The support act is new to me (and at the beginning of the set I don’t know who she is!) Young woman on her own, amplified acoustic guitar. She comes out on stage, says ‘oh, there’s a lot of you!’ and starts with ‘a song my dad wrote about me when I was a baby’.
It’s a lovely song, ‘Pretty as a Picture’, remarkably lacking in clichÃ© given the subject. It could be about a child; equally it could be about a friend or lover.
She has a beautiful crystal clear voice. The next song is more jazz-influenced, ‘Clouds’ with interesting and original lyrics.
Looking her up on MySpace after the gig, it’s clear that touring with Don McLean is a rather big leap from the smaller venues she’s been playing up till now and this is the first night of the tour. There are moments during her set when one can see that — and the fact that the CDs for sale during the interval are in hand-made sleeves with pen drawings and titles suggest someone who expects to sell half a dozen at a time (she reckoned that making 1,000 sleeves for this tour was ‘the worst thing I’ve ever done’). But she presents herself as a professional and doesn’t dwell on her inexperience, her singing — which is a bit torchy, a bit bluesy, a bit jazz-inflected — is excellent and most of the audience take her to their hearts. She has the potential to go far, I think.
We don’t find out who she is until just before the last number when someone in the audience finally shouts out ‘Who are you?’ and we find out her name is Lesley Roley (I think she had just forgotten to tell us!)
All the songs were enjoyable; particular highlights for me were the funny breaking-up song ‘Mr Sad’; the moment when she got the entire symphony hall singing rounds; and a cover version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’.
After the interval, the musicians come out onto the darkened stage; drummer, guitarist and piano/keyboardist, followed by Don McLean who launches into a Buddy Holly medley. The voice is as good as ever but I’m struck by how still he stands, the static posture contrasting oddly with the rock and roll rhythm of the playing and emphasising his age. He followed it with an interesting arrangement of another Holly hit, ‘It Don’t Matter Anymore’; sung slow and mellow, the poignancy of the lyrics came through in a new way.
Suddenly the show begins to take off. The first couple of numbers had felt a bit wooden, but now I have a sense of him getting into his stride. The show goes on with a mixture of old favourites and material from the new album. The audience are very enthusiastic — lots of whistles and camera flashes. Saying that he’s pleased to be back in Birmingham, Don promises the audience that he’ll ‘sing you lots of songs tonight – all the ones you want to hear’. He’s been performing for 40+ years, he knows what they want and is prepared to provide it.
A random side thought — I’ve never before seen someone play a grand piano with their left hand while playing keyboards with their right hand. I’m mesmerised by the keyboard player ….
The show is well-paced — fast ones, slow ones, a bit of rockabilly, some traditional country — and most of the material is good. Don’s lyrics are usually sophisticated and interesting — just occasionally there’s an unfortunate rhyme but it’s rare enough not to be a problem. The songs keep coming, back to back with little chat between.
‘And I Love You So’, sung with only Don’s guitar, has me reflecting on artists and audiences who grow old together. It’s still a lovely song, one which like many of the songs tonight has held up well.
The crowd react more to the old hits than to the newer songs but I personally like some of the new material. I’d like to hear ‘In a Museum’ again, and ‘I Was Always Young’ is simply stunning, possibly the best song of the evening.
By the time we get to Magdalene Lane – ‘Im just adding songs as they come into my mind – is that okay?’ asks Don – the show has moved into something a bit special. The rapport tonight between performer and audience is tangible — much more so than at any concert I’ve been to for a while. And so when we get to the end of the show — predictably ‘American Pie’ – the audience are ready. They sing for all they are worth. Most of them know every word. If it’s not a contradiction, I’d describe them as quietly raucous.
There’s a standing ovation and then a reprise of ‘American Pie’. Still on their feet, the audience are clapping and dancing — but in place. No one moves into the aisles. ‘Hmph’, I think, 30 years ago you/we would have been up the aisles and onto the stage. Ah well, times change and audiences get older and more polite than they once were.
The show carries on with ‘I Gotta Know’ and then Don picks up his banjo (which has been resting on the table until now) and does ‘Mary Lost a Ring’. I’m struck by what an able instrumentalist he is – I hadn’t really been aware of that until this point in the show.
He finishes with a cover of Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’. Solo banjo and voice – you could have heard a pin drop in the room. I had forgotten how vicious the lyrics are. It’s an oddly downbeat choice with which to send the audience home, but very effective and the second standing ovation suggests that the rest of the audience agrees.
Pretty as a Picture
I Like the Flowers
Buddy Holly Medley…Well..All Right, Crying Waiting Hoping and Now We’re One
It Don’t Matter Anymore
It’s Just The Sun
If We Try
And I Love You So
Love In My Heart
In A Museum
I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine
When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again
Thats All Right Mama
I Was Always Young
I Gotta Know
Mary Lost A Ring (Banjo)
Masters Of War (Banjo)
Review – Betty Hagglund
Photos – Al Neilson