Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Paul McCartney: Live at the Cavern Club! (2000)
Studio Line: Image Entertainment

On December 14, 1999, 300 people squeezed into the Cavern Club in Liverpool to watch Paul MacCartney perform at The Beatles' legendary venue for the first time since 1963. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice were among the other great musicians joining Paul on stage. You can now view this unique piece of rock 'n' roll history, as well as two of Paul's latest music videos and an interview with him on this special home video release. The atmosphere and the unique occasion combine to make this a fantastic rock event.

DVD: Widescreen 1.78:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1& DTS 5.1, English Stereo; subtitles none; not closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 15 chapters; Not Rated; 46 min.; $24.99; street date 6/19/01.
Supplements: Interview; Promo; Band and Cavern Biographies; Two Music Videos.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/B

Sometimes I don’t understand my own thought processes. Back in December 1999, I went to England for a slew of concerts. While there, a national lottery took place to enable winners to attend a special show by Paul McCartney at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. Small venue plus big star equaled low odds, so I didn’t bother to enter the contest. Even if I won a spot, I was supposed to leave the country prior to the show, though my plans were flexible enough to allow for an extended stay.

In retrospect, this was a rake moment. On one episode of The Flintstones, our main characters imagine what they’d if they won the lottery. In succession, we see the fabulous fantasies of Fred, Betty and Wilma, but when we get to Barney, he thinks, “I could use a new rake!” Quickly an obnoxious sound appears as Barney realizes how low he has set his sights, and his pedestrian idea is replaced with a more ambitious one.

Because of this, I refer to “what in the world was I thinking?!” instances as “rake moments”. That’s what happened when I was in England. It wouldn’t have cost me a cent to enter the contest, and I definitely could have stayed around for the show in the unlikely event I won a ticket. What was I thinking??!!

In any case, I didn’t enter, so I didn’t win, so I didn’t see the show until now. Actually, McCartney’s December 14, 1999 show was broadcast over the Internet, but until I get a highspeed connection, that remains a largely worthless option. This program also has been aired on PBS, at least according to a sticker on the DVD.

While I certainly would have enjoyed the opportunity to take in such a special event, in retrospect it was probably a good thing that I didn’t go to the actual concert. Don’t take this as a slam on the performance itself; as I’ll discuss, McCartney provided a pretty solid show that night. However, I know that I would have been disappointed with the experience had I been there. McCartney put on a rather short concert, as the entire thing lasted only about 45 minutes, and he stuck almost entirely with tunes from his then-current Run Devil Run album.

That made sense, as this show functioned mainly as a promotional exercise for the record, and since I really liked RDR, I don’t mind the setlist from that point of view. However, many will be surprised at the lack of older McCartney-penned tunes that appear. He played “I Saw Her Standing There”, but otherwise the entire program offered songs from RDR.

That definitely would have made the event a disappointment at the time, but as a DVD 18 months after the fact, it works well. Ironically, Cavern stands as a fairly compelling concert program because it doesn’t rehash the same old songs. Not that Paul’s really done the oldies to death, though. McCartney hasn’t toured much since the Beatles left the road in 1966. He played quite a few shows in the 1972-1976 period, but since his infamous early 1980 pot bust in Japan scotched the progress of a new tour, he spent a lot of time away from the concert stage. McCartney finally launched a world tour in 1989-90, and this was followed by another trek in 1993. However, the latter was mildly unsuccessful; ticket sales didn’t live up to the levels experienced in 1989-90, and the entire third leg of the tour was cancelled.

I’m still cheesed about that; my locality was part of the third leg, and had I suspected McCartney wouldn’t come to DC, I would have trekked to Philadelphia for that performance. However, in those pre-Internet (for me, at least) days, I didn’t become aware of the abrupt end to the “New World Tour” until it was too late, so I missed McCartney in 1993.

