A couple of people I know consider this the best live album ever made. I wouldn't go that far, but it does capture a pretty exciting moment in time.
When Wings toured the United States in 1976, Paul McCartney hadn't been on a stage here for 10 years, since the Beatles' final concert in San Francisco.
Wings had suffered a difficult birth — despite McCartney's considerable talents, his preference for lightweight pop music simply irritated people. On the early Wings records, song after inane song celebrated the simple joys of home and family, and worse still, although the music was often innovative and tuneful, he didn't seem to spend a whole lot of time on his lyrics.
The problem with Paul McCartney, it was said in the rock press, was that he wasn't John Lennon.
The problem with Wings was that they weren't the Beatles.
Right out of the gate, in 1971, the band was all but written off.
Hindsight's a funny thing. All these years later, McCartney's music — and indeed, much of his Wings output — holds up far better than Lennon's.
Of course, he's still out there touring, and fans flocks in the hundred-thousands to bask in the presence of one of the world's great contemporary musicians.
But he's 70 now, and while his energy never seems to flag, that golden voice is starting to sound tired and strained. He's had the same brilliant backup band for over a decade — they're young, faceless guys, but they reproduce those Beatles classics with faithful finesse. McCartney and his band draw from the bottomless well of nostalgia with epic concerts top-heavy with tunes from When He Was Fab.
Back to Wings Over America. The summer '76 tour came on the heels of Band on the Run and Venus and Mars, two marvelously well-constructed albums that found McCartney re-establishing his credibility with both press and public (he seemed to have put a bit of effort into them, and for a man for whom melodies came effortlessly, that was a big deal).
Both albums had spawned monster hit singles, and by the time he took his band on the road, "Silly Love Songs" — love it or hate it, it was a catchy record — was on top of the charts.
He was ready.
What you hear on these two CDs, newly remastered and reissued after a decade out of print, is, quite simply, post-Beatle Paul at the very top of his game. Nobody in rock 'n' roll could scream-sing like he does on "Hi Hi Hi," "Call Me Back Again, "Rock Show," "Soily" and the set's other brawlers. He makes it sound effortless. His bass playing stands out too — a bedrock that runs and bubbles even as he's singing his lungs out, and an integral part of what was, and there's no other way to say it, a damn good rock 'n' roll band.
Of course, nobody bought Wings' records, or went to the shows, to hear Joe English, Jimmy McCullough, Denny Laine or Linda McCartney. They're all just fine — even Linda — but now, as then, there was really only one draw here.
Laine takes lead vocals on several songs, most notably his soulful, '60s Moody Blues hit "Go Now," but it's still the Paul McCartney show. Laine sings "Spirits of Ancient Egypt," but it's McCartney's bass work and background vocals that make it soar.
This was state-of-the-art, smoke and lasers arena rock, 1976. Real horns! Real keyboards! As long as his records were selling in droves alongside Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Eagles and Peter Frampton, McCartney was going to give the audience a concert spectacle every bit as grand as those other guys.
One of the joys of hearing Wings Over America again, for me, is re-visiting all the "deep cuts" he hasn't performed since this period. Oh, today McCartney still plays "Live and Let Die," "Jet," "Let Me Roll It" and "Maybe I'm Amazed. " But some of the absolute gems here — "Beware My Love," "Listen to What the Man Said," "You Gave Me the Answer" (a "Honey Pie"-style dance tune), "Letting Go" and even the goofy "Magneto and Titanium Man" and "Let 'Em In" – have never (or rarely) been broached in concert since. It's as if Wings never existed.
Of the 28 songs on this sprawling album, only five are Beatles tunes, three of them done acoustically.
If you want to know what a rock concert in the 1960s was like, seek out The Beatles At the Hollywood Bowl. For the '70s experience, look no further than Wings Over America.
It was state of the art for its time, it holds up remarkably well, and it's got a ton of great music you might never have heard before.
The same guy was in both bands. Did I mention that?
(Rock Show, the film version of Wings Over America, will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in June.)