In 2002, Paul McCartney embarked on his first American tour since 1993, and in the time between tours, Paul's, er, sorry, Sir Paul's life has sure had its share of highs and lows. He released two quality albums of original material (1997's Flaming Pie and 2001's Driving Rain), his loving wife of nearly 30 years, Linda, died from breast cancer; he recorded a potent, cathartic album that featured covers of rock 'n' roll rarities; he recorded "Freedom", a shallow, pandering, jingoistic jingle that marks his nadir as an artist; and he married former model Heather Mills. After such a tough time following Linda's passing, getting back out on the road seemed like the best thing for the now 60-year-old McCartney to do.
That tour seemed to ignite something in the guy; the performances on his new live album, Back in the U.S. have Macca sounding better than he has in years. Out of all four Beatles, Paul was the one who loved being onstage. He was the member most affected by the group's decision to concentrate on studio recording; he's the consummate performer, his best work always coming from onstage. Back in the U.S. is actually his third live album since 1989 (1989's Tripping the Live Fantastic and 1993's Paul Is Live being the others), and like the other two, it has McCartney bringing out the usual standards from the Beatles, Wings, and solo catalogs, as well as a handful of new tracks and some nice surprises thrown in. The set is weighed heavily toward Beatles material, and on the new album, 21 out of the 36 songs come from Paul's earliest days.
There's no such thing as a bad McCartney performance, but what separates Back in the U.S. from the rest of McCartney's live albums is the strength of his backing band. Instead of surrounding himself with marginally talented musicians who hover in the shadows, he instead chose to go onstage with a younger crew, and the performances on the album have more of a youthful spark to them as a result. Guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray prove more than capable at handling all the classic riffs and solos, while hefty drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. is an all-out ace behind his kit, combining raw power with feeling. Paul "Wix" Wickens, who has been playing live with McCartney since 1989, is Macca's secret weapon, ingenuously recreating myriad horns, strings, and piano licks on his synths.
The Beatles tunes, of course, are great. The requisite tunes like "All My Loving", "Back in the U.S.S.R.", "Can't Buy Me Love", "Let It Be", "Hey Jude", "The Long and Winding Road", and "Yesterday" all deliver the goods, but it's the little surprises that provide the most fun. "Hello Goodbye" joyously opens the set, "Getting Better" gets its first live treatment in over 30 years, "Mother Nature's Son" is lovely, as is "The Fool on the Hill", Paul's ukulele version of George Harrison's "Something" is touching, and the set closing medley of "Sgt. Pepper (Reprise)" and "The End" has Paul, Anderson, and Ray trading solo licks, while Laboriel goes totally nuts on his drums. McCartney adds a facetious touch to the somber "Carry That Weight" by singing at one point, " . . . and this is the bit where I don't know the words but I don't even think I'm going to bother to try and learn them before the end of the tour," without losing a beat. Yeah, it's contrived, but it's cute.
As for the Wings and solo material, it's a mix between the brilliant, the corny, and the stupid. "Band on the Run", "Let Me Roll It", and the deliriously dumb "Jet" are a blast to hear, "Live and Let Die" simply roars, while "Every Night" and "Maybe I'm Amazed" sound as emotional as their original versions. Meanwhile, the syrupy "My Love" and such atrocities as "C Moon" and "Coming Up" will please diehard fans only. Driving Rain's "Your Loving Flame" sounds like it belongs with all the other songs, but that awful "Freedom" rears its ugly head late in the album, threatening to ruin all the fun.
Back in the U.S. embodies some of the better elements of live albums, but also a few of the negatives as well. Another reason Back in the U.S. comes close to being completely derailed is thanks to some rather questionable editing tactics. Anyone who has seen a McCartney show know how much fun is had, how Paul loves to connect with the audience, always providing interesting onstage banter, but on this album, all that's edited out. During his concerts, he touchingly dedicated songs to Harrison, John Lennon, Linda, and Heather, but we hear none of it. As a result, although the performances are excellent, you hear no interaction with the fans (aside from the requisite, and cringe-inducing "audience participation portion of "Hey Jude"), and McCartney almost sounds like an aloof artist who doesn't acknowledge his fans at all, which we all know just isn't the case. If the songs didn't sound so good, the album would have been ruined.
But in the end, we still have a very good, two hours' worth of live Paul McCartney music to enjoy. He's getting on in years, and has a tougher time hitting the higher notes (like on "Maybe I'm Amazed"), but he's still giving it his all, and that's all we could ask for.