As such, it seems unlikely I’ll ever get a chance to see him perform live again. After the death of his wife Linda, Paul indicated that he didn’t plan to tour anymore, and although I occasionally hear rumblings that he’s thinking about hitting the road, I really don’t think it’ll happen. Some folks play live with such frequency that it seems unthinkable for them to cease performances. However, McCartney was only a sporadic road warrior as it was. As such, it would be much easier for him to abandon that cause, especially since it must be somewhat painful for him to play without Linda by his side; until 1999, I don’t think he’d performed without her since the Beatle days.

Never say never, I suppose, and the current Madonna tour proves that I’m not always right about these things. I really thought she’d never hit the road again, but after an eight-year hiatus, she launched her current trek, so maybe McCartney will eventually head out again. Until that time, we’ll have to make do with material like the Cavern show.

Apparently a DVD of Get Back - a documentation of the 1989-90 tour - exists in Region 2, but for those of us in the States, Cavern stands as the only live McCartney piece on the shelves. Obviously, much more could appear. In addition to Get Back, officially-released concert videos accompanied the 1976 (Rockshow) and 1993 (Paul Is Live) tours. Along with Get Back, both came out as American laserdiscs, though Rockshow went out of print many, many years ago. Granted, PIL - along with pretty much every other US LD ever created - is also out of print now, but many of those deletions occurred because of the format’s death. Rockshow went the way of the dodo before LD’s heyday. I believe it’s not available on any video format, though I’m not sure why. The answer may involve rights questions, but I don’t know this for certain.

In any case, I’d kill to get a DVD of Rockshow. Growing up, Wings Over America - the three-LP set from the 1976 trek - was my favorite album, and I still maintain a great deal of affection for that piece. Rockshow wasn’t a flashy program, but it aptly transmitted a fairly solid group of performances. I doubt we’ll ever see it on DVD, but a boy can dream, can’t he?

Get Back and Paul Is Live were less interesting pieces. Directed by Richard Lester, the man behind A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, GB simply refused to document its subject for many parts. It offered a ridiculously high number of crowd shots, and Lester incorporated a slew of semi-related film clips as well. This started during the first song, as “Band On the Run” provided snippets of Help!, and it continued through virtually the remainder of the program. Insanely, Lester never actually showed the band during “The Long and Winding Road”; the entire song displayed news clips from the Sixties accompanied by the song!

PIL suffered from an excessive level of rapid editing and showy effects. The program’s producers apparently thought Paul wasn’t interesting enough on his own, so they “spiced up” the show with fast cuts and music video effects. It didn’t work, as it simply made the show a distracting mess.

Happily, few of those tendencies mar Paul McCartney Live At the Cavern Club. This trek through tracks from 1999’s Run Devil Run album provides a nicely succinct and lively presentation of a fairly solid show. While I really do wish I’d seen McCartney back in 1993, I must admit I wasn’t too distraught about my failure to do so, simply because Macca never has been a great live performer. Yes, I loved Rockshow, and the live versions of those songs sounded quite good, but as a visual presence on stage, McCartney lacks much flair.

In recent years, he’d also lost much of his vocal talent. I won’t say that he sounded terrible during the 1989-90 tour, but it was clear that his voice didn’t hold up well against the rigors of the road; he came across as reedy and hoarse much of the time, and he couldn’t approach the clear highs required for older songs. Too many ciggies and the ravages of age didn’t help either, though these concerns weren’t new in 1989; many of McCartney’s live appearances since the late Seventies showed similar problems, though they were exacerbated during the 1989-90 tour.

(For the record, 1990 was a terrible year for singers. In addition to McCartney’s problems, Madonna and David Bowie caught apparently-unshakable colds that significantly marred their tours. I also heard that Billy Joel had vocal issues during his 1990 trek, but since I didn’t see that show, I can’t vouch for this.)

