Riding high on a wave of acclaim for his Flowers in the Dirt album, Paul McCartney returned to the road in 1989 with his first major tour in a decade, and his first as a solo artist — a series of dates later commemorated with the double album Tripping the Live Fantastic.

Released Nov. 5, 1990, barely three months after the Paul McCartney World Tour concluded, Tripping the Live Fantastic collected 37 performances from the 103-date trek, cherry-picking numbers from shows around the world and interspersing them with soundcheck jams. Alongside the two-CD set, McCartney also issued a single-disc Highlights recording that trimmed the track listing down to 17 songs and kicked out the jams — and both releases were accompanied by a battery of film and television documentaries, adding up to a multimedia McCartney celebration that would go on for over a year.

The fuss was understandable given the overwhelming demand for the tour, which topped ticket sales for 1990 and found McCartney playing before record-setting crowds. But more importantly, the shows signaled a turning point for the former Beatle, who for the first time made significant room in his set list for songs from his storied past.

McCartney's newfound willingness to embrace the Beatles portion of his songbook was a major part of the narrative surrounding the shows, and the theme of creative and personal homecoming — which started with Flowers in the Dirt — was reflected in tour-related merchandise like the hour-long special From Rio to Liverpool. Even though Beatles songs had long been a part of his shows, he'd understandably wanted to put more energy into building a discography on his own; with eight solo albums and seven Wings LPs behind him, that was no longer as much of a concern. As proof, Tripping's first single, a rendition of "Birthday," was released ahead of the record in honor of what would have been John Lennon's 50th birthday.

It all added up to a live album that not only had the benefit of a career-spanning track listing, but also presented a looser, more energetic version of McCartney. Liberated from the weight of his legacy — not to mention the oppressive production of the '80s — he delivered some of the most relaxed and confident performances of his career, and released them without resorting to the heavy overdubs and post-production relied upon by many artists.

And just as they had while he was on the road, McCartney's fans turned out in droves for Tripping the Live Fantastic. While he no longer commanded as much commercial clout as he had when Wings topped the charts with Wings Over America in 1976, he was enjoying a sales rebound after Flowers in the Dirt, and Fantastic continued that hot streak, peaking at No. 17 — and the Highlights set, while it didn't climb as high, proved a far more consistent seller, and eventually went platinum.

As often as not, live albums are little more than holding patterns between new releases, but Tripping the Live Fantastic is something more — a consistently compelling snapshot of an artist who'd already had several careers' worth of ups and downs, in the midst of a creative rebirth that honored his past while embracing the future. As many concert LPs as McCartney releases — he's added five since Fantastic — this one may never be topped as his definitive solo live album.
 
 

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