Paul McCartney and Wings – Wings Over America (1976; 2013 reissue)

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It’s much easier, nearly four decades later, to separate the music from the moment when it comes to Wings Over America. Back then, this multi-disc concert souvenir from Paul McCartney seemed like a triumphant musical summation.

In stark contrast to his modern-day globe-trotting ways, McCartney hadn’t at this point toured America in 10 years — and those concerts dated to his time in the Beatles. Only one of his former bandmates had even attempted such a thing in the interim, and George Harrison’s 1974 stateside jaunt (staggered as it was by his throat problems) had been sadly underwhelming. Thus, Wings Over America, now seeing a sweeping reissue as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection, was greeted with what can only be described as unfettered joy. Highlights included not just the U.S. concert debuts of a number of 1970s hits with Wings but also, and this was of particular interest at the time, Fab Four favorites like “Blackbird,” “The Long and Winding Road” and “Lady Madonna” — all of which were recorded after the Beatles had stopped touring.

Of course, after so many successive McCartney tours (and so many concurrent live albums) in the years since he retook the road in 1989, much of that seems like quaint nostalgia. Wings Over America — due May 28, 2013 via Hear Music-Concord Music Group — can come off like the sum of its weakest parts.

That’s a big mistake. Sure, the second half of this set was far weaker than the first — as McCartney and Co. delve into some of the most lightweight (but biggest selling, mind you) songs from their polyester-era oeuvre, including the smash “My Love” from 1973’s Red Rose Speedway, the 1975 Venus and Mars hit “Listen to What the Man Said”, and “Silly Love Songs” from their just-released Wings at the Speed of Sound. Too often, it seems, Wings Over America threatens to run out of gas as it couples throwaways like “You Gave Me the Answer” and “Magneto and Titanium Man” or “Hi Hi Hi” and “Soily.” Forget the Beatles retreads, too. They often feel rushed, in particular during the acoustic segment, and “The Long and Winding Road” is still a crashing bore — even without the gauzy Phil Specter strings.

Maybe it wasn’t the career exclamation point that it once seemed. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to recommend here. You’ll just have to take out the lesser items from Wings, and skip over the tracks from his old band. Luckily, that will still leave you with plenty of material: The original 28-track triple album has been remastered, and — on the deluxe model — also now includes eight previously unheard bonus songs from a San Francisco performance.

The leftovers actually make up the heart of Wings Over America, and it stands today (yes, even after all of those deletions) as some of the most vital work that Paul McCartney has ever done. There remains, for instance, this fizzy rush of anticipation surrounding the album’s initial trio of songs — “Venus and Mars/Rock Show” combined with incandescent take on “Jet,” even now the best opening McCartney’s ever constructed. Then there’s this set’s definitive version of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” And a remarkable take on “Call Me Back Again,” from Venus and Mars — with Jimmy McCulloch’s blistering guitar matched stride for stride by a tough trio of horn players led by saxophonist Thaddeus Richard.

Wings Over America also stands as the pinnacle of Denny Laine’s often-overlooked career with Wings, from his featured vocals on “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” and “Picasso’s Last Words,” to a vital take of his Moody Blues-era hit “Go Now” and an admittedly less interesting cover of “Richard Cory.” But check out “Time to Hide,” a deep cut from Speed of Sound, where we find Laine brilliantly recapturing the raw emotion of his early R&B-sides with the Moodies. Then, just when the mawkish distractions of “Let ‘Em In” threaten to sink the whole thing, Wings unleashes the feverish “Beware My Love” — another Speed of Sound track which, though tissue thin lyrically, begins a run of three muscular tracks: The Venus and Mars cut “Letting Go,” which is shot through with this jagged sexuality, and then the ageless “Band on the Run.”

A bonus DVD finds many of these tracks reprised, but in edited form, as part of the 75-minute “Wings over the World” TV special. There is also a new short film of tour photos. That’s to say nothing of the deluxe edition’s treasures — a huge book, with new notes from David Fricke; a tour journal with images taken by the late Linda McCartney; a replica tour book, a bonus live CD with alternate versions, and a download code for 24-bit hi-res audio versions of the original 36-song set. If anything, though, those extras tend to underscore what time has wrought: Both McCulloch and Linda McCartney have passed, while drummer Joe English has retired from the business. At the same time, though, you have to marvel at Paul’s dogged resiliency. Though he hasn’t worked with Laine since 1983’s Pipes of Peace, McCartney is still somehow out there, still somehow touring.

At one point in the accompanying film, McCartney is actually asked if 33 — his tender age at the time of this tour — is too old for rock ‘n’ roll. “It’s ancient,” Paul allows. “But I tell you what, you come to the show. If you like the show, you tell me if I’m over my peak after it, OK? And, if you tell me I am, it’s coats off outside!” I feel confident, no matter the odd misstep found on Wings Over America, that everybody’s outer garments remained in place.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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