By Al Sussman
Senior Editor

As Paul McCartney embarks on his Driving USA tour, there are some people wondering how so many of the concerts sold out and why there is such a buzz about the tour among fans, given the very mixed fan and critical reaction the "Driving Rain" album elicited, and the fact that it was hardly one of Sir Paul's more successful albums, sales and charts-wise.
Consider, then, that this is only the seventh time in 38 years that McCartney has participated in a nationwide American tour and only his fourth as a frontman post-Beatles. And other than his two early '90s tours, there usually have been long stretches of time between tours. Indeed, this is his first trek across the U.S. in nine years. Thus, the feeling of a major event.
Unquestionably, McCartney's most famous American tour (arguably even moreso than his tours with The Beatles) was 1976's Wings Over America tour. It had been 10 years since the last Beatles tour, six years since that group's breakup, and the tour took place at the absolute peak of McCartney's post-Beatles career. He was backed up by unquestionably the best lineup of Wings' decade-long history, with hot young guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and solid drummer Joe English joining Paul, Linda McCartney, and Denny Laine, who had honed their vocal harmonies to perfection, forming a rock-solid unit. The concert set was heavily weighted toward the recent mega-hit Wings LPs ("Band on the Run", "Venus and Mars" and "Wings at the Speed of Sound") and early '70s McCartney/Wings hits, but for the veteran fans (meaning those then in their mid-to-late 20s), the emotional highlights were the small handful of Beatles songs McCartney chose to perform, particularly "The Long and Winding Road" and the climax of the mid-show acoustic set, "Yesterday", which usually left nary a dry eye in the arena. Still, for many the favorite moment of the show was the pyrotechnic workout on Wings' Bond movie theme, "Live and Let Die".
Indeed, the Wings Over America show was perhaps the ultimate "arena" rock concert of that day (which members of the Kiss Army of that era may argue), a point not lost on the young British and American punk rockers who were just beginning to make their presence felt in 1976 and who considered McCartney one of the "boring old farts" who put on overblown stage spectaculars in cavernous sports arenas.
That was decidedly a minority opinion, though. With bootlegs from audience recordings of the shows popping up through the summer, an official 3-LP document of the tour was released in December 1976. A documentary film, "Wings Over the World", was televised in the U.S. and Britain in the spring of 1979 and a straight concert film, "Rockshow", premiered late in November 1980, ironically just days before the murder of John Lennon.
A second Wings American tour was slated for 1980 but McCartney's Japanese pot bust and subsequent incarceration there scuttled that and eventually led to the band's dissolution. By the time Paul was ready to hit the road again in 1989, his career had hit a patch of comparatively bad road. After the huge success of 1982's "Tug of War", which yielded the mega-selling duet single with Stevie Wonder, "Ebony and Ivory", and another Top 10 in "Take It Away", 1983's "Pipes Of Peace" reached No. 15 in the U.S., largely on the strength of another No. 1 duet single, "Say Say Say" with Michael Jackson. But McCartney's solo film debut, 1984's "Give My Regards to Broad Street", was a critical and box-office failure, even though the single "No More Lonely Nights" did reach No. 6 in the U.S. Another movie song, "Spies Like Us", became McCartney's last, to date, American Top 10 single in February 1986, but that year's "Press" single and "Press To Play" album didn't approach that rarified air and neither did 1989's "My Brave Face" single (written with Elvis Costello) or "Flowers in the Dirt" album. Clearly, the Michael Jacksons and Madonnas of the '80s pop world had passed the once blazing-hot
McCartney by, and Paul needed to reconnect with the concert-going public.
