Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Music Review: Sir Paul’s Classic 'Rockshow' and 'Wings Over America' Return

Wings Over America
(Hear Music CD/DVD)

(Eagle Vision/MPL Blu-ray)

Maybe Paul McCartney tried too hard to turn Wings into something that would make everybody forget that other band he left in 1970. It seemed foolhardy then, but McCartney has done an estimable job resurrecting Wings from the dustbin of rock history as a group with many hits but little artistic cache. With his latest Archive Collection project—1976’s Wings Over America CD, a mega-tour document that showed once and for all that McCartney could make great music outside the Beatles, and the accompanying film, Rockshow, only seen in condensed form before (I saw it in Buffalo on a double bill with Let It Be shortly after John Lennon’s 1980 murder)—Sir Paul again proves that, naysayers aside, Wings was a pretty good group.

First, some history: after his solo albums McCartney (1970) and Ram (1971) failed to set the world on fire—although the former is charmingly off-the-cuff and the latter is, in hindsight, among his masterly musical triumphs—McCartney formed Wings, getting back to his roots by rattling around in a van to college gigs in England. The group’s first two efforts—Wild Life (1971) and Red Rose Speedway (1973)—piled up memorable melodic McCartney fragments, but only Speedway’s syrupy “My Life” was a hit, so the next record was make-or-break.

It turned out to be Band on the Run, which was—and remains—Wings’ high-water mark: that McCartney had to record it with only Denny Laine and wife Linda aboard must have been sweet vindication for the Cute Beatle after he was written off as passé. Wings became a hit machine: following up Band’s smashes “Jet,” “Helen Wheels” and the mini-suite title track were “Junior’s Farm” (1974), “Listen to What the Man Said” (from 1975’s Venus and Mars), “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs,” both from the number one album Wings at the Speed of Sound, released in the summer of ’76 and the perfect vehicle for a newly democratic band—Denny, Linda, guitarist Jimmy McCullough and drummer Joe English each sang on Speed of Sound—to show what it could do in concert, especially with its impressive catalog of non-Beatles songs.

So the tour immortalized on the new CD and Blu-ray found McCartney showing the other Beatles—none of whom ever went on an extended tour of the United States or the rest of the world—that he was still relevant, despite his plethora of “silly love songs.” Ever the shrewd showman, McCartney paces the two-hour-plus show brilliantly, opening with the one-two-three punch of “Venus and Mars/Rock Show/Jet,” then moving between lesser known tunes like “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” and “Call Me Back Again” (which has Paul’s most inventive scat singing since “Hey Jude”) to hits like “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Live and Let Die.”

For those who have seen Sir Paul in concert since 1989—which was his first world tour since ’76 and the first of many that continue to this day, even as the ageless Beatle has just turned 71—it might be a shock to learn that out of the 30 songs played on that ‘76 tour, only five (!!) were Beatles songs, all carefully chosen not to upstage his solo and Wings hits. The first Fab Four tune heard is a rollicking “Lady Madonna,” followed by “The Long and Winding Road,” then, as part of a mid-show acoustic set, “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Blackbird” and “Yesterday” (which incites shrieks of nostalgia: for an 11-year-old tune!). And that’s it: no “Back in the USSR,” no “All My Loving,” and no sing-along “Hey Jude” to overshadow everything.

Wings Over America and Rockshow are souvenirs of a concert by an incredibly disciplined stage outfit. A complaint of McCartney’s shows over the years has been the lack of spontaneity, the way every last note and vocal is mapped out in advance: but when you’ve got so many classic tunes sung by one of rock’s best voices, why meddle? And here, Wings is at its best: Laine and McCullough play guitar, bass or keyboards when Paul moves to yet another instrument—even though his effortlessly melodic bass-playing is the musical highlight of the show—while English is a beast on drums, Linda harmonizes inoffensively, and the rocking horn section (comprising Tony Dorsey, Steve Howard and Thaddeus Richard) beautifully complements the band on, among others, “Silly Love Songs,” “Listen to What the Man Said” and “Letting Go.”

Rockshow—which also shows Paul at his mullet-wearing peak, if such a time capsule snapshot means anything—isn’t the most polished concert film: there’s a definite crudeness, particularly when shots are not of what or whom should be seen, like a solo, and audience shots seem edited in haphazardly. But the euphoria of 20,000 fans getting to see and hear a former Beatle live remains palpable, and on Blu-ray—with the pummeling surround-sound accentuating such underrated rockers as “Hi Hi Hi,” “Beware My Love” and the final encore, the terrific “Soily” (which was never heard in the U.S. after the ‘76 tour)—the aural effect is astonishing.

The Rockshow Blu-ray includes a 15-minute tour overview, A Very Lovely Party, while Wings Over America—which also sounds much better newly remastered—has an even more essential extra, Wings Over the World, a 75-minute documentary of the band throughout the tour, so we get such backstage glimpses of Paul and Ringo after the L.A. gig, along with snippets of interviews and performance footage. 

It’s too bad that Paul is moving so slowly in releasing his Archive Collection—since 2010, there have only been five re-releases, and Venus and Mars and Speed of Sound have been announced as next up, probably for next year—but as long as they’re prepared so lovingly and exactingly, let’s keep them coming up at whatever speed.  

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