Don mclean review – nostalgic rock’n’roller doesn’t wave bye to american pie music the guardian electricity basics

On 3 February, 1959, a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, took the lives of rock’n’rollers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. “The day the music died” inspired Don McLean’s signature 1971 hit American Pie, an eight-and-a-half minute, 800-word lament for rock’n’roll and a farewell to the 1960s which, along the way, referenced everyone and thing from Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin to the killing of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont festival in 1969. McLean’s best-known song has become too ubiquitous for some, but if he’s ever done a concert since without playing it, it isn’t going to be this one. “I may get lost in my reverie, but I will keep my statutory responsibilities,” he says, prompting knowing waves of applause.

The singer-songwriter is 72, his tenor has darkened a little and has a slightly shouty timbre in the upbeat moments, but he has the energy for a two-hour show in which his hero Holly’s Everyday still features. McLean introduces one of his great, early songs And I Love You So with a story about how, aged 25, he was so angry when his first album was rejected “by 20 record companies” that he threw the tapes out in the snow. “And here we are, 47 years later.” Hearing his young self’s thoughts coming from him now is undeniably moving.

McLean has had a tough time lately. The breakdown of his almost 30-year marriage led to a widely reported incident where his wife called the police and took out a restraining order, but then in his defence informed the media that “Don is not a monster”. He always was an emotional character, and McLean’s best work is deeply sentimental without quite becoming mawkish. Winterwood, about appreciating nature and a former partner after a breakup, is one such example. Crossroads, a 1971 song about a man’s humbling admission of his flaws, is another. He touches an eye during the line: “That was never our defeat, as long as we could walk together.”

The mood lightens with quips (“I hope I don’t have an aneurysm up here”) and a stream of country rockers. The Lucky Guy comes from his new album, Botanical Gardens, but McLean’s music has barely changed since American Pie. “I mix popular song with rock’n’roll and folk. I don’t understand who Kanye West is,” he explains, adding, a trifle unnecessarily: “All ego and no talent.” There are cheers as he jokes: “That goes a long way – ask our president. Only kidding.”

Ray Charles’s bluesy I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town gets toes tapping and Johnny Horton’s Got the Bull By the Horns is rendered Jerry Lee Lewis style, but there are too many sedately paced rock’n’roll era covers. Still, McLean’s own Castles in the Air is lovely, and hearing him sing Vincent – his youthful eulogy to Van Gogh – is magical, a bucket-list moment. No one here minds much that in places during American Pie he’s all but drowned out by the band. It turns into a sing-song marathon, and one chap is escorted away after simulating the act of prayer at the singer’s feet.