Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 24, 2003)
In 2002, I did something that seemed extremely unlikely only a few years prior: I attended a Paul McCartney concert. (Actually, I attended 11 of them, but that’s a different subject.) Prior to 2002, McCartney last toured in 1993, but it wasn’t the time since that trek that made another outing seem improbable. The 1998 death of Paul’s beloved wife Linda seemed to extinguish any possibilities of additional McCartney tours. Until 2002, Paul never hit the road as a solo act without Linda onstage as well. The possibility that he’d go on the road without her appeared slim, and I believe Paul even publicly announced his retirement from live performances sometime around 1998 or 1999.
Things changed. I don’t doubt Paul’s sincerity when he made that declaration, but it’s funny how a new romance will open up one’s attitudes. Paul found love again a few years ago, and indeed remarried in June 2002. Unlike Linda, his wife Heather doesn’t play in the band, but I imagine that her presence rejuvenated McCartney and prompted his return to arenas.
Whether due to the affection of a woman decades younger or not, the 2002 tour showed Paul in a more positive light than we’d seen him in years. I saw McCartney three times in 1990 but missed his 1993 show; due to poor ticket sales, he cancelled that trek’s third leg, which meant he didn’t make it to my home turf of Washington DC. Nonetheless, I got the album and video from 1993 as well as similar product from 1989-90, so I know Paul’s material from those eras well.
As a kid, I absolutely adored the Wings Over America album and Rockshow video, both of which documented Paul’s 1976 US tour. These remain peak live McCartney. He sounded great, and though Wings never possessed great technical chops, they coalesced well.
The 1989-90 and 1993 Paul showed that he’d lost a lot over the years. His vocals came across as thin and reedy as he strained to hit various notes. While technically very competent, his bands seemed dull and lacked much personality.
Amazingly, 2002 found McCartney back on top. First of all, his voice seemed much stronger than it had in years. I saw 10 concerts during the first leg, and Paul did lose some range as they progressed. (He regained this during the break; I took in one of the early second leg shows and thought he sounded spectacular.)
Even at his worst in the spring, however, Paul’s voice still came across as vastly superior to its 1989-90 or 1993 incarnations. In case I suffered from faulty memories, I listened to the live recordings from those tours while in the midst of my 10 first leg concerts. I remembered correctly, and it became tremendously evident just how much better he sounded in 2002.
It helped that Paul’s 2002 band showed a lot more energy than did his earlier counterparts. The same crew with whom he recorded 2001’s Driving Rain, this group included Rusty Anderson on lead guitar, Brian Ray on rhythm guitar and bass as needed, Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums, and Paul “Wix” Wickens on keyboards. Only Wix played with Paul prior to the Driving Rain era, as he was along for the ride on the 1989-90 and 1993 tours.
No one mistook Paul’s band for a bunch of fireballs – or Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, thankfully – but they imbued the shows with an energy absent since the Wings days. Frankly, I think they could have come across as livelier still, but I’ll take what I can get after the somnambulant 1989-1993 musicians. Abe really brought the most spark to the group, as his forceful pounding offered a show unto itself; often my attention would drift from the front stage to watch Abe beat those skins into submission.
Technically McCartney’s road work in 2002 should be considered two tours, not just one. He initially went out in the spring on what he called the “Driving USA” tour. That experience went so well that after a summer break, he returned to America in the fall for the “Back in the US” tour. Despite one might expect from the title, the video program found on this DVD comes from the spring “Driving USA” leg.
For all intents and purposes, the two segments really presented the same show, but a few small differences occurred. The staging remained identical, and the concert even featured the same lame avant-garde circus act to open the show. (A few shots of these performers appear on the DVD, but thankfully, we only see a little of their work.) Paul did alter the setlist slightly, however. For the fall segment, he dropped “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Vanilla Sky” and “C Moon” and replaced them with “She’s Leaving Home”, “Let ‘Em In”, and “Michelle”.
