Marquee McCartney

by Clive Young. Paul McCartney played a surprise gig in NYC on the Ed Sullivan Theater's marquee, next to Pro Sound News' office.
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by Clive Young.

"When you do stuff with Paul, there's always the element of a history-making scenario," mused another Paul--Paul "Pab" Boothroyd. The Paul that the noted live sound engineer was referring to was McCartney, and the "stuff" in question was nothing less than a three-night stand of the first concerts to be held in New York's new CitiField Stadium. Breaking in the new venue was particularly poignant as it replaced the fabled Shea Stadium, where the Beatles held the first stadium concert decades earlier.

Adding more history to the occasion, the three sold-out shows were preceded by a surprise free performance on top of the marquee outside the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway--also known as the home to The Late Show with David Letterman. While the Beatle appeared on the talk show that night, the venue was particularly fitting as it was there--back when it was called CBS-TV Studio 50--that the Beatles were first introduced to U.S. audiences 45 years ago on Sullivan's program.

According to The New York Times, it was McCartney himself who decided to perform outdoors; while Letterman apparently asked the Beatle sing on the same stage that he had in 1964, Macca reportedly said he would only perform if it could be an event--and it was. Usually gigs like these are the worst-kept secrets in showbiz, but to be fair, even we at Pro Sound News didn't know about it until we looked out our office windows and saw them setting up across the street, 27 floors down. We go to a lot of concerts to bring you the news, but this time, the concert came to us.

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The Letterman gig came on the heels of a massive show in Halifax--the first of a meandering set of McCartney gigs around North America during the summer. With some time between the Canadian show and CitiField, the original plan was to rehearse for a few days to tighten up the band. "Then we heard rehearsals were cancelled and we're gonna do Letterman and by the way, it's going to be on the roof of the front-entrance awning, and 'Yeah, Pab, you'll be mixing on Broadway on the sidewalk; we'll put in a bit of PA for you!'"

Within no time, McCartney's tour sound provider, Clair (Lititz, PA), was involved, sending out a team led by Mike Wolf, that included tour vet Ed Dracoules as well as techs Rachel Atkins and Paul Swan. The PA fielded was ground-stacked, with Clair's proprietary i3 boxes supplemented by Prism series subs, with P2 cabinets for fills.

As might be expected, the house (or street, as the case may be) mix position and monitorworld consisted of the touring control gear already out on the road with McCartney, so Boothroyd was stationed across the Great White Way from the marquee on his Digidesign Venue Profile console, while John "Grubby" Callis had his two Midas Heritage desks beneath the gig on the sidewalk, sending sound up to SRM wedges and R4 sidefills. "He had a little monitor screen so he could see up there," said Boothroyd, "but once it kicked off, you go with it."

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And since Broadway is a major thoroughfare in one of the busiest cities in the world, there really was no other choice. "We went to do the soundcheck, and we're talking about middle of the afternoon here, traffic going past; the word had just got out so the street was full of people causing problems with traffic, photographers and all that. They put black drapes up atop the awning so the band could knock a few numbers out. Paul puts his head out the curtains and goes 'Hello, New York!' and immediately, as soon as I put that through the PA, I had the commissioner, the police and all sorts of people running over, shouting 'Turn it off! Turn it off!' "So 'Hello New York!' was my soundcheck for the whole thing! I did the rest on cans and when it came to the show, I just went for it."

Putting PA up on the marquee was an impossibility, likely as much for space considerations as for weight (notably, temporary steel support beams were placed beneath the awning during the event--having it collapse beneath a Beatle would likely make for great TV but terrible lawsuits). As a result, the loudspeakers had to be groundstacked in the street--they couldn't even be on the sidewalk, causing the production to lose an additional half-foot.

Boothroyd recalled after the fact, "The funny thing was, every time a truck or bus came through, I lost the PA! The street wasn't closed off, so they'd drive in front of the ground stack, and I'd say 'Whoa! What happened?' I'd look over and see a bus going by in front of the PA. They go past, that side comes back, then they go by the other stack and the other side would disappear. And Grubby goes, 'Bloody hell, Pab! Every time a truck goes by, I get blasted with high-end from your ground stack!'"

After a brief interview with Letterman inside the theater, McCartney joined his band outside to knock out the Beatles' "Get Back" and the more recent "Sing The Changes," taken from his last album, Electric Arguments, released under the long-running pseudonym, The Fireman. Once the TV show taping concluded, however, the group kept going, running through additional tunes including "Band on the Run," "Back in the U.S.S.R.," "Let Me Roll It," "Coming Up" and "Helter Skelter." In between, there was banter with the crowd, as McCartney queried, "Shouldn't you all be at work?"--and everyone (even our bosses) yelled back "No!"

"It went on for another 20 minutes," said Boothroyd, "before the police said, 'You know, we love you Paul but that's enough. Broadway is Broadway and it's causing havoc.'" The additional songs were taped and appeared on Letterman and McCartney's respective websites; hearing the gig played back afterwards provided a touch of relief for the FOH engineer, as it turned out.

Boothroyd explained, "You go from being in the street and hearing your ground stacks disappear, to going downstairs in the building, listening to it and going 'Cool, the guys were rocking.' Me and Harvey [Goldberg], the sound engineer from the Letterman show, got together, he remixed the broadcast and as you do, you touch it up for broadcast. I have to say the band played great, it sounded wonderful and everybody was knocked out; Harvey's a great engineer and he has a great team, so thanks to him as well--it was a great result."

That evening's episode of The Late Show with David Letterman handily beat the talk show competition, getting viewed by 4.4 million people, but for the estimated 4,000 who crammed on to the sidewalks around 53rd and 54th Streets, the free show was a grand time all on its own. Even with the PA being hassled by trucks, Boothroyd himself was pleased: "It sounded good and went down pretty well--people rocked out in the street!"

Look for more with Pab Boothroyd on the CitiField shows in September's issue of Pro Sound News.