You know you’re getting up there when the concert artists you want to see are in their 70s. I was a fan of Don McClean even before “American Pie,” and when I saw last year that he would be performing at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, I was all over it.
Judy Collins sometimes performs with McClean as the opening act. She’s 76 years old now, and needed a music stand with notes to remember her lyrics, not always successfully. I suppose artists get bored with performing the same songs over and over and try to change things up, but what she did with “Both Sides Now” was so rhythmically disjointed that if she’d played that for her audition, we’d never had heard of her. She talked more than she sang, often joking about her past problems with alcohol or promoting her new album of duets (“Strangers Again”), but mostly about the various songwriters whose material she has recorded. I thought her best song was a wistful a cappella rendition of the old Rogers and Hart classic “Where or When,” while recalling how her blind father would rehearse before his radio show. I’ve never been crazy about Steven Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” but she sang that to close the show, and did it well.
If it was nice to see Judy Collins, it was amazing to hear Don McClean and his five-man band rock the house. Given, it was a relatively small house and a good part of the audience was no longer capable of rocking: Susan and I were immersed in a sea of gray hair (mine included), with just a sprinkling of younger folk in the crowd.
McLean, who turned 70 this year, strode to center stage and started to sing with nary a note or hesitation. He sang country, rock, folk, and classics, noting that his penchant for wanting to sing a variety of genres might be why “I never made it to the big leagues.” His best line of the night came when he said someone once told him he had hit gold with “American Pie” and should mine it for all it was worth, recording similar music. McLean replied, “I’m an artist, not a prostitute.”
While covering a range of songs, including a piece from a yet-unreleased album (“Botanical Garden”) and lots of rollicking guitar riffs from his band, McLean also pleased the crowd by slowing down, putting on the finger picks, and doing solo renditions of “And I Love You So” as well as “Vincent.”
The less familiar stuff was fun, but McLean understands that everyone wants to hear his biggest hit, so a thousand of us were invited to stand and sway for ten minutes while singing along on “American Pie” and boogying as best we could. Afterward, we could all go home saying “I sang with Don McClean.”
If only we could also claim to be artists.