During each leg, McCartney’s setlist almost never varied. I heard that Toronto got “Mull of Kintyre” in the spring, while Houston received “Midnight Special” in the fall. However, Paul kept things the same the vast majority of the time.
While that fact made my 11 shows more tedious than I’d have liked, I can’t criticize the basic program. Paul packed a whopping 37 songs into each set. Heavy in Beatles material, 22 of the numbers found in the show came from his days with the Fabs. (That number includes Paul’s cover of George Harrison’s “Something”.) Four originally appeared on Driving Rain, plus “Vanilla Sky” from the same era. In addition, eight showed up during Paul’s Seventies solo work. That left a mere two tunes – “Coming Up” and “Here Today” – to account for all of McCartney’s material done in the Eighties and Nineties.
The almost total absence of work from a full two decades remains a disappointment. Paul put out some good material during that time, and it’d be nice to hear tracks from Press to Play and Flaming Pie live. However, with such a rich back catalog, Paul can never please all of the people. I think he should try something more daring if he hits the road again – which I believe he will – but taken on its own merits, the 2002 setlist offered a lot of excellent material.
I won’t attempt to discuss all 37 tracks, but I will chart my own personal cheers and jeers. (I’ll also hope that TV Guide doesn’t sue me for use of that phrase.) Really, the only major complaint I had about the tour resulted from the general lack of ambition in the setlist. It didn’t include any songs that I genuinely disliked, though Driving Rain’s “Freedom” remains pretty weak.
Mostly, whatever disenchantment I felt came from the overexposure of various tunes, but that affects virtually everyone I see. I love “Born to Run” and “Jumping Jack Flash”, but when I attend shows by Springsteen and the Stones, I’d kill to not hear those numbers for the eleventy-seventh time. I’ve not gone to nearly as many McCartney concerts as I have for that pair, but I could still live without numbers like “Eleanor Rigby”, “Hey Jude”, “I Saw Her Standing There” or a number of others that got repeated airings during Paul’s earlier tours. Given the infrequency of his performances, it’d be nice to see him branch out more heavily.
That didn’t mean that Back in the US failed to include any never-before-played material, though. In addition to the four Driving tracks and “Vanilla Sky”, Paul trotted out a mix of tunes that he’d not done on any prior tours. This included “Hello Goodbye”, “Getting Better”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Here Today”. Of course, “Something” fell into that category as well, but it provided an unusual exception, since it served as Paul’s tribute to George. In addition, we found a few songs that showed up infrequently in the past or hadn’t been played in some years. That list featured tracks like “Maybe I’m Amazed”, “C Moon” and “Blackbird”.
Otherwise all the tracks received regular airings during either the 1989-90 or 1993 tours, and some of them popped up during both treks. In this category we find numbers such as “Hey Jude”, “Yesterday”, “Let It Be”, “Band on the Run”, “Live and Let Die” and a bunch of others. Apparently Paul feels audiences would riot if he didn’t do these songs, but I think he overestimates the negative impact their omission would cause.
Not that I dislike those tracks. “Yesterday” always appears in a nicely simple presentation and maintains some impact. The 2002 version of “Let It Be” seems crisp and lively, and “Band on the Run” brings the band back to life after a long “unplugged” segment. It launches the concert’s third act, and that portion of the concert always worked best for me. I liked the prior parts, but once we kicked into “Run” and then “Back in the USSR”, the show took on greater life.
I didn’t think the concert ever suffered from any substantial weaknesses. No, I didn’t like “Freedom”, but the other new songs worked acceptably well; they certainly didn’t light the audience on fire, but they didn’t fall flat either. Though I love the song, I don’t like the 2002 version of “I Saw Her Sounding There”; the addition of Wix’s keyboards gives it an oddly rinky-dink sound. My least favorite part of the show usually occurred during the long “unplugged” piece. It seemed fun to see Paul play solo, but he did so many songs in that format that it grew somewhat tedious. That made the impact that much greater when the full band went electric again with “Run”, and Paul should have cut the unplugged segment short by a few songs.
