And of course there’s the title track of the album whose 50th anniversary this tour is celebrating – American Pie. “I wanted to write a big song about America, that wasn’t like My Country ’Tis Of Thee,” McLean told the crowd. It certainly got big, spawning a cottage industry interpreting its lyrics, and becoming a staple of barroom singalongs to this day.
But it was clear tonight that McLean is more than these three calling cards. Striding out with his big hair, shades, voluminous jumper and acoustic guitar, McLean looked reminiscent of a latter-day Johnny Cash, and as he and his quintet launched into Buddy Holly’s Fool’s Paradise, he made a convincing flame-keeper for classic American rock’n’roll.
Given McLean’s own lyric, “the day the music died”, has come to denote the 1959 plane crash that claimed the life of Holly and fellow rock’n’roll pioneers Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper, there was an added frisson in hearing McLean cover the songs and share anecdotes about this period.
Especially affecting was when he recalled, while still a “nobody” in 1969, nervously approaching Holly’s friend Phil Everly and asking him for background on the tragedy.
“He told me Buddy chartered the plane so he could get ahead of the tour and do his laundry,” McLean said.
“Suddenly he wasn’t just a name on a record. He was a human being I could write about.”
It must be said that McLean’s voice is these days best suited to the bellowing demands of classic rock and blues, with his rollicking versions of Presley’s Little Sister, Leadbelly’s Midnight Special, Holly’s True Love Ways and Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues among this show’s highlights – the presence of Cash’s final touring guitarist in McLean’s band adding unmatchable authenticity to the latter.
Inevitably, McLean has lost some of the vocal suppleness of the 25-year-old who recorded American Pie. The melodic beauty of Vincent and And I Love You So were somewhat flattened out, although he sang every word with conviction.
For a McLean neophyte like myself, there were also several songs that sounded like they could have been, in a parallel universe, as big as the ‘big three’. Crossroads, with beautiful piano accompaniment from Tony Migliore, was an introspective marvel that hushed the crowd second song in.
Then Castles In The Air was a cascading portrait of a young man in a hurry, to whom McLean – shades off now, eyes closed and brow furrowed – was still able to connect.
And two new songs – 2018’s bluesy Botanical Gardens, inspired by the Sydney institution, and impending release Thunderstorm Girl, showed welcome fire in the belly from a guy who could have retired decades ago.
That one arrived at the end of the night, of course, and while McLean’s performance was again far from definitive, it hardly mattered when a room full of standing, stomping, clapping and high-fiving fans were singing every word of American Pie for him.
McLean was visibly getting a kick from the reaction to this song he must have now sung thousands of times, so much so that after finishing the first time, he cued his quintet in to play half of it over again.
Given that McLean had earlier said this was his 20th and last Australian tour, and that his band was the best that endless royalties could buy, nobody minded a bit. This was the night the music lived.