On Second Thought: Paul McCartney and Wings – Wings Over America (1976; 2013 reissue)

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Members of certain generations instantly sense excitement when hearing the opening lyrics to “Venus and Mars”: “Sitting in the stand of the sports arena, waiting for the show to begin.” Shortly after those lines, Paul McCartney and Wings roar into “Rock Show” followed by “Jet.” If a better opening exists for any rock concert, I haven’t heard it.

This moment and more was recorded for Wings Over America, a chronicle of McCartney’s triumphant 1976 US tour. The newest release in the Paul McCartney Archive Collection serves as an important milestone in McCartney’s career: the successful transition from ex-Beatle to a solo performer. While he sang a few Beatles tracks, his Wings material comprised the majority of the setlist. Unlike his current tours, Wings Over America argued that McCartney’s solo material should stand alongside the Beatles catalog. Despite scoring a number of hits, McCartney still had something to prove, and Wings Over America became Exhibit A: proof of his transition to 1970s rock star.

The 2013 remaster sharpens the somewhat muddy sound of the original release, allowing McCartney’s bass to clearly emerge on tracks such as “Band on the Run.” One fully appreciates the late guitarist Jimmy McCulloch’s considerable contributions to Wings, most notably the soaring solo in “My Love” and the anti-drug rocker “Medicine Jar.” Denny Laine, who stands as the closest thing to a true McCartney collaborator throughout the ’70s, receives his turn in the spotlight with an ebullient version of “Go Now,” a song he performed with previous band the Moody Blues.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Nick DeRiso tries to peel away the initial hype surrounding ‘Wings Over America’ to find the still-resonant gems from Paul McCartney’s 1970s-era solo work.]

Listening to this remaster, one fully appreciates how McCartney forged Wings into a tight unit, segueing from ballads to straight-ahead rockers with ease. The group demonstrates this through their lovely harmonies on “Bluebird” and the extended instrumental section of “Letting Go.” Today certain tracks seem like incongruous choices, such as the music hall celebration “You Gave Me the Answer” and the Paul Simon cover “Richard Cory.” Some songs McCartney has eliminated from subsequent tours, and it’s a treat to hear them again: “Beware My Love” lets McCartney display his raspy rock vocals, while “Call Me Back Again” channels the rhythm and blues records he cut his teeth on in Liverpool. “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” and “Magneto and Titanium Man” now stand as products of their time, examples of McCartney’s attempts at progressive rock.

Interestingly — and probably reluctantly — McCartney trots out a few Beatles classics, most likely to appease the crowd. While he may have preferred singing solo material at that point, he does turn in lovely versions of “Blackbird” and “Yesterday.” He particularly soars on “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” the acoustic guitars revealing the song’s skiffle roots. He continues performing these tracks today, although Beatles material now comprises over half of his set lists.

As with previous Archive Collection releases, Wings Over America comes in several packages. Besides the standard two-disc remaster, fans can opt for the Deluxe Edition Box Set, which includes the remastered Wings Over the World TV special and a slideshow featuring tour photographs. Wings Over the World narrates Wings’ story through McCartney’s voiceovers, 1975-76 tour footage, and rare clips of Wings’ earliest days touring universities. The film has clearly undergone extensive repair, as earlier versions of the documentary were often grainy and dark. Here, restorers have substantially improved the quality, although the sound remains patchy in sections. Still, it offers the opportunity to view performances not seen in the later documentary Rockshow, and the clips of McCartney in early rehearsals with wife Linda, Laine, and other band members demonstrates how the group became a cohesive unit. Other extras include previously unreleased tracks recorded at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, a tour program replica, a hardcover book chronicling the tour, and more photographs.

Casual fans may opt for the standard edition, but hard core McCartney enthusiasts will enjoy the bonus material and rarely seen footage. The Archive Collection has finally offered consumers substantially improved sound quality of a beloved album. Compare Wings Over America to McCartney’s current Out There tour or even the 1989-90 world tour, and experience how he gradually grew more comfortable in his own solo skin — enough to finally revisit and revel in his Beatles years. Wings Over America marks an important step in this journey, and is still an enjoyable listen.

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