Sellout crowds. Onstage marriage proposals. Grasshopper infestations. Paul McCartney’s latest world tour has been eventful, finding him presiding over a successful marriage proposal and fending off insects pelting him as he performs “Hey Jude.” After kicking off his “Out There” tour in Brazil with these memorable incidents, McCartney has begun the American leg of concert dates. In addition, the latest release in the Paul McCartney Archive Collection, Wings Over America, hits stores next week.
Due to this McCartney media blitz, Deep Beatles will spend the next few weeks saluting some of his best — and lesser-known — live performances of his extensive catalog. What better way to begin this examination than to start with his first major American tour as a solo artist: the triumphant 1976 “Wings Over America.” While he has included the song periodically in subsequent set lists, “Bluebird” remains an underrated gem filled with McCartney trademarks: lovely harmonies, timeless lyrics, and a distinctive melody. “Bluebird” dates back to the Band on the Run album, supposedly written during a Jamaican vacation. McCartney, along with wife Linda and bandmate Denny Laine, began laying down the track in Lagos, Nigeria, eventually finishing recording at George Martin’s AIR Studios in London.
The group acquired two temporary members during the latter session: Howie Casey, a top session musician who played the essential saxophone solo; and Remi Kebaka, an African percussionist. While Casey also lent his talents to “Jet” and “Mrs. Vanderbilt,” his history with McCartney dated back to Liverpool. A former member of the band Derry and the Seniors, he and his group performed side-by-side with the Beatles at the famed Cavern Club.
Along with being a Band on the Run album track, “Bluebird” also appeared as the B-side of the “Mrs. Vanderbilt” single in 1974. Americans did not experience the song as a single, however, as it was released only in Australia and mainland Europe. Therefore it must have been a pleasant surprise for audiences when McCartney resurrected the song for Wings’ first major world tour. It appeared as part of the concert’s “unplugged” section, a segment McCartney still includes in tours today. Sitting side-by-side on stools, wielding acoustic guitars, Laine and Wings bandmate Jimmy McCulloch join McCartney and Linda on this quiet track. Casey recreates the sax solo, and a rhythm box sets the Latin-tinged tempo (enhanced by Joe English and other percussionists).
“Bluebird” gives McCartney and Wings the opportunity to show off their tight harmonies, and their perfect vocal blend is used to particular effect during the live version. The stripped down arrangement lets the romantic lyrics shine through. McCartney uses the bird symbol to represent freedom, similar to his previous composition “Blackbird,” but this time he clearly references love and how it transcends reality. He alternately calls his lover and himself bluebirds, eventually ending the song by repeating that “we’re the bluebirds.” Referencing nature, he describes that they will “fly away through the midnight air; As we head across the sea, and at last we will be free.” Tropical images soon follow: “All alone on a desert island, we’re living in the trees — and we’re flying in the breeze.” He paints charming pictures of love and how it can create feelings of liberation and invincibility.
The live version of “Bluebird” equals and even surpasses the studio original through added guitars and deeper, multilayered harmonies. Somehow the Wings Over America and Rockshow renditions lent the song more energy that never detracted from the track’s basic delicacy. Critics of that time may have dismissed McCartney for writing “Silly Love Songs,” but this performance proves that his gift for composing emotional and memorable ballads that resonate with audiences remains unrivaled.