While the 1993 outing demonstrated stronger vocal capabilities, it remained clear that McCartney never would regain the boldness and power he maintained during his younger days. Not that one could expect a 50-year-old McCartney to sound like a 25-year-old edition, but his vocal deterioration seemed to be more severe than one like. Heck, Bowie’s chain-smoked for many years, but his voice has held up much better; he can’t achieve earlier highs, but he can better approximate them.

As such, I didn’t expect much from McCartney’s singing during the Cavern show, and he showed some definite flaws throughout the concert. As I watched the DVD, I initially noted which songs offered the roughest singing. At first, it looked like only a few would seem appreciably strained. However, as the show continued, it became clear that quite a few tunes would be affected by these concerns, so I stopped transcribing them. “Shake A Hand” probably was the worst of the bunch, though, and “No Other Baby” and “All Shook Up” provided these demonstrations as well.

Nonetheless, as a whole McCartney sounded surprisingly good. Over the years he’s largely learned how to adapt his voice to ensure that he would be able to stay within the range of acceptability, and on Cavern, it helped that almost all of the songs he performed came from a recent album. As such, we could only compare him to 1999 recordings, so he didn’t have to live up to his much-younger self.

The sold exception occurred when he dug into the back catalog and pulled out 1963’s “I Saw Her Standing There”. This was the only Beatle tune in the show, and it fit in well with the rest of the set; the other works mostly came from the Fifties and early Sixties, so “ISHST” nicely matched up with those pieces. McCartney can’t quite manage the fire heard in his voice 36 years prior, but he held his own during the 1999 “ISHST”; I considered that performance to be the show’s most pleasant surprise.

The remaining 12 songs mainly came from Run Devil Run. “Fabulous” and “Twenty Flight Rock” weren’t found on that collection, and the concert omitted the album’s “She Said Yeah”, “Movie Magg”, “Coquette”, and “I Got Stung”. With exception of “She Said Yeah” - a terrific little rocker - I didn’t miss any of these tunes; they were among the record’s weaker tracks. “Fabulous” didn’t do much for me, but “TFR” was a nice addition to the set.

In addition to “I Saw Her Standing There”, Cavern included two other McCartney compositions: “Run Devil Run” and “What It Is”. The latter was somewhat unmemorable, but I loved the former. McCartney wrote it as a Chuck Berry homage, and it worked very well; it was one of the album’s best tracks, and it came to life nicely in the concert.

Frankly, Cavern provided few standout performances, as the entire thing maintained a pretty consistent level of quality. It was a tight little show during which the musicians largely adhered to the album versions of the songs. That wasn’t a bad thing, as the tunes all came across well, but it made the concert seem less than exciting at times.

Nonetheless, it remained solidly professional and tight. All of the musicians also played on Run Devil Run, and they provided crisp and fine versions of the songs. The show itself was light on visual excitement, but that was fine. The video’s producers occasionally indulged in some annoying quick-cutting - such as during “Twenty Flight Rock” - but they usually restrained themselves and kept the proceedings modest but accurate and watchable.

Ultimately, I thought that Paul McCartney Live At the Cavern Club was a competent and solid rock performance. It wasn’t one of the all-time great shows, but it offered a lively and entertaining concert that nicely represented some good material.

The DVD:

Paul McCartney Live At the Cavern Club appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Concert presentations often can be very difficult to translate to home video, and Cavern indeed demonstrates some of those concerns. However, I thought it succeeded quite well, as the DVD offered a consistently attractive and clear picture.

Sharpness looked nicely detailed and accurate for most of the show. During a few wide shots, the image became slightly fuzzy and soft, and the “drummer-cam” that focused on Ian Paice usually appeared a bit shaky; that was an unusual aspect that I’ll discuss more fully later. However, the majority of the program presented a fairly crisp and distinct picture.

I discerned no signs of moiré effects or jagged edges. That was a pleasant surprise, for concert presentations often suffer from those concerns. Most rock shows are shot on video, and that format’s lower resolution usually is responsible for the shimmering or jaggies. In addition, from guitar strings to fret boards to microphones, concerts simply present a lot of objects ripe for problems. Happily, Cavern avoided all of these issues and it remained tight and solid at all times.

