Paul McCartney and his longtime backing band rocked Boston’s Fenway Park for over two-and-a half hours on Sunday night, playing a career-spanning set of more than three dozen songs, ranging from his pre-Beatles band the Quarrymen to last year’s collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West.

It felt like a homecoming for McCartney. The band -- guitarist Rusty Anderson, drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr., and multi-instrumentalists Brian Ray and Paul “Wix” Wickens -- still play with an almost giddy enthusiasm after almost 15 years together, occasionally mugging or clowning for the crowd.

The secret of their success is paying respect to the original recordings, but not treating them like museum pieces, feeling comfortable enough to add a little energy or nuance here and there, and adapt these classics for the 21st century.

Competing with his own past

McCartney was able to keep things fresh by focusing less on his hit-filled past and choosing deeper but still well known tracks (“You Won’t See Me”) and new additions (The Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do,” a tribute to producer George Martin, who died earlier this year).

Without the weight of his own success, recent material from his most recent album, New, among other less familiar material, was able to hold its own.

The setlist felt almost arbitrary, not unlike the recent Pure McCartney 4 CD anthology. One could assume there were many repeat customers at Fenway, and, judging by the t-shirts in the crowd, they were hoping to enjoy a night of “Fab” nostalgia. McCartney not only has to compete with his iconic 1960s material, but also his Wings and solo catalogue from over the past four-and-a-half decades.

McCartney has countered this with a musical shrug of his shoulders, feeling comfortable enough to sing lead on songs mainly sung by John Lennon (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!”), and drop such staples as “I Saw Her Standing There” and “The Long and Winding Road.” He’d also mockingly wonder, with facial expressions to the crowd, if the newer material was satisfactory.

Paying tribute

Of course, the past was on everybody’s mind, as was the passage of time. In addition to Martin, McCartney paid direct tribute to the memories of his first wife Linda (“Maybe I’m Amazed”), George Harrison (“Something”), and Lennon (a particularly emotional “Here Today”.) Images of the Fab Four appeared throughout the evening, and their spirit could be felt all around Fenway.

The concert was not just an exercise in nostalgia. When introducing “Blackbird,” originally written to give hope to the 1960’s U.S. civil rights movement, McCartney mentioned in passing that things “were not much better now.” However, aware of his own legacy, after finishing the song, asked the crowd how many people tried to learn the song on the guitar, then chiding them that they all “got it wrong.”

The “Grateful Beatles”

After the usual frenzied finale -- an explosive “Live & Let Die,” a “Hey Jude” singalong - McCartney still had a few surprises up his sleeve.

Bob Weir, still in town after two nights at Fenway with Dead & Co., joined in for a cover of -- what else? -- Wings’ “Hi Hi Hi,” and stuck around while New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski hilariously played air guitar during “Helter Skelter.” Next up was a rare version of “Birthday,” in honor of Abe Laboriel, Sr., father of Macca’s drummer and bassist on the Frozen soundtrack, followed by the finale from Abbey Road.

McCartney is clearly comfortable with his own legend. It is doubtful even Lennon, if he were still with us, would be able -- or willing -- to carry that weight. Now, with the passage of time, McCartney’s voice is getting a little rough around the edges.

However it makes him all the more human, and he can still hit those Little Richard high notes like it was 1963. And in the end, McCartney transcends expectations, while remaining true to himself.

(Tickets courtesy Patrick at Turn It Up! Records.)

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