Don McLean - guitar, banjo, vocals; John Platania - guitar; Bob Moore - bass; Chuck Cochran - piano, synthesizer; Joseph Chrisman- drums; The Jordanaires - backing vocals
Beginning his career on the 1960s folk club circuit in New York City, singer-songwriter Don McLean was initially recognized through his work with Pete Seeger. During this time, Seeger was spearheading his campaign to clean up New York's Hudson River aboard the sloop Clearwater and McLean sailed up and down the eastern seaboard with him to help promote environmental causes. However, it wasn't until several years later that Don McLean would hit big with "American Pie", the sprawling, impressionistic ballad that would come to represent an entire generation and ultimately define McLean's career. What many don't remember is that this monumental song and Bill Graham's closing of the Fillmores are intrinsically linked. In fact, "American Pie" received its debut airplay on June 26, 1971 on WPLJ FM, on the eve of the station simulcasting the closing night festivities at Fillmore East. The song's lyrical content struck an obvious nerve with the generation that frequented the Fillmores, representing the ending of an era. Over the course of the 1970s, McLean also became an accomplished guitar player, exploring a wide variety of styles, singing with a fluid level of expression and a touching sincerity that would bring him great success. McLean knew a great deal about American music and his own music spanned the breadth of pop, folk, and country and even occasionally dabbled in driving rock now and then.
Following a gradual decline in popularity over the course of the 1970s, McLean enjoyed a renaissance of sorts with his 1978 release, Chain Lightning, which spawned a Top Ten hit with his cover of Roy Orbison's classic "Crying," and his original "Since I Don't Have You." In 1981 McLean released Believers, one of his finest efforts. This album followed in the footsteps of Chain Lightning, as both albums were recorded in Nashville, produced by Larry Butler, and backed vocally by the Jordanaires. Both of these albums delivered an infectious mix of McLean originals and classic song covers from the '50s and '60s.
To help promote the Believers album, McLean gave several live in-studio performances for various radio stations, with the most high profile of these being recorded for the King Biscuit Flower Hour in a New York City studio before a small invited audience. This performance was particularly engaging as it had the feel of an intimate living room type performance, but included some of the crack studio musicians that had played on the album as well as the extraordinarily talented guitarist, John Platania, accompanying McLean. The performance had a wide scope. McLean and friends perform not only some of his classic hits and material from Believers, but also a couple of vintage songs from McLean's debut album and a few choice instrumentals.
The set kicks off with a remarkable cover of Hank Cochran's "She's Got You." Cochran originally wrote this song for Patsy Cline, who turned it into a huge hit. McLean takes a different approach, not only altering the lyric to "He's Got You," but dramatically slowing the tempo down to explore the undertone of anger and in doing so, provides a new interpretation of this classic song. Next up is "Vincent," once of McLean's most surprising hits, where he explores his empathy with the loneliness and determination of the painter Vincent Van Gogh. Although undeniably sentimental, McLean's lyrics have an openness and lack of pretension. It is difficult not to be swept away by his clear-sightedness and touching sincerity.
The next two songs date all the way back to his 1970 debut album, Tapestry. Both the title song and "Castles In The Air," which follows, prove what a gifted lyricist McLean is. The latter song, which McLean rerecorded for Believers, now has more warmth and feeling than it ever had and both songs remain relevant a decade after they were written. Prior to "Castles In The Air," the instrumentation has been limited to guitars and bass, but from here on out additional musicians join in fleshing out the sound. The expanded lineup next dips into a pair of cover tracks from the Chain Lightning album. McLean's cover of Roy Orbison's classic, "Crying," is a tour-de-force and it's obvious to see why this became a huge international hit. His reading of "Since I Don't Have You" is nearly as engaging.
At this point, McLean finally serves up a pair of songs from the new album Believers. "Jerusalem," a story of that city which became a smash hit in Israel and the bluesy title song mix old and new sounds in a fresh, tight, and catchy package. The latter song features some impressive slide work from McLean on what sounds like a National Steel guitar and the musicianship is superb throughout. This bluesy excursion develops into an impressive jam with John Platania providing the biting lead guitar work. A lovely reading of Paul Anka's "It Don't Matter Anymore" follows before McLean switches it up for a banjo instrumental. This serves as a precursor for a most impressive matching of "Under The Double Eagle" and "Salt Creek." Here McLean displays a superb grasp of flat-picking, a difficult technique to master. McLean has always been modest about his guitar playing, but this performance is clean, concise, and ultimately satisfying in a way that belies his modesty.
The set concludes with the unusual "Building My Body" from his 1977 album Prime Time, followed by the child's song, "Wonderful Baby," which harkens back to a gentler less complicated era. This final song, a tribute to Fred Astaire that Astaire himself recorded, proves once again just how gifted McLean is at weaving poetic phrases and beautiful musical melodies.