Photo by MediaPunch / Rex Features

“Bye bye, Miss American Pie…” Don McLean live at the Barbican

As the daughter of two devoted Don McLean fans, I have experienced many long journeys with his Greatest Hits on repeat. A few years ago I saw these come alive in his show at The Sage, Gateshead to much acclaim. So when I discovered the legend was coming to York this month I eagerly anticipated his arrival. I may be no stranger to the nimble tones of McLean’s vocals but his performance at the Barbican, York, proved even better than expected.

The song’s loneliness was evoked through the solitary vision of her on stage – a young girl alone in the spotlight with just her acoustic guitar and a sea of unknown faces before her.

Although lack of space and somewhat unfriendly staff members implicated the initial atmosphere, once the support act stepped into the pink spotlight, these aspects were rendered negligible. Chelsey Chambers, a nineteen-year-old singer/songwriter from Ireland, introduced herself with a soft, husky, lilt that foregrounded the mellow tone of her songs. Whilst the melodies of Chamber’s own songs were not unanimously memorable, her lyrics were delicate, personal and easy to relate to. The song ‘Back Home’ transported me to my first day at university and the initial jolt of homesickness that many students feel. Its loneliness was evoked, not only through the lyrics, but also through the solitary vision of her on stage – a young girl alone in the spotlight with just her acoustic guitar and a sea of unknown faces before her. It was commendable to see a young performer support a much more experienced and renowned act. She gave an incredibly engaging and intimate performance.

McLean’s power to inhabit another artist’s song is remarkable

After a short interval, applause erupted as a woolly-haired Don McLean followed his talented backing band members onto the stage. His first song – ‘Every Day’ by Buddy Holly – was a pleasing (albeit safe) choice to kick-start the second half of the gig but the microphone was set slightly too loud for comfort. A couple of songs later and this technical issue was soon forgotten amongst the upbeat instrumentals of McLean and his band.

McLean communicated easily with the audience, chatting amicably after every few songs. At one point the American star encouraged us to join in with ‘Midnight Special,’ demonstrating first, and then handing over to his fans, which proved an entertaining break from simply listening to the music. McLean balanced his well-known jovial country numbers with a few ballads, including the famous, ‘Crying.’ Deemed ‘the mark of a genius’ by my mother, I must agree that McLean’s power to inhabit another artist’s song is remarkable. His wailing chorus gave the song an onomatopoeic quality unlike any other cover, or, indeed, the Roy Orbison original.

I found it touching that McLean started and ended with tributes to this great rock’n’roll legend.

The concert was rounded off with ‘Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)’ after three (yes, really) renditions of the infamous ‘American Pie’. One lady danced so vivaciously to this she nearly fell down the stairs. We soon joined in. A poignant moment in this song emerged in the lyric ‘the day the music died,’ which is a reference to Buddy Holly’s untimely death – I found it touching that McLean started and ended with tributes to this great rock’n’roll legend.

I could listen to McLean’s warm, melodious voice indefinitely but to hear him live once again was a real privilege. Naturally, I chose to exhibit such pleasure by waiting outside like a shameless groupie, poster in hand, ready for a signature. When McLean eventually emerged he decided my back would be a more suitable destination for his autograph. I still haven’t recovered. Even at 69, Don McLean still knows how to rock an audience.

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