By Miles Raymer
Updated February 15, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Over the past year, Paul McCartney’s executed a flawless career rejuvenation. Last year, he was just Sir Paul the former Beatle; now he’s the favorite collaborator of the person with the strongest grip on pop music’s wheel, who occasionally low-key drops theme songs for mega-blockbuster video games. He’s done it with a minimum of fuss, too—50 years into his career, McCartney knows the value of letting Rihanna and Kanye take the lead on “FourFiveSeconds” while he just hangs in the back, looking impeccably cool.

New Paul didn’t make an appearance at his surprise Valentine’s Day show at New York’s Irving Plaza, a 1,000-capacity room that, as he noted between songs, is a tiny fraction of the size of venues where he normally plays. McCartney certainly wasn’t under any pressure to impress—the crowd was made up entirely of super-fans, and if he’d decided to lead them through a front-to-back recital of Venus and Mars, they probably would have been delighted.

Not that he’d ever do such a thing. More than any other performer from the classic rock age, McCartney has not only accepted that his audiences are there for his old hits—he’s actually just as excited to play them as they are to hear those songs. Over the span of his two-hour set—which is about half as long as he normally plays at his arena shows—he brought out some Wings numbers and a few late Beatles favorites. Mostly, though, he favored Beatlemania-era hits, songs that were formative influences on the band (Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy”). He even pulled out “One After 909,” one of the first songs he and John Lennon wrote together—before the Beatles were even a band.

McCartney’s eagerness to please has always been his greatest weakness. Hence the inclusion of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in the set—and only two cuts from his criminally underappreciated 2013 album New (and none from his fiery but almost entirely ignored 2008 divorce album Electric Arguments, his collaboration with producer Youth as The Fireman). With Kanye West popping up all over New York City this week, it wasn’t crazy to think that the rapper might pop out for “Only One,” or even bring Rihanna along for “FourFiveSeconds,” which has become McCartney’s highest-charting single in 30 years.

But Sir Paul seems to have learned over the years that coolness is fleeting—and playing his past hits has done him fine. Plus, when he closes his set with the same triptych of songs that closes Abbey Road—one of the most transcendent moments in pop music history—it’s hard to complain.