songs and only one solitary solo selection (the always-showstopping "Live and Let Die"). It becomes all Beatles, all the time as McCartney churns out one by rote oldie after another. There are a few notable highlights, however, that manage to keep things interesting. "Paperback Writer" kicks with a vitality sorely lacking in the version on 1993's Paul Is Live. He even alters the arrangement significantly, adding a solo section and repeating the first verse to conclude the song. "I've Got a Feeling" is similarly altered, with a jam that allows McCartney to rock out on lead guitar. Too bad he sticks so close to the original recordings most of the time, because these changes really liven up the proceedings.
McCartney's live band has remained the same since 2002. They've developed a strong sense of unity over the years, as evidenced by comparing the numerous live CDs and DVDs that feature the quintet. McCartney has loosened up enough to allow them to add their own dynamic touches, something he rarely did with his '90s road band. Abe Laboriel Jr. is best drummer McCartney has had during his nearly 40 year solo career. Laboriel really drives the songs, adding a fresh feeling to nearly every song. I only wish that McCartney would spring for a live horn section because, talented as Wix Wickens is, the synths are not a worthy substitution. His '70s tours featured actual horns and the difference is palpable.
The DVD is, possibly for the first time, a great representation of a McCartney concert. Unlike his other recent concert DVDs Back In the U.S., The Space Within Us, and Live In Red Square, Good Evening New York City eschews interview and behind-the-scenes intrusions. After a brief voiceover introduction by Alec Baldwin, what follows is simply two and a half hours of performance footage. Even the audience shots, so excessive in his other DVDs, are reduced. Many of McCartney's between-song stories are preserved, whereas they were almost always edited out of the other performances. After years of mostly canned banter, consisting primarily of variations on "You feelin' alright?," McCartney has become charming storyteller onstage. His stories and asides are a welcome inclusion. The video and audio are first rate as well. All things considered, Good Evening New York City works much better as a DVD than a CD.
The bonus DVD included as part of the Deluxe Edition runs about 45 minutes, the bulk of which is the complete performance taped for the Late Show With David Letterman. This is a great performance, even if all but one of the songs carry over from the main concert on the first disc. The audio definitely sounds "live," without the obvious production that went into (but did not, in my opinion, harm) the main concert. No charges of Auto-Tune can be made here: McCartney's voice, rough as it has become over the years, sounds vital and natural. The song not featured on disc one is "Coming Up," a true rarity among McCartney's live repertoire in that it always manages to sound different from tour to tour. This is probably the most rocking version I've heard.
Also included on the bonus disc is a short featurette made up entirely of audience-shot footage from the Citi Field shows. The vast crowd was given video cameras to tape themselves with during the show, which were turned in as they left the stadium. A limited amount of this material was used during the main concert. Lastly, the bonus disc contains an "uncut" presentation of "I'm Down" from the main concert. On disc one, the performance cuts back and forth between footage of The Beatles playing the same song in 1965 at Shea.
Good Evening New York City: Deluxe Edition is likely to both please and frustrate McCartney's dedicated fans. Ultimately the value is exceptionally strong, as the running times of the CDs and DVDs are generous. I'm still hoping that one day McCartney draws more deeply from his varied body of solo work, especially since his last few albums have been among the best of his career. That looks more and more unlikely to happen with each passing year. But that doesn't mean there isn't entertainment value to spare in this newest live collection.