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Don McLean performs at Christchurch Town Hall on Friday night.
Don McLean at the Christchurch Town Hall
In the week that Canada’s greatest musical storyteller, Gordon Lightfoot, died, it was appropriate that his counterpart from south of the border should be on tour, and a massive bonus for New Zealand fans of the man introduced as the American troubadour that he should be touring here.
I was waiting for the tribute I felt sure was coming, and when it did, there were surely more tears than just mine rolling down cheeks amongst a knowledgeable and appreciative audience. If You Could Read My Mind was a massive hit for Lightfoot, and although he seemed not to remember recording it, McLean’s rendition was a soulful, tender and fitting tribute to a fellow legend.
In fact the song appears on McLean’s 1978 album Chain Lightning, though not being able to remember things was something the 77-year-old singer joked about throughout a two-hour set sprinkled with self-deprecating humour, musical wisdom and many a cracking yarn.
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He’s a genuine storyteller, and not only through the medium of music. In fact, he told the audience that when asked for musical advice from youngsters he tells them that to be successful “you’ve got to have something to say”. It’s not something he ever seems to have been short of throughout a five decade-plus career.
In truth, McLean’s show was sprinkled with tributes, to Buddy Holly (Fool’s Paradise), Elvis Presley, whose Heartbreak Hotel he belted out as an encore, Johnny Cash (Folsom Prison Blues), the Weavers (Midnight Special), and Roy Orbison, though Orbison’s hit Crying was, of course, a big success for him too, one of the singles off Chain Lightning. Its haunting falsetto ending went a long way to confirming McLean’s claim to Stuff two months ago that “I’m in good shape, I sing very well, I hit all the notes.” The story introducing the song was a classic too.
But it was a song of his own, off his first album, Tapestry, that provided one of the most emotional moments of a set that traversed a range of musical genres from blues to folk to rock ‘n roll. And I Love You So, which has been recorded by numerous artists, most notably Elvis Presley, was spine-tinglingly beautiful. It was also a huge global hit for Perry Como, and as far as enduring love songs go, it’s right in the top tier.
Following it up with the other classic from Tapestry, Castles In The Air, a number he said didn’t become a hit until it was re-produced years later, was inspired scheduling, though after 50-plus years on the road, that surely comes naturally.
I always love to hear the backstory to a song I hold dear, and they’re clearly McLean’s stock-in-trade, but he also knows when to simply let a song speak for itself, as he did with a love song of a different kind, Vincent. The opening “Starry, starry night” gave a thoroughly engaged audience all the lead-in needed to be captivated by its raw emotion.
He did it again a little later for the one song of his that absolutely everyone knows, and this time it had the crowd on their feet, dancing, clapping and singing, loudly and without a hint of self-consciousness. Yes, American Pie may be about “the day the music died”, but this audience left with broad smiles on their faces and the clear sense that Don McLean’s music remains very much alive.