20 years not out – Paul’s longest serving tour band

Paul once said that having a band was his idea of a luxury. By that, I think he meant the ability to just play music with others when he felt like it and, ultimately, perform in front of audiences – something we know is one of his great passions. While The Beatles ultimately became something much bigger than that, that was the band’s original core purpose. And when they broke up (after Paul had tried, in vain, to steer them back to that mission statement), Macca was first out of the blocks in an attempt to form a new ensemble and musical comfort blanket. Yet for all its huge success and the enduring presence of Linda and Denny Laine, Wings never had a settled membership, with a revolving door of guitarists (three) and drummers (four) eventually sapping Paul’s enthusiasm for the concept. His 1989-93 tour band provided more stability, but even that had an enforced change of drummer midway through. But the group he put together for his return to live performing in 2002 finally gave him the luxury he craved. This year they have celebrated two decades as a touring unit – longer than The Beatles and Wings put together – and the recent showstopping set at the Glastonbury Festival was, appropriately enough, their 500th gig together. So why has this backing band enjoyed such fruitful longevity?

Back on the road – Paul and the band reunite earlier this year

As is often the case with Paul’s musical collaborators, the formation of the band came about more by accident than by design. After Macca signalled his intent to work in a group setting when recording 2001’s Driving Rain album, producer David Kahne pulled in US session musicians he knew and liked – guitarist Rusty Anderson, keyboard player Gabe Dixon and drummer Abe Laboriel Jnr. – for the sessions. None of them had met Paul before, but they clearly hit it off, so much so that they performed together at the 9/11-inspired all-star Concert for New York benefit show shortly before the album’s release. It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts – the show doesn’t rank among Paul’s best live performances, while Driving Rain is among his least commercially successful records – but before they hit the road for a full-scale US tour in the spring of 2002, there would be a couple of key changes. First, Dixon opted to exit stage left and focus on his own band instead, resulting in McCartney bringing in fellow Brit Paul ‘Wix’ Wickens from the 1989-93 line-up to handle keyboard duties. Second, to help fill out their sound with a second guitarist (and, crucially, someone who could handle bass duties when Paul switched to another instrument), they recruited Californian Brian Ray, a friend of Abe’s. And, following a brief debut opening that year’s Super Bowl game, they were off.

And they hit the ground running. The 2002 ‘Driving USA’ jaunt, Paul’s first full-scale tour in almost a decade and his first without Linda, was greeted with rapturous reviews and packed houses. That might sound an inevitability for someone of Macca’s stature, but if the band hadn’t been up to navigating his esteemed back catalogue with the mixture of fury and finesse it requires, I think people would’ve been quick to carp. As it was, public demand led to a second US leg that autumn, which then expanded into a fully-fledged world tour running into the summer of 2003. And, with a few exceptions, they’ve been performing together every year since. It’s a line-up which has backed Paul for some of his greatest concert triumphs – not just in front of huge crowds, such as two Glastonbury headline appearances (the first was in 2004), a pair of Royal Jubilee shows at Buckingham Palace and a ground-breaking gig in Moscow’s Red Square, but also in more intimate settings, from sweaty side-street clubs (notably The Cavern) to a performance at The White House in front of President Barack Obama. Their playing has been captured on three live albums and a host of concert DVDs, and while Paul has largely opted for a one-man band approach to studio work over the last 20 years, they have played on all his albums of new material during that time. When he returned to the stage a few months’ back after a three-year, pandemic-enforced break, there was never any question who’d be backing him. As he said in 2014: “We just love playing together…A couple of years ago, I kind of looked at them and said: ‘You know what guys? We’re a band. We’re a real band.’”

Playing at Abbey Road in 2018

So what makes them “a real band”? Well, they seem to have a good personal chemistry – something you can’t really engineer. They clearly have fun onstage, and have built up years of camaraderie and shared experience. Crucially, Wix, Rusty, Brian and Abe seem content with submerging their egos and basking in the reflected glory of supporting the most famous musician on the planet. And while they have each pursued their own side projects (Brian and Rusty have even released solo albums), Paul’s regular touring schedule has ensured they stay engaged and active as a musical unit – there’s been no repeat of the decision by 1989-90 drummer Chris Whitten, for example, who quit the McCartney ranks to join Dire Straits because he wasn’t prepared to wait a couple of years for the next tour. And this group hasn’t been saddled with Paul’s insistence on framing it as a democratic, creative entity in its own right, as he did with Wings. Everyone in the band knows the deal, and you suspect an older, wiser Macca has simply become better at choosing more compatible, less combustible characters.

