Review: ‘American Pie’ is just as sweet 50 years later, but Don McLean showed Clearwater he’s more than that one hit

It’s impossible to avoid his music.

click to enlarge Don McLean. - Jeaneeem via Flick/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Jeaneeem via Flick/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Don McLean.
On Saturday, Don McLean joked that you’ve probably heard his music playing in an elevator. Or as background music in a department store. He’s right. With hits like “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” and Quentin Tarantino’s wedding song (“And I Love you So”). But it’s “American Pie”—a quintessential tune with multiple allegorical meanings, the love letter to those lost in the Buddy Holly plane crash, and a farewell to youth and innocence, and a nod to rock n’ roll music in the 60s—that’s ubiquitous in American society.

It’s truly impossible to say you haven’t heard McLean’s music somewhere.

The 76-year-old troubadour popped out of the side stage at 8 p.m. wearing a jean jacket, thick sunglasses and a full-body guitar for his emotive two-hour show at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater. Lifelong fans, and some youngsters gathered in the intimate space as McLean started his set with a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”.

Audience members bobbed and swayed in their seats, clutched their lovers and teared up, but remained respectfully quiet; thankfully no one interrupted his numbers to exclaim how much they loved him. McLean’s shows don’t ask the crowd to stand the entire set, let alone mosh, and this mellow crowd alerted McLean to the type of people his music attracts: those looking to live in the moment (the audience was absent of almost all cell phone recordings), or those wishing to dive into the nostalgic portals his music offers.

McLean shared his distaste for music today. He quipped to the audience that he only understands three kinds of music: folk, pop music from the ‘50s and ‘60s and rock and roll. He elaborated that “Mick Jagger didn’t invent rock and roll. We [America] did.” The crowd met him with lighthearted laughter.

He briefed us on his introduction to the music industry. When he was 16 he phoned Fred Hellerman of The Weaver’s (one of the bands blacklisted in the 50s), became fast friends and soon McLean called himself a signed musician. He covered “Midnight Special,” urging the audience to join in on the chorus.

Another blacklisted artist Don paid tribute to was Josh White, an antiwar singer who gained traction in the ‘30s. McLean sang “Uncle Sam Says,” White’s song about living as a Black man in Jim Crow America in the ‘40s.

McLean is a musician, but more than that he is a performer. He shifted between humorous anecdotes about his childhood dream to become wholly unemployable and songs about racism, suicide and grievances of death, with ease and affect, a skill few performers master.

The audience accepted whatever content he decided to deliver and one of the highlights of the show was his bebop performance of a poem coined “Vacant Luxury” which illustrated the confusion and the woes of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We all knew that the finale song for the 50th Anniversary Tour of American Pie would be the aforementioned classic, but knowing that didn’t stunt the mostly quiet audience from bursting into uproarious excitement when Don strummed the initial G chord. Don immediately launched into the classic tune after granting gratitude to each of his band mates. A few guests shot up from their assigned seats to dance, soon followed by more and more enthused individuals.

He played the entire eight-and-a-half minute song, and due to the audience’s involvement, he included an additional reprise of the first verse. Although the chart-topping hit is 50 years’ old, Don’s performance showed no signs of a jaded performer or a wavering voice. His other songs were phenomenal, but I don’t think anything can live up to his live performance of “American Pie”, the 10 minute version.
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