Don McLean Keeps Fans Guessing at Pair of 2023 Shows

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Don McLean live in California, September 2023 (Photo: Thomas K. Arnold; used with permission)

“American Pie” is at once Don McLean’s greatest blessing and most horrendous curse. A blessing because it catapulted him to stardom in the early 1970s, and at the same time became one of the most iconic songs of the post-Woodstock pop era, a lament to the loss of innocence and wide-eyed wonder that young people everywhere had in common with the early rock ’n’ roll immortalized (and mourned) in that song.

And a curse, because like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, anything else he could ever do, no matter how good or how successful, would pale in comparison to that famous ode to “the day the music died.”

There was no question that the sold-out audiences at McLean’s two recent Southern California shows—Sept. 9 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, and Sept. 15 at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano—were eager to hear “American Pie,” even though a fair number of fans at both concerts were less than half the age of that song.

Watch McLean perform “American Pie” in Australia in early 2023

This was not lost on McLean, who at the Coach House sang and strummed the opening verse on two occasions before abruptly breaking off and telling the audience, with a grin, “No, no, not yet. I’ve got a few other songs before we get to the big one.”

Those other songs included his own trilogy of hits: the folksy “Castles in the Air,” from his 1970 debut LP, Tapestry; “Vincent,” the beautifully melodic salute to painter Vincent Van Gogh, off the 1971 American Pie album; and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” which was released in 1978 but didn’t top the U.S. pop charts until 1981.

Related: The true story behind “American Pie”

Orbison himself is said to have praised McLean’s vocal performance on “Crying,” which critic Dave Marsh once called a “rock bolero,” but at 77 McLean’s voice has clearly lost a fair amount of range and dexterity. This also was evident when he sang “Vincent” as well as “And I Love You So,” another song off his first album that became a huge hit for Perry Como in 1973.

Watch McLean sing “Crossroads” and “Vincent” at the Coach House on Sept. 15

And yet McLean’s voice also has grown more expressive over the years. Backed by a truly incredible five-piece band, his version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” was a marvel; with his dark glasses, black shirt and bolo tie, McLean not only sounded like the Man in Black, he also looked like him.

The most appropriate cover was of the rock ’n’ roll classic “Fool’s Paradise,” a hit for Buddy Holly in 1958 that McLean first covered on his 1973 album, Playin’ Favorites. The day the music died, after all, refers to February 3, 1959, plane crash that killed Holly along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. It was considered a dark day for music because with Elvis in the Army, the rock ’n’ roll hit parade was dominated by lightweight pretty boys such as Fabian and Paul Anka until the Beatles-led British Invasion began in 1964.

An interesting point about McLean’s two concerts is that neither one had a set list, those photocopied sheets of paper with song titles you routinely see taped to the stage floor at concerts. McLean answered the unspoken question swirling around my head when he told the audience at the Coach House, “I never know what I’m going to play. I have no set list, which is why one night might be completely different from the next.”

Accordingly, “Castles in the Air” and “And I Love You So,” which he had performed at the Belly Up show, were conspicuously absent at the Coach House performance, supplanted by the infectious “Dreidel,” a near hit from his eponymous 1972 follow-up to the American Pie album, and the reflective “Jerusalem,” a song he wrote in the late 1970s, while dating an Israeli woman, at the personal request of Jerusalem’s mayor.

Two songs that made it into both repertoires were new ones: “Botanical Gardens,” off an album of the same name that McLean recorded for BMG in 2018, and “American Boys,” which is scheduled to appear on his next record. Both have the same melodic sensibility infused into all of McLean’s songs by his love for the standards, while “Botanical Gardens” reflects his love of blues and folk and “American Boys,” his affinity for early rock ’n’ roll.

Don McLean live in Southern California, September 2023 (Photo: Thomas K. Arnold; used with permission)

McLean, born Oct. 2, 1945, accurately pointed out that unlike other singer-songwriters who emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as James Taylor and Jackson Browne, “I never write the same song twice.” He’s got a point: his fellow troubadours all have a signature sound, or style, while McLean lacks that uniformity—just listen to “American Pie,” “Vincent” and “Castles in the Air,” one right after the other.

Maybe that’s why he never enjoyed a sustained hit streak like Taylor, Browne and many others. Fans tend to like familiarity, and if you listen to McLean’s 20 studio albums the songs are all over the place.

But no matter: Don McLean stands apart from everyone, if for no other reason than that there’s never been another song quite like “American Pie,” the musical equivalent of a Cecil B. DeMille epic that captures not just a bite out of life, but a generous slice.

Not surprisingly, “American Pie” was saved for the end of McLean’s 90-minute set on both nights, and his live versions were even longer than the eight-minute-plus single. Indeed, after the song was done he started up again, twice, from the “long, long time ago” beginning, as the audience rose to their feet and almost drowned him out with their singing, clapping and foot-stomping.

From “American Pie”: “I knew if I had my chance/That I could make those people dance. And maybe they’d be happy for a while…”

He did, and they were.

Watch McLean sing “Crying” at a European show in 2022

Tickets to see McLean are available here and here.

Thomas K. Arnold

1 Comment so far

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  1. Jmack
    #1 Jmack 19 September, 2023, 23:49

    Well, God bless him still going at 77 and for those of us who grew up back then American pie will forever be embedded in our memories. It’s just that good.

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