Singing “America Pie” along with Don McLean and a thousand other baby boomers at the Crest Theater in Sacramento last night could be as close as I ever come to feeling that religious high people get singing hymns at church on Sunday.
I had watched “Don McLean: American Troubador” on PBS last fall so I knew about the tradition, but it turned out to be even more mystical than I thought it would be. We’re talking about a song that is so iconic that the National Endowment for the Arts and Recording Industry Association of America included it in the top five songs of the 20th century, along with “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “White Christmas.”
But that was not the only magic that happened at the Crest last night. Sitting just four rows back in the art deco-styled theater with acoustics even McLean was impressed by, I felt that shivery feeling of being in the presence of a true legend.
Betwixt singing such classic hits as “Vincent,” “Crying,” “And I Love You So,” and the aforementioned “American Pie,” McLean told stories that started with “When I was at Johnny Cash’s house….” and “Playing with Garth Brooks at Central Park in front of three quarters of a million people….” Not that he needed to name drop, but it was a reminder that McLean is the antithesis of today’s teen idols, like Justin Bieber.
Donning his professor cap, McLean informed the crowed that the term “cover” was used incorrectly by music reviewers trying to be cool, rhetorically asking if Frank Sinatra was a cover artist because he recorded other people’s songs. The term apparently stems from the 1950s when white bands “covered” songs made popular by black bands so they would be more palatable to a racially prejudiced nation.
McLean’s modesty, albeit false, was refreshing. He downplayed his obvious musical chops (his voice is still strong; his fingers, nimble) and paid homage to his amazing back-up band — Tony Migliore on keyboards and piano, David Smith on bass guitar, Jerry Kroon on drums, and Vip Vipperman on lead guitar.
If you have the opportunity to see Don McLean in your town, don’t hesitate to buy tickets. But first read this fun speculative interpretation of “American Pie” compiled by Rich Kulawiec, which reveals the people and events behind all the cryptic references in “American Pie.” And then just relax, sit back, and enjoy the surreal experience of Don McLean strumming your pain with his fingers, telling your whole life with his words and killing you softly . . . with his songs.
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