But it is musical synergy which is at the heart of their stability and success. I first saw them in Sheffield in April 2003, and it still ranks as one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. This was largely due an exuberant, full-throated McCartney performance (possibly too full-throated, as he had to cancel the following night’s show after losing his voice), but also in part to the exemplary backing. This band is perhaps the tightest, most rocking combo he’s put together since The Beatles. Stick on the Back in the World album and listen to how they attack numbers like ‘Jet’ and ‘Coming Up’, or the more muscular approach they bring to slower songs such as ‘Let ‘Em In’ and ‘Hey Jude’. Wings Over America fans may disagree, but I think their thunderous rendition of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ is the definitive live reading of the tune (while Paul’s voice struggled in places, it was still a showstopper at the recent Glastonbury gig). I’ve seen criticisms that they can be a little too full-blooded on songs such as ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘My Love’ but, for me, it’s fine; it’s just a different way of interpreting the songs. And they definitely bring the delicacy and subtlety required of tracks like ‘Michelle’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’.

Hamming it up backstage, 2014

Another key weapon in their arsenal is their vocal dexterity. Harmonies are such a big part of Paul’s act at any time, but as his voice has begun to falter over the last 10-15 years, this ability to support his singing has become more important than ever. All the band members can hold their own, vocally, and they really shine on tracks like ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and ‘Another Day’. And while the setlists have been more Beatles-heavy than on previous McCartney tours, you sense the band’s general capabilities have encouraged Paul to dust off Wings songs he hadn’t played in decades (‘Junior’s Farm’, ‘Letting Go’, ‘Listen To What The Man Said’) or had never performed before at all (‘1985’, ‘Mrs Vandebilt’). There is only the occasional stumble. For example, to my ears, their take on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ has never really clicked; it sounds like a naff ‘60s tribute band, missing the bite and knowing fun of the original. And, for some reason, the 2009 Good Evening New York City live album does them no favours. It sounds somewhat flat and laboured, though this may have more to do with the way it was recorded and mixed (I saw them in Cardiff the following year and it was another five-star showing). Check out Back in the World or 2007’s more informal Amoeba Gig album to catch them at their best.

Paul ‘Wix’ Wickens with his keyboard set-up

Individually, they all bring something to the table. Wix has worked on and off with Paul for 34 years now, and so must know all his moves, likes and dislikes, and idiosyncrasies. From what I gather, he’s akin to the band’s musical director and, as well as handling all keyboard parts, his synthesised string and horn parts are vital components to many songs (though the addition of the Hot City Horns brass section has relieved some of those duties in recent years). His ability to fill in on accordion, harmonica and acoustic guitar adds to his value. Likewise, Brian Ray’s vocal, guitar and bass talents make him a perfect fit. Though an accomplished songwriter in his own right, his lower profile means he’s less showy in this ‘utility’ role than his predecessors Denny Laine and Hamish Stuart. Yet he’s a bouyant presence, and has carved out his own niche in the set-up – listen to his impressive guitar solos in ‘All My Loving’ and ‘Get Back’, not to mention the bass part which keeps ‘Hey Jude’ moving during the audience singalong section.

Paul and Brian trade ‘licks’, as they say

I must admit, Rusty isn’t among my favourites of Paul’s lead guitarists. He’s obviously very accomplished and handles his parts very well, but – especially when it comes to the solos – he lacks the fire of Jimmy McCulloch or the taste and versatility of Robbie McIntosh. And there’s something about his guitar tone which sometimes misses the mark for me, it just seems a little thin (listen to the Amoeba version of ‘House of Wax’ and compare it to the studio recording, for example). But, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s a minor grumble. He suits this band perfectly and, credit where credit is due, his solo on ‘Something’ – such a key part of the song – is excellent.

Rocking out with Rusty

By contrast, Abe is undoubtedly the fans’ favourite, and has to be up there with the best drummers Paul’s ever played with. He’s a larger than life personality, and that comes across in his style. He’s such an inventive, energetic player and, boy, when he hits those drums, they stay hit. It’s his sound which, in many ways, defines the sound of the band. Again, he might be accused of over-playing a song here and there, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. He’s also far a far from shoddy singer (before the advent of the Lennon lead vocal inserted on the most recent tour, he sang John’s lines on the ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ duet), and is an unfailingly entertaining presence on stage, Paul often making amused eye contact with him when he’s at the grand piano. And then there’s his dancing. Abe wowed the crowds (and made Macca giggle) at Glastonbury with his moves during ‘Dance Tonight’, but it was the shapes he threw during less obviously funky numbers like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ (!) on previous tours which really cracked me up.

Abe giving his all, as ever

All in all, my personal favourite of Paul’s backing bands would be the 1989-90 line-up, which brought a little more nuance to the varied setlist. The 1975-76 incarnation of Wings is also rightly lauded as an integral part of perhaps his peak performing era. But the current and, most likely, forever tour unit have a charm and a power all their own. I mentioned the wonderful shows I attended in 2003 and 2010 but, really, they were fabulous on each of the seven times I’ve seen them. There’s a reason Macca has stuck with them, without a single change, for two decades. They’ve become a great little rock ‘n’ roll group, a band in their own right, with a sound and character which allows Paul to relax and do what he does best, and have a great time in the process. And if he’s having a great time, unleashing his rock beast and singing his heart out, how can we not follow suit?

Taking a bow, 2013

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