THE album sleeve to 1971’s American Pie was spread large across the York Barbican stage, the familiar Stars and Stripes thumbs-up now adorned with the number 50.
It would not be until 1972 that Don McLean’s double A-sided title track – all 8 minutes 42 seconds of it – would make number two in the British charts, making the 50th Anniversary celebrations of this different form of “growing the Pie” apposite for this year’s British tour.
McLean, the singer, songwriter and guitarist from New Rochelle, New York, turned 76 four days after his York show in a year when he has toured for long months, playing songs old and much newer from his ever-extending catalogue.
American Pie may have charted “the day the music died” but that music has never died for McLean, whose love of playing live, and desire to please the audience with his commitment to those performances, remains undimmed, as he expressed at length in gratitude mid-set on his return to a venue he had visited previously in May 2015 and April 2018.
“Are you ready for a good time,” he asked as he stood on a carpet – like the late Leonard Cohen at Leeds First Direct Arena on his last British tour – his eyes shielded by dark glasses, where once they were so expressive on his British television appearances of the Seventies; his dress code more that of a veteran rock’n’roller than a folk troubadour as he led a five-piece band that would have been equally at home in a bar room.
That would be true of his set too, played with a swagger, rather than tenderness of yore, his voice now deeper, worn, weathered, although not to the extent of American Recordings-era Johnny Cash. The thickening years were most noticeable on Vincent, a starry, starry night now gauzed in clouds.
There was to be no Crying tonight, but the boisterous American Boys Invented Rock’n’Roll was a latterday joy, catching the night’s mood.
To his right as ever was pianist and arranger Tony Migliore, his sidesman for 32 years. “That’s longer than my two marriages put together – and a lot more fun,” McLean joshed.
How many times must they have lived out McLean’s words: “And I knew if I had my chance/That I could make those people dance/And maybe they’d be happy for a while”?
Here they were, doing so again, as McLean struck up “A long, long time ago”, the cue for the audience to “still remember how that music used to make me smile”, taking to their feet at his urging for “what you’ve been waiting for”.
That song of mystique and mystery, that cultural landmark, that song karaoke’d by Madonna, American Pie, here served with an extra slice. “Do you wanna sing it some more,” he need not have asked, providing his own answer with a faster reprise.
The music died? Its makers may die, sometimes tragically, too soon, but its heart still beats and always will, here spontaneously prompting a musical stethoscope affirmation: a rousing finale of Heartbreak Hotel, the first number one for one of those American boys who gave birth to rock’n’roll, Elvis. Rearrange those letters, Elvis…lives on, and so will American Pie.
Thumbs up, Don.
Did you know?
Don McLean released the album Tapestry in October 1970. Carole King’s 30 million seller of the same title followed soon after, in February 1971.