You can make an equally convincing argument that since 1997, McCartney has recorded some of the most impressive and creative music of his solo career, long after a great many Beatles fans stopped paying attention. Beginning with Flaming Pie in ’97, McCartney has been on a creative roll that includes such four- and five-star highlights as 2005’s Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, 2007’s Memory Almost Full, and 2008’s Electric Arguments, by his alter ego band, The Fireman. Ever creative and experimental, McCartney also has strayed from the beaten path with pleasing results, especially on Electric Arguments, the oldies rocker Run Devil Run in 1998, and the American Songbook collection Kisses On The Bottom a year ago. His latest album, New, released earlier this week, could rank as the best record of this late-life McCartney renaissance.
For New, his first album of new rock material in six years, McCartney employed four young, contemporary producers — Paul Epworth (Adele), Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse), Giles Martin (son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin), and Ethan Johns (son of Glyn Johns, who produced Let It Be before it was given to Phil Spector to butcher) — and the result is a contemporary album that sounds more vintage than new.
New crackles with energy. The love songs are anything but silly, the rockers have bite and kick, and the lyrics have unusual heft and depth. Of particular note, several songs on New harken back to McCartney’s days with the Beatles. Two jump out right away on first listen. The hook-laden toe-tapper of a title track bounces along like a modern-day “Penny Lane” with some tasty Beach Boys doo-wop thrown into the coda for good measure. “Early Days,” on the other hand, is a wistful look back at McCartney’s early musical partnership with John Lennon. McCartney is 71 now and at times his voice sounds frail, especially on this track’s many falsetto passages, but he wears it well. “Early Days” is a memorable track.
“Early Days” also is a bit of an admonishment to all those revisionist historians who’ve tried to denigrate McCartney’s true role in the Beatles. That revisionist history took on a life of its own after Lennon was murdered in December 1980. McCartney had to deal with it for decades afterwards as Lennon was needlessly exalted as a musical saint while McCartney was derided as unworthy, a usurper of Lennon’s great gifts. It had all the unbelievable elements of an Ayn Rand novel, but thousands of intellectual lightweights swear by Rand, and millions of serious music fans bought into the "Lennon was the Beatles" theory.
To prove McCartney’s unworthiness, the Lennonistas skewered his solo career for not measuring up to his legendary work with the Beatles. Well, of course it doesn’t measure up. What did you expect? The same can be said of Lennon’s solo output. In fact, the only Beatle who ever made an album that surpassed his work with the Fabs was George Harrison, whose first post-Beatles release, All Things Must Pass, will stand forever as the greatest Beatles solo album. George’s solo career was every bit as uneven as McCartney’s or Lennon’s, and he never approached the quality of All Things Must Pass again. Neither Lennon nor McCartney ever reached that height as a solo performer in the first place.
New is not the Beatles and not as good as the Beatles, nor was it intended to be. It will, however, remind you in places of the Beatles, and McCartney is the one person left on the planet with the musical credibility to pull that off. Even when New veers away from the Beatles references, it’s still a challenging and compelling listen. Even at 71, McCartney is still producing excellent music. Based on his track record of the last two decades, New should not be overlooked.
By the way, if you’re a Beatles fan and you’ve never seen McCartney in concert, do yourself a huge favor and go. He tours constantly so opportunity shouldn’t be an issue. His voice isn’t quite what it was 10 years ago, but he can still hit the note and can still carry a song. His touring band is fantastic, easily the second-best band he’s ever played with. His shows routinely last nearly three hours, without an intermission. Best of all, the set list is about two-thirds Beatles classics. It’s a high-energy, life-changing experience.
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The Band was probably North America’s greatest rock group. Their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, rank among rock’s most iconic recordings. Blessed with three incredible lead singers and tempered by about a decade of constant touring, first as Ronnie Hawkins’ touring band and later as Levon and the Hawks, the Band was without equal on stage.
In 1972, they released their live masterpiece, Rock Of Ages, recorded the week of Dec. 28-31, 1971, at New York City’s Academy of Music. Exquisitely performed and recorded, and featuring a horn section comprised of some of New York's finest jazz musicians, Rock Of Ages ranks among rock’s all-time great live records, right up there with At The Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out by the Rolling Stones, Live Rust by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Live At Leeds by the Who, to name a few. When the expanded deluxe edition of Rock Of Ages came out in 2001, an impossibly great album became impossibly perfect.
Or so it seemed.
Robbie Robertson, guitarist and self-proclaimed leader of the Band, always loved the performances but never cared for the sound on Rock of Ages, so he, his son Sebastian, and collaborators Bob Clearmountain and Jon Castelli went back and remixed and remastered every track from all four shows. The result is a stunning new five-disc box set, The Band Live At The Academy Of Music 1971.
The set’s first two discs include what the producers believe to be the best performance of each song the Band played during their four-night stand at the Academy. The third and fourth discs are the complete New Year’s Eve show, uncut and uninterrupted. The fifth disc is a DVD of 27 video tracks, two of them previously unreleased. The box set also includes a 48-page hardcover book and retails for a rather pricey $99. Luckily, the first two discs were released as a two-disc package for $20, a tremendous bargain that comes highly recommended.
The sound on The Band Live At The Academy Of Music 1971 is shocking, a significant and wholly unexpected improvement over Rock Of Ages. The performances on the two-disc set are not all the same as those used for Rock Of Ages — many are significantly better — but all are timeless masterworks of one of the great rock units of our time.
By the way, those of you who believe The Last Waltz to be the Band’s great live album, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. The Last Waltz was a great event and made for an interesting movie, but the Band was beset by internal problems by that point. In particular, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson were at loggerheads with Robertson over numerous issues, from songwriting credits and royalties to Robertson’s unilateral decision to stop touring and effectively break up the group. The mood within the band was acrimonious, and the plethora of guest performers on The Last Waltz was a distraction, not an enhancement.
The 1971 concerts at the Academy of Music, on the other hand, marked the end of a truly great era for the Band. They didn’t play live again for more than a year and didn’t release another album of original material until 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross. They were never the same. Drugs, alcohol and group in-fighting took a steep toll, and that toll was clearly evident by The Last Waltz.
Live At The Academy Of Music 1971, by comparison, is the Band at their very best.
And their very best was very great, indeed.