There are a lot of things that make being president seem like a drag. Hosting a salute to Paul McCartney at the White House would not be one of them.
“Paul McCartney: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in Performance at the White House” airs Wednesday, July 28 at 8 p.m. on PBS stations nationally.
Thankfully, the show is much catchier than the program’s title—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its faults. The special opens in black and white as we see McCartney running through rehearsals with the artists paying homage to him, most of whom are visibly trying to keep their cool around their hero. McCartney also reveals that he’s never been to the White House before.
We shift to color, just like in “The Wizard of Oz,” when the concert kicks off with McCartney, accompanied by his well-oiled touring band--who back up the other artists as well--slides through “Got to Get You into My Life” (the horns seem to be canned, unfortunately) before taking a seat beside Obama.
Saluting McCartney—with varying degrees of success—are Stevie Wonder, last year’s Gershwin recipient; Faith Hill, Jerry Seinfeld, Elvis Costello, the Jonas Bros., Jack White, Dave Grohl, Lang Lang, Emmylou Harris and Herbie Hancock with Corrine Bailey Rae.
The Gershwin Prize celebration is much more intimate and slightly less formal affair than the Kennedy Center Honors. And unlike that show, where you can usually count on at least one train wreck, the Gershwin Prize performances tend to be just a little too tasteful—not surprising given the hallowed setting and the fact that the performers are so close to Obama they can practically touch his knees. Plus, the rest of the audience has to take their cues from the host, so if the Prez is staying in his seat, no matter how much they may want to shake their tail feather, they stay still.
On the plus side are the artists who take a McCartney song and make it their own: Wonder runs through a funked-up, loose-limbed “We Can Work it Out.” Jack White takes the lesser-known “Mother Nature’s Son,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, and turns it into a Led Zeppelin-like ballad. Similarly, Hancock and Rae deliver a sublime version of “Blackbird” Hancock goes off on a short piano fill that is elegantly beautiful while Rae’s performance is deliciously spare and airy. Costello’s deeply personal interpretation of “Penny Lane,” (his mom grew up close to the real Penny Lane) is a highlight, as is Emmylou Harris’s haunting, stirring “For No One.” While his rendition is fairly faithful, no one has more fun on stage than Dave Grohl on “Band on the Run.”
In the no harm done category are Jonas Bros, the First Daughters’ favorite act, who do a serviceable "Drive My Car.” Joe Jonas goes for pretty much straight vocal imitation, trying to replicate McCartney’s growl on the song. They seem out of place, but no more so than Faith Hill, who delivers a lovely, if slightly bland version of “Long & Winding Road.”
Seinfeld is nothing short of an embarrassment. He inappropriately takes the “Getting Better” line--the regrettable “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved”-- and turns it into a bit about marriage, as if he’s still promoting the since-canceled “The Marriage Ref.” The only way he wouldn’t have ended up in the cellar among the performers is if someone had come out and performed “”Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” and pulled Michelle Obama up on stage. Also, Wonder and McCartney’s performance on the horrific, clichéd “Ebony & Ivory” is almost a reason to take away the award from the Beatle.
However, McCartney totally redeems himself as he cheekily dedicated “Michelle" to the first lady. “I could be the first guy ever to be punched out by a president,” he jokes. He concludes with “Hey Jude,” turning, as he does whether he’s playing for a small roomful of invited guests such as Nancy Pelosi or for a stadium full of fans, the song into the world’s most enjoyable sing-a-long.