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.

Next Week

Simon Price catches the rapid rise of emo-electro-metal types, My Passion

Simon Price: Rock 2010

Different Class In October, for the first time in chart history, more than half of the British singles in the Top 40 were made by artists who were privately educated and/or stage-schooled. The posh takeover of pop peaked in 2010 with the rise of Eliza Doolittle, the granddaughter of Sylvia Young herself. That clunking sound you hear is one of the last remaining escape routes for the talented poor being locked shut.

She Asked, She Told Dressed in sober pinstripes and determinedly addressing the camera, one Stefani Germanotta – aka Lady Gaga – made a dignified appeal to politicians and, more importantly, her millions of fans to pester politicians, to take down the US Army's homophobic Don''t Ask, Don't Tell rule. By December, the Senate had passed a Bill to repeal it.

Going Green We're all in favour of British rap. We've all enjoyed seeing home-grown stuff dominating the charts and repelling the American invasion. But does it have to mean grunting over old INXS records like Mike Skinner's idiot kid brother?

Cape Crusaders The arrival of Cape Town crazies Die Antwoord – a bilingual filth-rap collective fronted by the wiry Ninja and helium-voiced midget Yolandi Visser – was 2010's biggest WTF? moment, leaving listeners genuinely unable to decide whether their single "Enter the Ninja" was brilliant or appalling. Clue: this usually means it's brilliant.

Reality Bites Those feeling stupid for investing so much emotion in this year's X Factor can console themselves in the knowledge that they've been the victim of world-class manipulators. The tricks employed to keep charmless brat Katie Waissel in the contest provided a weekly opportunity to vent pent-up anger in a cathartic Two Minutes' Hate. The real contender was Scouse Aretha soundalike Rebecca, the comedy stooge was middle-aged Brazilian walrus of love, Wagner Fiuza-Carrilho, but the star was Cher Lloyd, an elastic-eyebrowed 16-year-old from Malvern whose imperious audition with an obscure R&B song sent multiple versions of "Turn My Swag On" into the charts. The actual winner, razor-dodging, castrato-voiced decorator Matt Cardle, centre, will be forgotten faster than you can say Leon Jackson.

Back ... For Good? The Libertines' comeback, cashing in on their myth at the Reading/Leeds festivals, made bigger headlines, but Suede's swaggering return to the Royal Albert Hall and Adam Ant's chaotic guerilla gigs were both masterclasses in how to recapture the fire of your early years.

Gone ... But Not Forgotten The Reaper has been working overtime. In 2010, sadly, we lost punk mastermind Malcolm McLaren, folk's Kate McGarrigle, jazz greats John Dankworth and Lena Horne, and soul stars in swathes.

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