Still, McCartney’s 2002 shows seemed generally satisfying. As I previously noted, my biggest complaint revolved around the lack of change to the setlist, and the sameness connected to other elements of the presentation. Paul told virtually identical stories every night, and he even used the same between songs interjections such as “(Insert town name), we have come to rock you!” Paul did slightly vary the stories over time, so I noticed some differences, but they largely remained the same. While I don’t like canned stage patter, I still won’t complain too much, since only a few audience members realized that Paul’s chat stayed so similar every night.
All of the comments above reflect my thoughts about the concerts I witnessed in person. Anyone who expects to find a good representation of the show on the Back in the US will feel sorely disappointed, however. Instead, it provides a chopped up package that doesn’t offer a snapshot of the real thing.
Where do I begin with my complaints? For one, the DVD doesn’t even remotely attempt to portray the concert in a logical manner. The show’s first three songs appear in the appropriate order, but after that, it skips way ahead to “Live and Let Die” and then jumps from tune to tune with no rhyme or reason. Why not present the tracks in the manner that appeared during the original concert? I have no idea.
Not that the DVD would have worked well anyway, as the program splices in scads of extraneous material. Rather than simply present the concert, the filmmakers decided to stick in gobs of other elements. We see some interesting tidbits such as information about the pyrotechnics, and I also like the soundcheck material. We hear McCartney perform numbers like “Matchbox”, for which Paul plays an excellent little solo, and we also get some fun impromptu tracks like one apparently called “Laptops, Pagers and Mobile Phones”. Paul seems fascinated with all the technology he witnesses among audience members; during concerts, he occasionally commented on the modern phenomenon in which fans will pop out phones and hold them up so the people on the other end hear the songs. Some of these interstitial moments work quite well.
However, many of these components offer little more than puffy filler. We see nonsense like Paul’s special visit to the zoo, where he got to interact with some apes. We also watch many shots of spastic fans who declare their everlasting love for Paul.
You’d think that after 40 years of superstardom, McCartney would feel pretty content with his place in history, but apparently he still needs lots of ego gratification. To state that US includes a lot of shots that feature adoring fans would be an understatement. Not only do we encounter gushing obsessives during the interstitials, but also they show up ridiculously frequently throughout the concert itself. Far too often, the action cuts from the stage and displays images of the audience. This varies from shots of celebrities like Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson to glimpses of “ordinary” fans.
Don’t expect a representative sample, however, as the concert really feels like a walk down mammary lane. We encounter scads of shots of big-chested babes, which doesn’t correspond to the reality of the average McCartney concert. Based on my experiences, Paul attracts more of a frumpy haus frau crowd; sure, the occasional hottie shows up, but based on this DVD, you’d think a McCartney show equates to a visit to the Playboy Mansion.
While I enjoy the sight of sexy women, these cuts become increasingly distracting and annoying. It feels as those the filmmakers don’t trust that the onstage action will entertain us, so they try to make the piece more frantic and “spice it up” with all these looks at other elements. It doesn’t work. Instead, the program simply comes across as hyperactive and disjointed, and it never remotely conveys the impression of a live performance.
In addition to all these flaws, US actually abbreviates quite a few songs. I noticed edits to “Coming Up”, “Your Loving Flame”, “My Love”, “Freedom” and “Hey Jude”. The program interrupts many of the other songs with extraneous audio as well. We hear shrieking during “All My Loving” and “Lady Madonna” among others. All of this seems unnecessary and annoying.
Musically, the concert works reasonably well. It becomes difficult to focus on the songs due to all the external distractions, but the performances come across as generally fine. Oddly, the filmmakers occasionally select some fairly weak vocals from McCartney. Both “Band on the Run” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” sound surprisingly rough, even though I know from personal experience that Paul did much better elsewhere on the tour. Surely they could have found footage from stronger performances.
But that would make sense, and little about Back in the US seems logical or competent. Objectively, US may not be the worst concert program I’ve seen, but it still comes as a massive disappointment. The filmmakers botched the job in many ways and made this a generally unsatisfying and program that poorly reproduces a concert tour that worked well in person.