Even after it was all over, there was a lingering dreamlike quality about Paul McCartney’s surprise concert Thursday night at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown — which is likely one of the smallest venues he’s played since his Cavern Club days with The Beatles.
It’s not like McCartney is the first major artist to drop in for a set at the tiny roadhouse bar, perched in a remote location above Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree in the rocky High Desert mountains of San Bernardino County. Over the past decade, Wanda Jackson, Robert Plant, Neko Case, Arctic Monkeys, Spiritualized, Leon Russell, Dum Dum Girls and Sean Lennon have all made the winding trek up Highway 62, and such performers as Peaches, Camper Van Beethoven and Eagles of Death Metal make regular appearances at the 350-capacity bar.
But there was something truly surreal about witnessing Sir Paul step out of a shiny, black limo as a phalanx of black-coated security personnel brandished bright beacons like light sabers to prevent onlookers from taking photos when McCartney and his longtime back-up band quickly stepped into the nearby Likker Barn for an eight-song sound check. Most of the three hundred fans who were lucky enough to arrive in time to purchase tickets at Pappy & Harriet’s were already inside the bar and were unaware of McCartney’s mini-warm-up set a few dozen yards away in the homey red barn, one of several picturesque wooden structures along Pioneertown’s short main drag of false-fronted, abandoned buildings from its days as a film set for Westerns.
Only about 40 fans (myself included) who couldn’t score tickets to get into the sold-out bar happened to be lingering outside when the sounds of McCartney and his band drifted from the barn’s open windows. Some folks sat on hay bales with huge, can-you-believe-this grins on their faces as they listened. A white dog wandered back and forth from the sandy street to the back of the barn, oblivious to the security personnel who tried to keep the human eavesdroppers on the other side of the barn’s wooden fence.
In some ways, McCartney’s eight-song sound check was even more thrilling and unusual than the 21-song set he’d play an hour later inside Pappy & Harriet’s. Even though most of the tunes at sound check — including “Save Me,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and, appropriately enough, “Junior’s Farm” — would end up in the ensuing concert, the group broke them down in an intimate, stripped-down folkie fashion that perfectly matched the faux-rural barnyard setting in the dusky twilight. (McCartney’s unexpected collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West, “FourFiveSeconds,” was the lone sound-check song that didn’t wind up in the Pappy's set.)
Ace drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. used little more than his snare drum and a couple of cymbals, and the shuffling run-throughs of “Lady Madonna” and “Love Me Do” prominently featured accordion, giving those oldies a newly rootsy and almost zydeco flavor. Most haunting of all was McCartney’s virtually solo rendition of “My Valentine,” a romantic piano ballad that took on even more touching resonance in the night air. It was almost as if the 40 stragglers who overhead the sound check were transported to McCartney’s pastoral Scottish farm circa Macca’s second solo album, 1971’s Ram.
The chance to spy on the sound check helped to make up for the bitter disappointment for fans who couldn’t get tickets inside Pappy & Harriet’s. Most were from the area, from places like Riverside and Palm Springs, but some had driven from as far away as Arizona and Big Sur after McCartney announced the surprise show on his website Thursday morning. Many folks who couldn’t get tickets spent much of the early evening playing a cat-and-mouse game with security, hiding out like bandits in the sunset shadows along the false storefronts of Pioneertown until it was safe enough to creep out and linger zealously outside the bar.
By the time McCartney’s official set began inside Pappy & Harriet’s, many of the roughly thousand or so people who’d lined up for a quarter-mile down the club’s dusty driveway to stand in the mild desert sun for tickets earlier that afternoon had already slunk down the mountain in resignation after being told to leave by police and security. But once the concert got going, the club personnel stopped trying to keep everyone away and eventually allowed the remaining two or three hundred onlookers to watch through the windows or listen from outside the open doors of the club’s entrance.
Some of us were lucky enough to stand near a window that had a video feed of the concert inside, which meant that some people outside had a better view of the stage than many of the folks inside the low-ceilinged room, which has a stage that’s virtually at floor level and difficult to see even when there there’s a small crowd.
As at sound check, McCartney started with the opening salvos of “Save Us” and “Junior’s Farm,” which were more juiced up and rollicking than the stripped-down sound-check renditions. After that, there were no real surprises in the set list for those hoping for a 20-minute version of “Rocky Raccoon.” Instead, the set was mostly a condensed version of the show McCartney and band had just played the previous Saturday at the Desert Trip festival. Gone tonight were the John Lennon and George Harrison homages, as well as the extended triple-shot finale of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End,” which normally closes McCartney’s shows.
There were no guest stars, as Neil Young (who’d jammed on three songs with McCartney at the Desert Trip show) was playing his own gig Thursday night at the Fox Theater in Pomona. It was precisely because Desert Trip is spread out over two weekends that McCartney and Young were looking for extra shows in the area to stay in shape and keep their groove.
The long sound check probably did help to warm up McCartney’s voice. The 74-year-old singer’s voice sounded a little wan and rusty early on in the set, perhaps because of the dry desert air, but before long he was singing smoothly and fluidly. Dressed in a white long-sleeve button-up shirt and black slacks, McCartney appeared to be having the time of his life as he moved from guitar and bass to electric keyboards. Somehow, the entire band managed to fit on Pappy & Harriet’s tiny stage, and, shorn of the lighting effects, video projections and enormous risers of a stadium concert, the band were pressed together and working off each other more like a young club band.
Even with few set-list surprises, the show at Pappy & Harriet’s had a more organic feel, with a great live-room sound. Rusty Anderson’s and Brian Ray’s twin guitars on “Day Tripper” had a searing, sizzling intensity as they twisted up its classic riff. Paul’s bass on “Band on the Run” had that full and vibrant bottom-end tone that is distinctively his own. The aching “Let Me Roll It” segued as usual into a cool, Redd Kross–style instrumental jam on Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady.” “Lady Madonna” was more fiery and had a roadhouse feel compared to the stripped-down sound-check version.
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The set closed with “Hey Jude,” with much of the rowdy crowd outdoors chanting the “na-na-na” backup vocals with drunken vigor. The three-song encore of “Hi, Hi, Hi,” “Birthday” and “I Saw Her Standing There” — another departure from his Desert Trip set — was fast and punchy and all too short but nonetheless made for an appropriately raucous finale.
As fans inside spilled from the front door and out under the dome of the High Desert night sky, which was cluttered with an almost absurdly lavish adornment of dense stars, they looked sunburned, weary and exhilarated by their close encounter with rock royalty.