Paul McCartney, Academy, Liverpool

Paul McCartney's 35-song set is just brilliant... and the guitar's holding up too

If only Macca knew. Midway through "Maybe I'm Amazed", a man who used to manage the Liverpool Academy, back when it was called the L2, leans over and informs me that the building, tucked away in a side alley behind Lime Street station, was originally a slaughterhouse. The metal rings and meat hooks are still visible in the dressing rooms where, under clingfilm, a vegan aftershow buffet awaits.

This spartan, 1,200-capacity space, all breezeblock walls and bare overhead ducts, is the venue Paul McCartney has chosen to get back to where he once belonged. It concludes a series of intimate shows, including one at London's now rescued 100 Club, which he's clearly doing more for love than money. And you know what? He's indisputably brilliant.

I'm over 40 now, and perhaps it's time to drop my opposition. Even for a professional Beatle-sceptic, there comes a point where, if you're listening to McCartney playing McCartney songs and you're not enjoying it, you're being perverse. And if you're not joining in with the la-la-las on "Hey Jude" till your throat hurts, you're the one who's missing out.

Crisp white of shirt and Just For Men dark of hair, the voice far stronger than last year's X Factor appearance would suggest, he performs for more than two hours, delivering a mammoth 35-song set which stretches from The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" right up to his most recent studio album, Memory Almost Full. Frequently, he's toting that bass – the same iconic Hofner "violin" model he's had since 1963 – and I won't pretend it isn't a thrill to see it.

For those who follow the Alan Partridge line that Wings were "only the band The Beatles could have been", there's "Jet" and a storming "Band on the Run", but no "Live And Let Die": the ceiling isn't high enough for the pyros. For Fab Four fundamentalists, highlights include a rollicking "Back in the USSR", the Beasties-sampled "The End" (he sued them) and, with Paul at the piano, my personal favourite "The Long and Winding Road", even if Phil Spector was right about the strings.

McCartney's tour-toughened band absolutely nail the intro to "Eleanor Rigby", a song whose structure – it starts halfway through, then goes back to the start – must have felt impossibly futuristic in 1966. It helps that they have a soundman who rides the faders like a virtuoso, rather than setting the levels and going for a sandwich.

Certain songs, after decades of cultural immersion, suffer by unfortunate associations. If you cherish tonight's encore, "Yesterday" – "a song I wrote in the shadow of the gasworks" – be sure never to listen to the lisping version by Daffy Duck.

McCartney is often criticised for his cheery banality and, as "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" reminds us, it's not entirely unfounded. A chasm between intent and execution opens when he introduces a song he wrote during the civil rights troubles in the US, "in the hope that if someone in Little Rock, Arkansas, heard it, it might give them some hope". Wow, what's this gonna be? Some incendiary dynamite, surely? Um, actually it's bloody "Blackbird", off The White Album.

There is, as it happens, plenty of localised chat. He reminisces about knocking around with George on Upton Green in Speke, and the day Harrison first played him "Something" on a ukulele. McCartney's rendition lacks the earth-quaking power of Shirley Bassey's cover and the sky-scraping beauty of The Beatles' recording, but it's a sweet tribute.

At the end of a 12-song Beatles run, the 68-year-old gives an almost self-parodic, thumbs-aloft salute, hoists that Hofner high, and he's gone. If Paul McCartney's "half the man I used to be", that's still quite some man.



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