After 40 years of writing groundbreaking music and making more money than anyone could ever count, Paul McCartney certainly has nothing left to prove. But that has not stopped the former Beatles’ bassist and songwriter from continuing to record albums or embarking on world tours. McCartney’s new two-CD set Back in the U.S. captures one such concert from the rock star’s recent American tour.
However, passing judgement on a live CD is in some cases comparable to reviewing a concert without actually attending. Back in the U.S. compounds the problem by editing out most crowd applause and any non-musical interaction McCartney had with the audience. This aspect of the album dampens the raw emotion generated from a live performance and makes an accurate evaluation all the more difficult.
Back in the U.S. is very generous on Beatles songs, as 20 of the 35 tracks are from the Fab Four’s glory days. Occasionally, McCartney and his four-piece band sound surprisingly youthful ripping through classic rockers such as “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “All My Loving.” The album also offers many nostalgic moments, as McCartney’s still sonorous voice wanders wistfully through tunes like “Here, There and Everywhere” and his hit with Wings “Live and Let Die.” But McCartney’s arrangements of the old classics often sound so similar to their original incarnations that the casual listener would probably get more enjoyment from listening to one of the many Beatles or McCartney greatest hits compilations.
The listener enjoyment level drops a bit when McCartney and company perform newer material such as “Lonely Road,” “Driving Rain,” and the catchy but badly cliched “Freedom.” While not bad songs, the new tunes seem out of place among the musical giants. The only new song that captures the emotion of the older material is the tender ballad “Your Loving Flame,” which compares favorably with the Beatles standard “Let It Be” in its use of gospel-styled piano.
The concert’s most enjoyable moments are a string of nine songs on which McCartney sings both older and more recent music accompanied by only acoustic guitar or piano. McCartney flawlessly renders timeless Beatles works like “Blackbird,” “We Can Work It Out,” and “The Fool On The Hill” during this span. The solitude of these performances creates a discernibly more intimate connection between McCartney and the audience. McCartney also pays tribute to the late Beatles guitarist George Harrison by surprising the audience with Harrison’s most popular Beatles composition “Something.” These solo performances alone will likely make the record worthwhile to dedicated McCartney fans.
Overall, live albums rarely capture the excitement of experiencing the music in person. But as live albums go, McCartney’s is certainly adequate and should provide old Beatles fans a pleasant glimpse into the past. If you’re a Beatles or McCartney diehard, then Back in the U.S. is probably worth checking out. If not, listen to your copy of Revolver and rest easy: you’re not missing much.