An Evening with Don McLean

Popular musicians often fade into undeserved obscurity. Don McLean, who wrote American Pie, is one of these musicians. Most Americans know him only for American Pie, a brilliant 1971 song interweaving an irresistible tune with delicious metaphorical lyrics. American Pie is arguably the definitive coming of age song for his generation. In fact, a Billboard poll ranked American Pie fifth among the top 365 songs of the 20th century.

Unlike other popular musicians whose lives were cut short, at age 64 Don McLean is blessedly still among the living. I can report that his voice is still quite fine, as I heard him perform last night at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. He and his band delivered a satisfying show full of favorites, his most brilliant (though lesser known) tunes, as well as various collections of folk tunes, not all of which he wrote. In short, McLean is a living American musical icon who now plays in smaller venues but who has lost almost none of his talent.

I know many people who have reverent feelings about Bob Dylan. I certainly respect Bob Dylan’s talent and like McLean, he can still draw in crowds, although he too often plays in smaller venues. Like McLean, Dylan’s lyrics can often be mysterious and metaphorical, but arguably, McLean has a better voice, is a more accomplished musician and is more inventive than Dylan. To me there is genius to be found among the few artists that combine great lyrics with a memorable tune. In my opinion, McLean is the contemporary master of this genre and American Pie is just one example of many for aficionados of this genre to savor.

Not all of McLean’s songs are full of imponderable lyrics. Many are quite ordinary. At his best, McLean is an expert at plumbing the depths of the human soul with music. What makes McLean almost unique is that he is poet that can consistently wrap music around his stunning poetry. Take for example the lyrics to one of his lesser-known but brilliant songs that he performed last night, Magdalene Lane:

Magdalene Lane is the red light domain
where everyone’s soul is for sale.
A piece of your heart will do for a start
but you can send us the rest in the mail.

For we have our own families to feed
and we can’t let them starve just for you.
Well, we’d rather not watch while you bleed
so come back in an hour when you’re through.

I went to hear McLean last night not for American Pie, but for lesser-known but arguably better songs like Magdalene Lane. This song, a sort of marriage of poetry and music is excruciatingly hard to find in any venue. Moreover, at 64, McLean still has the vocal range to carry it off. He joked about his age between sets. “A lot of you came here nervous. You were wondering, ‘I heard him in 78. Does he suck now?’” The answer, thankfully, is not at all. While his face is lined, his hair is now mixed with gray, and his belly broader, as the fortieth anniversary of American Pie approaches, McLean still has it. It is harder to say the same about Bob Dylan. His lyrics may be as imponderable as ever, but his age is showing in his voice, which is becoming increasingly gravely. McLean has some issues hitting the higher registers and may change the music a bit to accommodate, but otherwise he is the same gifted musician who gave us American Pie in 1971.

And speaking of American Pie, McLean is savvy enough to know that he has to play the song at any venue, so he gave us the full rendition, not the clipped version that you hear on the radio, as well as invited the audience to sing along in the choruses. He has doubtless sung the song a thousand times. Both he and his band must be sick of it, but he delivered like a trooper, including a last reprise of the first verse. It was shortly followed by his other required song, the much more introspective Vincent, which sketches the meaning of the life of the artist Vincent van Gogh. Most Americans are not familiar with it, but to a Don McLean fan, it is a must-be-heard-live song. Who can resist with lyrics like these?

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflecting Vincent’s eyes of China blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hands

Don McLean performed one other lesser-known hit of his last night. It is perhaps the most romantic song written in the 20th century, and a choice at eclectic weddings and, as he joked, playing in elevators near you: And I Love You So.

And I love you so
The people ask me how
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them I don’t know

I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand

It’s hard not to cry and impossible not to give your spouse a kiss after hearing this song.

If you have a chance to see Don McLean, do not assume he is washed up. Buy the tickets and celebrate the occasion. I did not learn about his performance until Friday night and I could still find two tickets for my wife and I. Even living legends like Don McLean cannot live forever. And if all you know of Don McLean is American Pie, you will probably be delighted to discover a brilliant musician whose artistry is so much broader than this one hit song.

You can find out if he is playing near you by going to his web site.

5 thoughts on “An Evening with Don McLean

  1. Just a quick note to thank you for your wonderfully written piece. As a fan I sometimes wonder if my views are overly biased, so it is nice to come across a piece as well written and researched as yours is, and not only because it is favourable to Don.

    I was at the Birchmere on Saturday as one of four shows I attended on a short trip from the UK. I must admit I wondered about the venue when I arrived as in the UK Don tends to play bigger locations, including the Royal Albert Hall in 2007 where he is due to play again next May as part of a major 17 date European tour. However I thought the show worked particularly well there, the best of the four I saw.

    I hope you don’t mind that I have linked your blog to the main Don McLean discussion sites so that others can get the benefit of your words. Your review puts most of the (so-called) professionally written reviews of Don’s shows to shame.

    I look forward to looking at some of your other blogs. Keep writing!!

  2. Well Bill has kindly linked your review to all his fans so we have been lucky enough to read it.It was great to read your review the next best thing to being there and all the things you say about Don are true, but like Bill says you wonder as fan if you are biased. Thank you so much for your kindness towards Don.
    Still envious Bill that you are there and I’m not.

  3. For the record, I am a casual fan of Don McLean and listened to him a lot in my youth, but less so now as an older adult as my attention is often focused elsewhere. It was a great joy to see and hear Don perform in person and I feel so fortunate that living in the D.C. area opportunities like this come to me now and then.

    The Birchmere is an eclectic little music hall in a somewhat seedy neighborhood full of brownstones and Hispanics, but that gives the place character. This was my fourth trip to the Birchmere and I have yet to see a bad performance.

    McLean fans may like Jonathan Coulton, who I also saw at The Birchmere and who comes close to McLean as a lyricist. However, his tunes are more for Generation X and the Dilbert generation. He does great stuff too. Check him out.

  4. Trish and I were so very pleased with Don’s two shows at Ram’s Head Tavern on Sunday evening – they were just great. If we could also have attended his Birchmere concert the night before we would have. He performed songs I haven’t heard him do live in years. I also enjoyed the band’s backup of his songs and the songs he did with just his guitar, or the piano… I think my favorite song on the new ‘Addicted to Black’ collection is the ‘Three of Us.’ He performed another of my favorites “Have You Seen Me” which I haven’t heard live since ’92 or ’93 after the Headroom album.
    Don, Stay well and please keep writing and singing all your songs. P.S. Hard Travelin’ was both a surprise and a new treatment of that old song. Thanks for such a great evening. ‘The McGinness Clan’

  5. I first heard Don McLean sing live at a free concert in Blacksburg, Va. during the fall of my freshman year at VPI in 1968. He was by himself and I guess just starting out on his touring career. Obviously, he had not even written American Pie at that time, but I just remember thinking to myself how good this guy was and what a great array of music he offered. I never heard Don sing live again before Nov.14 at the Birchmere. My brother said he was in town and asked if I had any desire to hear him sing. I jumped at the chance and was glad that I did. I was simply amazed at how good his voice still was 41 years later and how awesome his songs still are. The review written above is right on target. What a wonderful evening it was for me – to sit back, relax, and enjoy in person once again the terrific voice and music of Don McLean.

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