By Brian McCollum, Detroit Free Press Pop Music Critic
For longtime fans, Paul McCartney won’t be the only familiar face onstage at Joe Louis Arena this Wednesday.
Sir Paul’s Joe Louis show will be his fifth Detroit visit with his current band — a group that came together in late 2001 and has now endured longer than the Beatles and Wings.
At 73, McCartney seems more gung-ho than ever out on the road, serving up a 3½-hour show packed with 40-plus songs, more than half of them Beatles tunes. Looking simultaneously reinvigorated and laid-back, he’s been sinking his teeth into older material he once steadfastly avoided, romping through his half-century catalog in a kind of ongoing victory lap.
And while McCartney is certainly his own driving force, there’s no doubt that credit for his onstage resurgence also goes to the upbeat, well-oiled four-piece around him. Assembled for McCartney’s Driving Rain tour in 2002, the group made quite the auspicious debut, playing that year’s Super Bowl halftime show.
The outfit instantly clicked, and these four have been rolling with McCartney ever since:
♦ Rusty Anderson: The California-bred guitarist had a track record that included the Bangles and his own Ednaswap when he was enlisted for the “Driving Rain” album sessions. He continues to do solo work, with a new album due by year’s end.
♦ Abe Laboriel Jr.: This well-pedigreed drummer (his dad is an acclaimed session bassist) is a visual focal point at McCartney’s shows, a lively force of energy at the back.
♦ Brian Ray: The versatile musician takes over bass duties when McCartney is on piano or guitar — he has referred to himself as the show’s “stunt player” — and was a longtime friend of Anderson and Laboriel coming in.
♦ Paul (Wix) Wickens: On board with McCartney since 1989, this keyboardist is the longest-tenured member of the current lineup.
“I feel really lucky be able to play music for a living,” says Anderson. “Much less with Paul.”
The group wasn’t necessarily intended as a long-term project for McCartney, who had frequently shuffled his lineups through the ‘80s and ‘90s. But this one stuck, as he told L.A. radio station KCSN-FM in 2014.
“A couple of years ago, I kind of looked at them and said, ‘You know what, guys? We’re a band. We’re a real band. Up until then we’d just been thinking, ‘We’re getting together and playing some songs,’ ” McCartney said. “But we’re a band now, and that elevated our performance, I think. When we realized that, we sort of felt so much better about what we were doing.”
The group has been more than onstage accompaniment for McCartney, having also played on his albums “Memory Almost Full” (2007) and “New” (2013).
“I trust the guys,” he told KCSN. “They know what I’m going to do, I know what they are going to do.”
After 14 years together, says Anderson, a family atmosphere has taken root around the McCartney touring camp. And the four players now practically work by instinct — a chemistry that was clear from the very earliest days.
“We rehearsed a bit without Paul, then Paul came in and it was all so quick. It didn’t require a whole lot of words, really,” he says. “We just have this way of learning songs quickly without a lot of drama, and it ends up being good because it’s expressive for everybody while still respecting all those classic motifs and hooks.”
Anderson hesitates to pinpoint a single favorite moment in the live set — every song is a treat, he says — but he points to epic numbers such as “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “The End” as highlights. Others serve as musical challenges, particularly studio-groomed concoctions like the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” And new songs get rotated into the set, including the Beatles’ “Another Girl” and 1971’s “Temporary Secretary” on this latest leg.
At this point, McCartney doesn’t play taskmaster with the group at rehearsals, says Anderson, instead relying on the players’ chops to go with the now-entrenched “trust and creative bond.”
“It usually happens pretty quickly: ‘Hey, on this bit I fancy this kind of approach, or I want to simplify something.’ It’s really pleasant. Sometimes when you’re playing music with people, especially a singer who doesn’t play an instrument, they don’t always know how to express themselves. This is the opposite situation. Everything flows pretty clearly. The body of work, from Beatles to Paul McCartney to Wings — it’s so ingrained in your brain if you’re a fan like I am, and that makes it a lot easier.”
McCartney does keep the guys on their toes: In recent years, he’s taken a spontaneous approach to booking shows, keeping his schedule open-ended and piecing things together as he goes. There have been few lengthy breaks since 2002, and despite the periodic changes in tour names, Anderson says it’s felt like one big, ongoing run.
For Anderson and his band mates, the long stint with McCartney has been a chance to take part in a freewheeling, high-energy chapter of a veteran star’s career.
“It’s pretty amazing in that way. He’s got this energy that’s infectious,” Anderson says. “And he’s leading a generation, saying, ‘Hey, man, you don’t have to just get old. It’s a state of mind.’ ”