Don McLean returned to the London Palladium after a gap of nearly half a century – and connected with his British audience as if he’d never been away.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because he was ably supported by a Texan country singer-songwriter, Jarrod Dickenson. Accompanied on stage by his wife, and playing hits from his album Ready the Horses, as well as trying out a new one and a cover of Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues, Dickenson was a great choice to warm up the crowd; his songs have something of the self-reflective quality of McLean’s. Dickenson’s self-deprecating humour and easy interaction with the audience proved as instantly charming and attention-grabbing as his material.
On to the legend Don McLean himself. Reviews about long-standing legacy performers with half a century of worldwide fame behind them often come with more than a whiff of patronising condescension about how “they still have it”, as if the ageing process ought to be alien to the greats. World class performers draw on a wealth of experience, and revisit old songs they wrote in their youth in different ways, if, like Don McLean, they’re clever, and prodigiously talented.
The singer-songwriter best-known for American Pie and Vincent is in the UK as part of a tour to promote his latest studio album, Botanical Gardens. As we noted in our review, McLean’s voice, always youthful in its timbre, remains readily recognisable, and his capacity to turn observations about ordinary life into song is as strong as ever. There is something haunting and magical to hear him play Crying, and for it to be so familiar, barely touched by the intervening decades.
In live performance over the course of a two-hour set, Don McLean is majestic, and he held the audience at the London Palladium in his thrall. And what a mixed crowd: long-time fans who have grown up and grown older with him, Millennials who may have come to his work via Madonna’s misfiring cover version, and a plentiful scattering of those keen to catch a living legend whilst he’s in town and bask in the creative high point of the 70s.
Opening with Singing the Blues and Buddy Holly’s Everyday, McLean signalled that he’d give his audience what they wanted – a touch of nostalgia. The new songs were played too – Botanical Gardens, Lucky Guy and You’ve Got Such Beautiful Eyes all came from the latest record, but the biggest buzz was for the long-standing classics.
The first of his own songs he chose was Jerusalem, a reflection he wrote having played in that most ancient and modern of cities. Homeless Brother has a touch of social commentary about it. McLean has never courted controversy, but his songs never shy away from the truth.
With a mixture of covers and originals, old classics, new songs and big hits, it was an evening of rich entertainment. The only problem with a changing set list is that some full throttle songs such as Prime Time came in the midst of more reflective numbers, before the audience had been braced for the climax (can you guess what that might have been?) Out of context, a few of the faster numbers didn’t fully spring to life.
McLean can captivate his audience simply with vocals and a guitar (he quipped that he chose a backing band for company on the road), and he used Sinatra’s Why Try to Change Me Now to demonstrate the power of close control over a slow, introspective number (offering up a hilarious joke about how ol’ Blue Eyes dealt with a producer who had let him down – banter is something the charming McLean certainly doesn’t lack talent in). But on the night, McLean surrounded himself with five backing musicians to embellish the bigger songs. Never was this more in evidence than on the cover of Midnight Special, when everyone from keys to percussion to lead and bass guitars had moments to shine. The band comprised Tony Migliore (Piano), Jerry Kroon (Drums), “Vip” Vipperman (Guitar), Mike Severs (Guitar), Brad Albin (Bass).
All of the musicians combined to ready the audience for the inevitable climax (though not finale) of American Pie – at least – we thought we were ready. In truth, nothing could have prepared us for the near-religious experience the song induced in the audience, who were readily willing to submit to its intoxicating charms. McLean was clearly used to seeing everyone on their feet, dancing in the aisles and singing along to the chorus (and most of the verses too), and skilfully met expectations, rewinding at the end of the song to do the chorus a few more times – and even then I’m not sure half the audience were anywhere near sated. That’s what audiences will take home with them and remember forever.
And Vincent? Saved for the solo encore, of course. But with a terrific band behind him that he clearly loves performing with, McLean brought them back on to go out with Walk Right Back. The buzz was still palpable as the crowds headed for the exits. Now that’s a masterclass in promoting your new material and giving your audience exactly what they want in the same show.
Set list: 1. Singing the Blues 2. Everyday 3. Jerusalem 4. Homeless Brother 5. Crossroads 6. And I Love You So 7. Tulsa Time 8. Botanical Gardens 9. Lucky Guy 10. Love Hurts 11. Crying 12. Have You Seen Me 13. Prime Time 14. Empty Chairs 15. Oh My What a Shame 16. Castles in the Air 17. Midnight Special 18. Why Try to Change Me Now 19. You’ve Got Such Beautiful Eyes 20. Folsom Prison Blues 21. American Pie 22. Start All Over Again 23. Vincent 24. Walk Right Back Performance date: 9th May 2018