A long, long time ago, as the song begins, I was a nine year old boy addicted to the radio. I was fascinated by American Pie as soon as I heard it. Mostly, because I had no idea what it was about. I hadn’t a clue what a levee was (I’m Scottish) – I’m not sure I have a much better idea of what one is even now. Whisk(e)y, I knew (did I mention I’m Scottish); but rye? None of that really mattered though because American Pie was a story, a screenplay for a film that I could act out in my head every time I heard it.

When asked what American Pie meant, Don McLean famously answered that it meant that he never had to work again unless he wanted to. And that was before the song’s lyrics sold recently for $1.2 million. By the time I revisited the song some ten years after first hearing it I was sufficiently steeped in rock’s mythology to recognise the references to Buddy, Elvis, Dylan, the Stones, Beatles and Byrds. I knew that McLean had been mourning the passing of a time that we would never see again.

Despite my early love for American Pie, I never really followed McLean’s music further. I know the songs that everyone knows: Vincent, And I Love You So and Roy Orbison cover Crying. Babylon was popular with a bunch of girls in the school common room for about three weeks in 1979. But that’s about it. So here I am forty-odd years on from my first exposure to American Pie, on the cusp of becoming a chronologically-challenged codger but feeling pretty sprightly in comparison to most of tonight’s demographic, and not really sure what to expect from tonight’s gig. The only thing I can be reasonably sure of is that the other couple of thousand people here tonight will know more Don McLean songs than I do.

Second year university students don’t generally get to tour with American music legends. Chelsey Chambers from Moneymore in Northern Ireland does. She has supported Steve Earle and is Don McLean’s guest for this tour. Right now she should be sitting end of year exams. “What can you do?” she says “It’s Don McLean”. Chelsey sings about the things she knows: love rivals, homesickness, lifelong friendships strained by distance. She has an ear for a good tune and gets a really good response from the audience. She could do well. She’ll have to if she doesn’t get to re-sit her exams.

Fittingly, Don McLean opens with Everyday, a Buddy Holly number – one of several not-Don-McLean-songs performed this evening. His set is split almost evenly between his own material and more country orientated songs like Johnny Cash’s Cocaine Blues, Danny Flowers’ Tulsa Time, Leadbelly’s Midnight Special and Hank Cochrane’s He’s Got You. These songs certainly suit McLean’s five-piece band who are all seasoned Nashville musicians and they go down well enough with the audience but I would have liked to have seen him make more of his own material.

Some of his songs that he does play include Jerusalem, Homeless Brother, And I Love You So, Crossroads, and Castles In The Air – turns out that I know that one as well. And then of course there is the not-a-Don-McLean that might as well be a Don McLean song, Crying.

And so it comes. Unannounced. The song that everyone is here to hear. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the room erupts; there is a ragged cheer. Slowly, pockets of people begin to stand. Then slowly begin to dance. The dancing spreads until pretty much the whole audience is on its feet. The house lights go up so McLean can watch us sing along, and sing along we do, many of us word perfect throughout what is a long, wordy song.

There is, of course, only one song in the Don McLean arsenal that could possibly follow American Pie: Vincent. So McLean doesn’t do that. Instead, we get a new generic country rock song. While it keeps the audience on their feet, I can’t help feel that it slightly diminishes the power of Vincent when it does arrive. The one-two punch of his two best songs would have been far more effective I think. The audience don’t mind at all though and McLean goes off stage to a rapturous ovation.

Don McLean only works if he wants to. He obviously wants to, and who can blame him. If I went to work and got the reception that he did this evening, I’d want to work too.

John Scott

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