Print concerns seemed to be non-existent, as I witnessed no examples of video distortion or artifacts. Colors looked nicely rich and accurate. The lighting schemes of the concert tended toward fairly gentle blues and violets, and these seemed to be clear and reasonably vivid. They complemented the presentation but didn’t become intrusive, and they maintained solid strength without bleeding, noise or other concerns.

Concert videos often look murky and indistinct due to smoke effects and other presentation issues. That wasn’t much of a concern during Cavern, as the show mainly appeared clean and appropriately visible through the light haze. Black levels seemed to be nicely deep and dense; these were mainly obvious through the dark clothing worn by McCartney and the other musicians, and the apparel was solidly defined. Shadow detail looked clear and neatly displayed. Really, the show didn’t offer many low-light situations other than those caused by colored tones, so my comments about the lighting applied to the shadows as well. Overall, the more dim sequences remained adequately visible and distinct.

So how about that “drummer cam”? As I watched Cavern, I noticed that the shots of Paice maintained an oddly “squishy” appearance. I get the same impression when I watch something shot fullframe and activate the “anamorphic squeeze” feature on my TV; the fullscreen image is smashed down and the people look squatty.

My guess is that the shots of Paice were filmed with a normal 1.33:1 camera while the rest used high-def 1.77:1 equipment. Rather than crop the 1.33:1 image, it looked like it was simply squashed to fit into the 1.77:1 dimensions. I don’t know if this is accurate, but it makes sense. In any case, the odd appearance of the drummer shots provided only a mild distraction; as a whole, Cavern looked quite good.

Also fine were the soundtracks of Cavern. The DVD offered both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes, and beyond the usual volume differences - most DTS versions are distinctly louder - I thought the two matched up cleanly. Actually, if I had to pick one that I preferred, I’d go with the DD track. While the differences were minimal, I thought the DD mix seemed a little better defined and more distinct, and it provided moderately tighter bass response. Again, the two tracks remained almost identical to my ears, but the DD one seemed a little stronger.

As a whole, the audio seemed very good across the board. The soundfield maintained an appropriate focus for a concert presentation. Music mainly stayed in the forward spectrum, where it offered solid stereo separation. Each guitarist had his own little niche, with Gilmour on the left and Green on the right, while the rest of the instrumentation occupied more of a middle ground. The playing remained distinctly spaced but blended together well to create a nice musical presentation.

Surround support mainly provided crowd noise, and some of those elements actually showed split-surround usage; for example, some shouts from audience members definitely came from one speaker or the other. The rears added a decent level of reinforcement to the music as well, and the songs seemed to get a nice “club” ambience from this.

Audio quality appeared to be very good. McCartney’s vocals sounded natural and crisp, with appropriate levels of reverb and fine clarity. Low-end seemed fairly good, although I thought bass response could have been louder; the quality of the low range was positive, but it didn’t create the presence I’d expect. However, when it comes to music, I must admit I’m a bass fiend; levels that seem low to me may appear perfectly acceptable to others. It veers into a matter of taste to some degree, and while I would have preferred heavier bass response, I still felt reasonably satisfied with what I heard.

Instrumentation always displayed solid clarity. Of particular note were the clean, ringing tones heard in the guitars. I thought those elements sounded especially bright and accurate, although the entire package remained well-defined. Overall, the Cavern show offered a very fine auditory experience that suited the music.

Although most concert DVDs skimp on extras, Cavern tosses in a fairly solid complement of them. First up is an Interview with McCartney. Performed by British TV personality and former member of Squeeze Jools Holland, this 17-minute and 10-second program covers a variety of topics but mainly discusses the songs heard in the concert and what they mean to Paul. The tone remains light, and I’ve heard some of these McCartney tales in the past, but it was a reasonably interesting little piece.

