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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2013/07/31

Sir Golden Paul

When you spend your free time seeing artists that pride themselves on improvisation, it’s always kind of bizarre to attend the mega-acts. When you see a Paul Simon or Rolling Stones, you know that 90% of what you see will be the same performance night after night. It’s interesting to see how they pull that off but it can sometimes come across fake or phony. When I saw Prince, I was distracted by his need to name-drop Seattle every 20 seconds in order to get a cheer. It was with some trepidation that I walked into Safeco Field to see Paul McCartney play, but there were two things that compelled me to attend. This was the first concert ever at the home of the Mariners and I wanted to see how it would play as a music arena. More importantly, I had never seen a Beatle perform in person. With half of the band dead, the complacency of waiting for the next tour is over. If I wanted to make sure I would be able to experience this, I had better take the chance.

I settled into a good seat for baseball – upper deck, behind home plate; I wanted to see Sir Paul, but it’s not like I wanted to spend $500 to do so – and saw that it would work just fine for music too. The song was fine and the view – while distance – did give clear sightlines. As a stadium, the Safe played better than many of the football palaces that the Grateful Dead used to inhabit. Few bands can fill a stadium any more, but it’s always good to know that the option is there.

The show started oddly, first with music that was weird (but fun. I wish Shazam had given me a match because I liked them) arrangements of Beatles songs. Then there was an extended video of Paul McCartney’s career, complete with a long soundtrack of many of his hits, most of which were immediately knocked out of contention to be played. Finally Paul – along with a nameless band; if they were introduced, it was a blink and you’ll miss it thing [1] – came on stage and started singing “Eight Days a Week.” I was seeing a legendary musician perform a song I had heard a million times in my life, but so far I wasn’t feeling anything. Fortunately, that would change as the set progressed.

For a half century, Paul McCartney has been one of the most famous humans on the planet. He has never had a chance to live any sort of normal life. Mind you, I think most of us would trade, but it has to be an incredibly bizarre existence. I’m not sure if this is the cause or an effect from that, but McCartney has incredible charisma. Just telling stories on stage had the 50,000 people transfixed. Some of it was the power of his personality, some was just that he had seen so much and could tell stories about long dead legends, but it was one of the things that separated this from seeing Foreigner or the Moody Blues.

Another thing that separated this from a pure nostalgia act, was the generational nature of the Beatles’ music. There was a huge range of age groups represented in the crowd, from single digits to people who remembered the original Beatlemania. There’s something timeless about these songs, one that continues to appeal to new generations. It also helps that these songs have been covered by so many artists. When Paul sang “Let It Be,” I not only enjoyed the moment of seeing such a phenomenal song performed by the writer, but I had a quick moment of expecting Fishman to start screaming, “Home on the train!” at the end. “Hey Jude” wasn’t about the oddest hit single ever – really? A 7 minute tune, 4 minutes of which is “Na na na/na na na na/ na na na na/Hey Jude” sung with random screams over it, and this is one of the all time classics of Western Civilization. Hey I love it too, but it defies all normal song logic – but it was thinking of Pigpen asking people to try walking on water and Brent Mydland singing this at the end of the Hampton Warlocks show and this groove funk version I have from a Seattle band named The Overton Berry Trio. These songs will never die because other bands just won’t let that happen.

As the show was winding down, we got a special just in Seattle treat. The surviving members of Nirvana came out to join in. “Cut Me Some Slack” was a song that they wrote together, but they also played on “Get Back,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Helter Skelter,” and the Abbey Road Medley. It was in “Long Tall Sally,” (not in the rotation for this tour, for the record) that Sir Paul seemed to be sending a little message. Yeah the Beatles might be responsible for the boy band movement and psychedelia, but their Liverpool days had them experimenting with a sound not too distant from grunge. There are few people who managed to have that much effect on culture for this long of a period of time. Seattle got that, but we also had the brief moment of improvisation, the sense that something unique was happening in the moment that would probably never appear quite the same way again that jamband fans crave. That moment exceeded all of my expectations.

[1] One thing that became obvious about his band, is that it was not enough to be able to play Wings and Beatles hits flawlessly in order to play with him. There are millions of musicians who can play these songs in their sleep. If you want to play these stadiums, you also have to be flashy. The camera can be on you at any time, so you need to have dramatic flourishes if you’re playing the drums and the guitarist had to strut around stage. It’s a different dynamic, but it worked very well in the stadium setting.


David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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