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The man, the enigma

After all these years, Paul McCartney still thrives on contradiction

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Babyfaced, genial, unnaturally gifted in his chosen profession, loved by many, reviled by others. A mirror of his times, a total pro working a crowd, a shameless revisionist of his own legend, a master of the comeback. Very eager to please, and largely a victim of his own success.

Bill Clinton or Paul McCartney? Why both, of course.

It's been exactly nine years since McCartney set foot on an Atlanta stage, and with only two world tours to his credit since the 1970s and the Big 60 looming next month, there won't be too many more opportunities to see one of the prime shapers of the '60s musical landscape strut his stuff. Never one to disappoint, Paul has loaded his set with Beatles and Wings classics -- no fewer than 30, in fact. But, much to the chagrin of the kind of audience member who only wants the soundtrack-of-a-generation oldies, he also includes the obligatory clutch of "Hey, I'm still relevant" songs from his current release, as he did on the last two tours. Take note: This time the new material is more than worthy.

Since the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, McCartney has endured numerous artistic and critical peaks and valleys. But curiously, the musical quality and the praise/damnation often have been out of synch. His only true solo efforts, McCartney (1970) and McCartney II (1980), were indulgent and unfocused, containing about a half-dozen real songs between them, yet many seem to consider them highpoints of his career. His classic, Beatlesque Ram from 1971, and one of Wings' best albums, 1979's Back to the Egg, have been almost totally forgotten, even by the man himself (they're ignored on this tour). Meanwhile, 1974's well-played but hastily assembled (and it shows) Band On the Run is still trotted out as a defining moment in '70s rock.

The good news is that regardless of what you may have already heard to the contrary, Driving Rain is the most spontaneous and rewarding album McCartney has released since 1982's Tug of War. It's been argued that John Lennon's death helped fuel the burst of creativity that resulted in Tug's best moments, and there is little doubt that finding fresh love after losing his wife Linda to cancer a few years ago has inspired the "goodbye/hello" themes of many of the new songs.

But what the people want is classics, of course -- and McCartney is only too happy to oblige on his latest tour, from the set-opening "Hello, Goodbye" to the closing "I Saw Her Standing There" (ironically the last song Lennon ever sang on stage). The new ballad "Your Loving Flame" is gorgeous in the "Let It Be" tradition, right down to the Beatles-like guitar/organ fills and harmonies. And there are surprises -- like "Here Today," McCartney's overlooked tribute to Lennon from Tug of War.

A decade back, McCartney stunned one lucky audience with a rendition of Lennon's "Strawberry Fields." On this tour, he's been doing a solo ukulele version of "Something" as a farewell to George Harrison -- part of a long solo acoustic set in which he claims an American Civil Rights inspiration for "Blackbird." George would approve, we feel sure.

Paul McCartney performs, Sun.-Mon., May 12-13, at Philips Arena, One Philips Drive. 8 p.m. $52-$252. 404-249-6400.

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