Fortitide Music Hall
Tony Migliore strides on stage, sits at his piano, leans into a microphone and asks the audience, “What is this? A library?” He wants the audience to make some noise for one of ‘America’s greatest songwriters,’ Don McLean.
We duly do and McLean walks to centre stage backed by a five-piece band. “So Doggone Lonesome” comes right out of the gate. It’s a Johnny Cash cover from 1955 and it sets the tone for the night: McLean acknowledges the greats that have gone before him and peppers the set with classics from his own canon.
With a twin-guitar attack, keys, bass and drums, the band are gunslingers. Nobody on stage drops a beat. Early highlights include some relatively lesser known tracks from the McLean songbook, “Botanical Garden” (written in Sydney) and “The Lucky Guy”. Like any great writer, McLean’s songs from the margins spring almost immediately to life and a few bars in you feel like you’ve known them for years.
Throughout the evening, McLean tells anecdotes about his life and his creative process, coupled with observations on the modern world. Case in point: he loves Ed Sheeran and has little time for AI.
McLean admits to having been a sickly kid who missed a lot of school and developed an obsession with 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll and folk music; he name checks everyone from The Weavers to Little Richard as influences.
Introducing Migliore formally, he notes their thirty-seven year musical partnership has far exceeded his two previous marriages combined.
Early on McLean performs his masterful “And I Loved Her So” and tells us he was so pleased when Elvis Presley recorded it that he’ll now play one from the King and the band duly offer a blistering take on “Little Sister”.
Despite the years, McLean has somehow managed to preserve his voice and he sounds mighty close to how he did on 1971’s American Pie album, from which the tour takes its name. Running the gamut of his early loves, McLean treats us to a Lead Belly-inspired “Midnight Special”, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and, as Johnny Cash’s guitarist Kerry Marx is now in the band, there’s a rousing rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues”.
Further highlights from McLean’s own catalogue include “Headroom”, a spoken word “Vacant Luxury”, and Vincent”. If anyone ever questions McLean’s credentials, just play them the latter: as he strums through the opening gambit “Starry, starry night”, you know you are in the company of a man who has climbed the song writer’s mountain.
Mid-set, Don provides a three point plan on how to do it yourself.
- Learn to suffer.
- Lose friends.
And … crucially …
- Fall in love.
According to McLean, the hardest ones to write are when you see your ex walking down the ‘boulevard’ with her new partner. To show how it’s done he performs a jaw-dropping reading of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. Whereas Orbison had the voice of a godlike figure singing from atop Mt Olympus, McLean has an everyman quality and you … believe. Every. Single. Word.
This is McLean’s final Australian tour. He explains that when he turns up at a venue these days, marquees are lined with posters for tribute acts for ‘John Denver … the Bee Gees’ et al. He suggests that one day in the future he’ll have two or three ‘Don McLean’s’ out there to do the singing for him.
The set moves to its inevitable conclusion. McLean has delivered a masterclass. If the guy was twenty-five, he’d be signed up by the hottest Americana label around. But he isn’t, and this is almost the end of his rock ‘n’ roll road as a touring artist.
He moves into the microphone and begins one of the most played songs of the twentieth century.
“Long long time ago, I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while..”
As you’d expect, the audience go nuts. Every word is joyfully sung back to the writer. Don McLean has raised the metaphorical roof in Brisbane for the very last time.