After Wings had flown off into pop history, McCartney had worked with a wide range of musicians, from Carl Perkins and Ringo Starr to Dave Edmunds, Eric Stewart, Phil Collins, Pete Townshend, Mick Green and David Gilmour. But, when it came time to put together a band for his first tour in nearly nine years, Paul went with relatively little-known names. The best-known were guitarist-bassist Hamish Stuart from the Average White Band and guitarist Robbie McIntosh from The Pretenders. Drummer Chris Whitten had worked on McCartney's 1987 collection of rock oldies and the final addition was keyboardist Paul "Wix" Wickens (who is the only member of the Driving USA touring band to have participated in a previous
McCartney tour). The only holdover from the Wings days was, of course, Linda on keyboards, backing vocals and cheerleading
The new band did four rehearsal shows during the summer of '89, three in England and a press conference and brief live performance followed that night by a full rehearsal concert at the Lyceum Theatre in New York on Aug. 24. The tour officially began on Sept. 26 in Norway, reaching America on Nov. 23, when the first of four staggered North American legs of the tour began at the Great Western Forum in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, the same arena where the Wings Over America tour ended nearly 13 and a half years earlier.
For the next nine months, McCartney and his band criss-crossed the world, moving from indoor arenas to huge stadiums, but with the use of multiple video screens the show remained an accessible one for the largest of audiences. By this time, Paul had come to terms with his being forever linked with his Beatles past and now took full advantage of it, loading the show with a large number of Beatles favorites. The band, particularly Stuart and McIntosh, met that challenge admirably, especially on the "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End" medley that climaxed the shows. But the more-or-less regular set list included six songs from "Flowers in the Dirt", some of which came off much better in live performance than they had on record, particularly "Figure of Eight", the concert opener and one of the true highlights of the set. Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame", which McCartney had recorded for the Russian oldies album, was part of the set through the first half of the tour and, for a time, so was the dance-tempo re-working of The Beatles' first single, "P.S. Love Me Do". There were also some one-off performances that later surfaced as bonus tracks on CD singles.
Given how long it had been since McCartney had appeared in concert on the road, the whole tour was a major event and the show he put on with this extremely-capable band more than lived up to the hype. As had been the case with Wings Over America, a large number of the shows were professionally-recorded and an official live album, "Tripping the Live Fantastic", was released in November 1990 (complete with pre-show soundcheck "trinkets"). A Richard Lester-directed concert film, "Get Back", was released in October 1991.
The band stayed together for the next couple of years, with only one change in personnel, former Pretender Blair Cunningham replacing Whitten on drums. They appeared on a memorable early edition of MTV's "Unplugged" taped in England, and a subsequent MTV/VH1 concert special called "Up Close", which was done at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York. There were a handful of "surprise" gigs at small clubs in the U.K. and Europe during the summer of 1992 and, in 1992, this was the band McCartney used for his
next studio album, "Off the Ground".
Next, commencing in Australia on Feb. 5, 1993, was the New World Tour, which stretched nearly though all of '93, with two U.S. legs from mid-April to mid-June, this time in stadiums (domed and outdoors). Coming just three years after Paul's last tour, this one didn't have quite the "event" buzz of '89-'90 and the songs from "Off the Ground" got tepid reaction from the less-hardcore members of the audiences. But the tour was still hugely successful.
The set list was actually fairly different from the previous tour, with an "unplugged" set in the middle (a nod to both the success of the MTV show and the acoustic set on the '76 Wings tour). Once again, there were six songs from the new album (though none of them became the kind of fan favorite that "Figure Of Eight" had been) and, again, there were a host of Beatles songs and relatively little from his '70s solo/Wings days. But even with its older songs the set wasn't merely an echo from the last tour, with the likes of "Drive My Car" and "Fixing a Hole" making the list and "Let Me Roll It" returning from the Wings shows. The multi-media show had a larger-than-life quality that fit the stadium settings.
Once again, audio and video documents of the tour were released -- a single disc live album, "Paul Is Live", was released in November of '93 and a video companion was issued in the spring of '94. Unfortunately, the band's contracts ran out at the end of '93 and, with Paul moving on to other projects, they weren't renewed, ending the run o, arguably the best band McCartney had worked with since embarking on his post-Beatles career.
Paul McCartney has been omnipresent in the nine years since the New World Tour, involved in an incredibly wide range of professional projects, even as his personal life went through major transition. But, other than a small handful of live appearances and TV/video tapings, he's been missing from the concert stage. Now, he returns, again with a band with little reputation and coming off an album that has not exactly set the world on its ear. It'll be very interesting to see how McCartney's first concert tour of the new century progresses.