To the wonderful De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex, a fitting location to see Don McLean. Much like the Pavilion, McLean has been an icon of his age but is now remembered more for the past than the present though, like the Pavilion, he’s stood the test of time particularly well. I’d hoped to be there in time to see support act, Jarrod Dickenson, about whom I’ve heard good things, but the Friday evening traffic on the A21 had other ideas! I can tell you that he delivers a first class version of the old Harlan Howard standard, ‘Busted’ and his own song that closed his set was also pretty good; one to see in the future perhaps.
I am in plenty of time to see the main man and Don McLean arrives on stage to an enthusiastic welcome from the capacity crowd. Second song in and he’s already on to the big crowd pleasers with ‘Everyday,’ the Buddy Holly classic that returned him to the UK charts in 1973. This sets a pattern for the evening, sprinkling the hits and the crowd pleasers in among less well known material and McLean’s own favourites. He’s in good form and for a man now in his early 70s (72, as he proudly proclaims to the crowd) his voice has held up reasonably well. He’s dropped down a little from his signature light tenor but he still has power and tone in his voice and uses both to good effect. He’s also backed up by an outstanding band, many of whom have been playing with him for some years and are Nashville names in their own right. On keyboards there’s Tony Migliore, a producer and arranger who made his mark working with Chet Atkins. On drums he has the legendary Jerry Koon who has worked with just about every known musician on the Nashville scene and one of McLean’s guitar players is Vip Vipperman, recognised as much for his songwriting as his guitar playing. All three of these have worked with McLean for some years and are now joined by relative newcomers Brad Albin on bass and Mike Severs on guitar. It shows that McLean still commands a lot of respect within the music community that players of this quality will work in his backing band and it’s easy to forget that McLean himself is a highly accomplished guitarist and a particularly fine finger picker, something he demonstrates early in the set when he delivers a beautiful rendition of ‘And I Love You So’. The band get to show off their chops when they launch into a great version of ‘Tulsa Time’ – they really rock and there’s some fine soloing, particularly from the two guitar players.
What’s really interesting, looking at this evening’s audience, is the age range McLean has attracted. There’s a large percentage of older punters, as you would expect, but there are plenty under forty and even a few teenagers – he still has a wide appeal and that has to be a testament to the music he’s produced over the years.
Of course, for the majority it’s all about “that” song. When it finally shows up, as the penultimate song in the set, the place just explodes! Everybody is up on their feet and everybody is singing along – on this showing you have to suspect they’d all have shown up even if ‘American Pie’ was the only song he sang all night! McLean works the crowd well – he’s not always the most intimate of performers; long periods playing to big stadium crowds in the U.S have, perhaps, robbed him of the ability to establish a close connection to his audience but on an anthemic number like this he really knows how to draw the most from them and help them to enjoy their participation to the utmost. I guess there are some compensations to having to sing one particular song every time you get on stage for the best part of fifty years. McLean and the band round out the set with a muscular version of the old Johnny Horton song ‘Got the Bull by the Horns’ and exit to thunderous applause. The encore is guaranteed and there’s only one song the audience want to hear; it can’t be all bad when your second most popular song is the sublime ‘Vincent’. McLean reappears to deliver this without the band; it’s just him and his trusty Martin D40 and, again, we’re reminded of just what a good guitar player he is – but, for the first time, you can hear the toll the evening has taken on his aging vocal chords. Never the easiest song to sing, the ending wobbles a little bit and you have to wonder if it wouldn’t be better to put this particular song at the front of the set but, having played and sung for the best part of two hours you can probably forgive him a little weariness. The audience not only forgive the wobble, they lap it up and demand a second encore.
It has been an amazing evening. McLean’s recorded output in recent years really hasn’t been anything to get excited about and there is the suspicion that his best studio days are behind him – but on this showing there has to be a strong argument for a live album, especially with this band. Don McLean came, he rocked and he certainly conquered this crowd. The American Troubadour still delivers.