Under the unassuming title Promo, another McCartney interview appears elsewhere on the DVD. This one doesn’t identify the interviewer. It lasts for 21 minutes and 55 seconds and it encompasses much of the same territory found in the Holland interview. However, the focus remains more squarely on the creation of the Run Devil Run album. That’s why it includes a fair amount of information heard during the Holland piece. Nonetheless, the program offers some useful nuggets of its own since it deals with the album instead of the concert; the stories about the songs become redundant, but the rest of the information can be interesting.

However, one shouldn’t go into a McCartney interview and expect a lot of depth. While I dearly love the man’s music, he’s always been a very superficial and bland interview subject. Paul adopted a “genial emcee” persona back in the Sixties, and he’s stuck with it ever since that time. As such, he always comes across as bubbly and apparently open, but the truth is that he says very little of consequence. Actually, McCartney’s a lot like a politician; he talks a lot but he doesn’t really relate much of substance. I’d dearly love to hear the man truly open up someday, but at this point, I don’t think he’s capable of that.

Nonetheless, the little nuggets heard in the two interview programs are reasonably entertaining, and they shed some light on the subject. One other interesting aspect of the “Promo” stemmed from a few concert snippets it includes. These aren’t from the Cavern show, and they clearly are from a street performance. More than that I do not know, but I guess McCartney ran his little band through the paces with a separate concert prior to the Cavern gig as another promotional exercise. Too bad we don’t see more from it on the DVD.

Two music videos appear on this disc. We get clips for “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and No Other Baby”. The former is the more unusual of the two, though it’s oddly interesting. Basically it compiles a bunch of different kinds of folks who slowly amass and do similar dances to the song. On occasion, we see Macca as he lip-synchs and plays guitar. I wouldn’t call it a good video, but it’s different; at least it’s not the standard noise.

As for “No Other Baby”, it’s a more thoughtful affair. Macca lip-synchs the tune as he floats across the sea, apparently stuck in the middle of nowhere. Again, it’s not a tremendous piece of work, but I thought it fit the song and it was generally good.

Sleeve Notes looks like it’ll provide information about the various songs. Instead, it’s just a listing of all the tunes from RDR, and links appear for the ones that were played during the concert. As such, it’s nothing more than a glorified “scene access” feature.

However, additional text information does show up on the DVD. There are a few notes about the history of the Cavern Club, and we also find biographies of the musicians who play with McCartney. These greatly vary in detail. For example, David Gilmour’s tell us very little, while Mick Green’s goes on for pages. I don’t know why there’s such a difference among these, but I still thought they were a nice touch.

Overall, I was quite pleased with Paul McCartney Live At the Cavern Club. The show documents a solid performance; the set list may be disappointing for those who want to hear Beatle classics, but it provides a good iteration of some older rock tunes. The DVD offers very positive picture and sound, and it adds some nice extras as well. McCartney fans should be happy with this DVD - now where’s Rockshow?

Update 1: No sooner had this review appeared on July 20 2001 before I got a message from helpful reader Tim Gerdes. He notified me that McCartney apparently plans a tour after the September 2001 release of his new album. According to current rumors, this trek would come to the US in February or March of 2002. Personally, I'll restrain the huzzahs until it's official - if not wait until he's actually onstage in front of me - but this is cool news nonetheless.

Update 2: In my original review, I noted that Cavern is the only McCartney concert DVD currently available in Region 1. An initial update indicated that disagreed with me, as they listed Get Back and stated the disc was ready to ship with a price of $41.97. I felt this was odd and was probably a mistake.

I was wrong. As luck will have it, the day after I opined that the DVD didn't exist, I stopped by a mall retailer and found a copy of Get Back on the shelves with a price of $39.99. I haven't watched the disc yet, but it's an all-region NTSC affair that allegedly includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio. A review of the DVD will be up soon, so keep an eye out for it.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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