Stroll Down Penny Lane – Celebrating Paul McCartney
A multimedia concert celebrating the life and music of Paul McCartney
In the last half-century or so, no pop/rock musician has been more accomplished or adulated than Paul McCartney. His fertile writing partnership with John Lennon led to the wildly successful days with the Beatles as the most idolized recording and performing band of all time, with girls screaming and fainting at the sight of them. Being the “cute one” who garnered the most attention belied his enormous composing skills and determination. Ultimately, he transitioned to a successful solo career and has reached generations like no one else in his field.
To honor McCartney, Bay Area writer-producer-performer Joe Anastasi has created Stroll Down Penny Lane, a well researched and curated multimedia concert. Thirty-two songs written or performed by Paul are sung by Anastasi and his band, supported by 21 films that highlight Paul’s life, his music, and his relationships over the past 60 years. The music is embellished by evocative images, including Beatles clips, personal stories, videos relating to the eras, and striking line-drawn white-on-black animation by Avi Ofer.
Most attendees would expect to be thrilled by McCartney’s music, and the enthusiastic crowd was not disappointed. This was not a simple cover performance, but rather an information rich nostalgia trip with projections providing insights during songs and Anastasi acting as raconteur between them. Those hoping for exact replicas of the original recordings will find that Anastasi and the band are decades older than Paul during his Beatles years, and their voices don’t have the same brightness and elasticity. That said, the McCartney timbre does come through. The love of the music is apparent, and most of the songs sound very good.
Highlights from the concert abound, but only a few can be mentioned. Lennon and McCartney were influenced almost exclusively by early American idioms – the rock and blues of Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly – as well as Tin Pan Alley and the Big Bands. But one song that obsessed them more than any other was the basis for the Beatles original sound. In 1957, the lads bonded over Little Richard’s first number 1 hit, “Long Tall Sally.” Richard’s wild falsetto “woos” along with “yeah, yeah, yeah” became the basis for the Beatles unique high wire sound.
Key relationships with his mother, wife Linda, and of course, John Lennon loom large in the stories. Many of the early Beatles compositions drew on their real life environment, and “Penny Lane” was very special to them as a transit terminus in Liverpool that they frequented. Later songs such as “Hey Jude,” “Let it Be,” and “Long and Winding Road” all pertained to the fractious affairs of the Beatles as they were slipping toward dissolution. On a more positive note, “Maybe I’m Amazed” was written to thank his wife Linda, who was his inspiration and with whom he had an uncommonly happy marriage.
Some musical moments were light and uplifting, like the early Beatles numbers “All My Loving” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” Others were reflective and touching. Years after John’s death, Paul invited Carl Perkins to Montserrat, which triggered an album tribute to John. There, Perkins penned “My Old Friend,” which Paul felt was John’s communication to him through Perkins from the beyond. And to honor the area where his farm lies, Paul composed “Mull of Kintyre,” a song virtually unknown in the U.S., which was the biggest selling single record ever in the U.K.
Almost all of the projection and live vignettes in the concert were understandable by all, with the exception of some musicology. Just enough technical material was there to make most musicians appreciative, but not so much as to lose the interest of others. Among the stories, one concerned the evolution of “Michelle” as well as a commentary on dissonant harmonics that Paul experimented with. In this case, he used a note combination so controversial that it was shunned in church music for centuries. This “ugly” chord, known as The Devil’s Interval gives the song much of its distinctiveness.
Although McCartney wrote over 500 songs, he is best known for love songs, which many people disparage. He ably replied with the tune “Silly Love Songs” (not included in the concert), which appropriately notes that love songs are just as important and hard to write. It goes without saying that his canon is full of songs of every modern ilk, and his talent is unquestioned.
This production was in many ways complex, involving a major investment in projection, sound, and lighting, but it should be considered a work-in-progress. Instrumental performances were professional and singing varied from okay to good. The overall arc is non-linear but sensible, but there is some repetition that could be eliminated. It is good to see the recognition of Linda, but the script refers to her helping him through depression from the Beatles breakup on three different occasions. The run time could be trimmed by 30 minutes without loss. The videos are so enhancing and fascinating that songs without them look naked and should be dropped, or medleys created with added videos.
Unfortunately, Stroll Down Penny Lane was scheduled for only two performances, so it is too late to attend this version. Meanwhile, be on the lookout for future productions and for other performances by Joe Anastasi.
Stroll Down Penny Lane was produced by Joe Anastasi and played at the Bellevue Club, 525 Bellevue Ave., Oakland, CA, July 6-7, 2018.