McCartney still has that Beatles aura

Paul McCartney is a big Sir and the world's most famous bass player - yet he's also been really quiet for nearly the past three decades.

McCartney, who plays Time Warner Cable Arena on July 28, is the only living principle songwriter left from the Beatles. Yet he was also the same man responsible for 10 years of Wings, a band many fans have yet to forgive him for. He's hardly known for the solo work created and released since Wings' demise, yet he'll still move tens of thousands of concert tickets the world over.

What makes McCartney so important, especially in 2010?

On a very basic level, he's still around - making music, accepting awards, smiling that smile. Exactly 40 years after "Let it Be," the Beatles' final album, McCartney, 68, is our world's premier elder rock statesman.

In early June, he was given the royal treatment - American style - when he received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Sure, Stevie Wonder, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello, Jack White and all the Jonas Brothers were there to celebrate. But so was President Barack Obama, who awarded the singer-songwriter with the prize.

"It is my distinct pleasure to present America's highest award for popular music on behalf of a grateful nation, grateful that a young Englishman shared his dreams with us," Obama said at the ceremony.

McCartney's dreams have varied over the years. The same progressive mind that gave us tripped-out anthems such as "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and "Helter Skelter" is now more focused on rear-view-mirror-style art-pop ditties "Ever Present Past" and "That Was Me," both of which are on his most recent record, 2007's "Memory Almost Full."

In fact, the somberly symphonic "The End of the End" is also from McCartney's latest, and it addresses "the day that I die." The artist who gave us "Yesterday" is now looking at tomorrow and the day after. That's perhaps why he has been playing half-and-half concerts on this latest North American swing - shows that are half Beatles songs, half Wings/solo material/everything else.

McCartney is aware of his place in popular music. Only the hardcore fans will consume his new material. The rest of the ticket-purchasing public is spending money on his concerts in hopes he'll sing "Blackbird," "Eleanor Rigby" or "Hey Jude."

Lucky for them, all three of those songs have been in recent set lists.

More important than hearing those songs, for many fans, is sharing a room with the legend. Nothing against Ringo Starr, Cirque du Soleil or Harmonix, makers of the "Rock Band" video game titles, but time spent at a McCartney concert is the closest modern-day Beatles fans can get to that original musical experience.

While John Lennon was the group's stark realist, McCartney was the Beatles' idealistic master of melody. His mind was a bottomless well of lines the world would sing along with, and we haven't stopped singing them - a fact that is obvious given the mammoth sales numbers from the 2009 Beatles reissues and the "The Beatles: Rock Band."

By saying his solo recordings since Wings have been largely ignored by the masses isn't to say there hasn't been quality material there. McCartney purists will be the first to tell you that 2005's "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" - a sprawling, delightful effort he recorded with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich - is worth your time and money, and it is.

Critics reconnected with McCartney on 1997's "Flaming Pie," a stripped-down offering he recorded after working over the Beatles' "Anthology" masters. The record's reviews were embarrassingly plagued with modifiers such as "Beatles-like" and "Beatlesesque." Sure enough, the songs were solid enough to stand on their own because McCartney's songwriting voice is singular and still intact.

But it comes down to McCartney's being important in 2010 because he's our primary connection to the greatest band in the history of rock 'n' roll.

That's a torch he's fine with carrying.