Seeing as how McCartney is just about the biggest name to play Bonnaroo’s What Stage in the festival’s 12 years of existence, The Spin wasn’t too surprised when we encountered countless bottlenecks and cattle-herding-type scenarios as the Beatle and his four-piece backing band ripped through an opening trifecta of “Eight Days a Week,” “Junior’s Farm” and “All My Loving.” But once we made it into the couple-thousand-ish-capacity barricaded-off bubble down in front, McCartney was taking a moment to “drink this all in” for himself, scanning the crowd with a pleased grin. Then it was back to ripping effortlessly through lithe bass lines on that iconic Hofner of his, pointing his headstock skyward … well, iconically. That’s the thing about being an icon — everything you do is, by default, pretty much iconic.
The entirety of the set was peppered with Paul’s wonderfully casual bits of banter: clowning on one fan’s overly verbose sign, noting that he smelled some “pretty good weed out there” and telling a particularly gob-smacking story about Jimi Hendrix. After playing an instrumental snippet of “Foxy Lady,” he informed us that Hendrix learned and played “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” only two days after the album of the same name was released. Paul, in most understated fashion, told us that was a pretty cool memory for him personally.
There were the poignant moments, like when Macca played his Linda-inspired “Maybe I’m Amazed,” or when he dedicated “My Valentine” from last year’s Kisses on the Bottom to his current wife Nancy — although, seeing the gigantic faces of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman (the two actors were in the “Valentine” music video) onscreen was a little disorienting. Most heartrending, though, were McCartney’s solo performances of “Blackbird” and the Lennon-inspired 1982 memorial tune “Here Today” — both of which were played to a strikingly quiet audience as Paul climbed into the sky on an LED-illuminated platform, all while paper lanterns floated from the crowd and off into the night. Also goosebump-inducing were Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and a ukulele-centric version of Harrison’s “Something” — after all, as Sinatra once said (or is that just a myth?), “Something” may well be McCartney’s best song ever.
What else? Well, it was the first time McCartney ever performed “Lovely Rita” in Tennessee, powerhouse drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. showcased his remarkable range on the high vocal harmonies of “Eleanor Rigby,” and Sir Paul gave a cry of “Free Pussy Riot!” before another enchantingly Paul-esque anecdote — this time about members of the “Ruskie” ministry of defense telling him they learned English from Beatles songs.
The main set ended with a solid one-two: an overwhelming assault of pyro and fireworks during “Live and Let Die” — the fiery blasts from the lip of the stage warming our faces in quick flashes — before the sing-along to end all sing-alongs, “Hey Jude.” Paul returned to the stage waving a Tennessee flag for the first of three encores, going on to tell us, “You are something, Bonnaroo” before hammering through “Day Tripper,” “Get Back,” “Helter Skelter” and more and sealing the deal with the Abbey Road medley of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End.”
With Macca’s mantra of the love you take being equal to the something or other (who can remember!) ringing out into the What Stage field, several confetti cannons fired blast after blast of red, white and blue paper bits into the air overhead. We took our leave, the colorful paper rectangles sticking to our moist skin, as a somewhat heartbreaking realization settled in: What in the world can possibly make us so happy as a flawless set from Paul McCartney? What else is there to do with our lives?