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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEWS : Good, Bad Humor Men : McLean Overcomes Laryngitis but Not Mean-Spirited Jokes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don McLean was suffering from a mildly laryngitic throat and a chronically dyspeptic sense of humor Saturday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Those ailments were irksome, but not ruinous. While his singing was spotty and his stage personality a good deal less than endearing, McLean did a yeomanly job in a 95-minute concert that included most of his hits, several Christmas carols and a sampling of less familiar material.

In the 20 years since he made his mark with “American Pie” and “Vincent,” McLean still hasn’t learned the value of modifying “humor” with “self-deprecating.”

Instead, he came off as a folkie Don Rickles, taking bites out of soft-bellied targets. McLean joked about Perry Como’s blandness, Kenny Rogers’ lack of vocal prowess, the shape of Randy Travis’ head, and the condition of poor old, tax-plagued Willie Nelson’s finances. Maybe somebody should poke this yukster in his own soft belly. These days, the 46-year-old McLean is looking more like a McChub.

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When he mentioned his early days playing at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, McLean offered no interesting recollections. Instead he dismissed the place as a “dive” back then, and congratulated the Barclay audience for having superior taste to the heavy-metal denizens who occupy it now.

McLean hasn’t had a hit in America since 1981, but he humbly let it be known that he’s doing just fine: “When people ask what ‘American Pie’ means, I tell them, '(It means) I don’t have to work any more if I don’t want to.’ ”

Setting aside his superior air for a moment, McLean talked about how marriage and the birth of a small daughter during the past five years have made him think about renewal, fresh starts, and the need to mend old flaws. As a father, he said, “You have to be better than you used to be.” It made for a nice lead-in to an appealing, low-key reading of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

McLean’s singing wasn’t up to the clear-toned form of his hit recordings. But there was enough left of his voice to give passable accounts of nuggets like “American Pie” and “Vincent,” and to lead with authority during an old-fashioned folk sing-along on “Let It Shine.”

When he announced early in the show that he had a touch of laryngitis, one hoped that he wouldn’t submit his voice to the acid test of “Crying” (McLean scored a major hit when he covered Roy Orbison’s demanding pop aria in 1981). He shouldn’t have, but he did--substituting mid-range bellowing for high-note soaring at the song’s climax.

McLean opened with a somnolent version of “Everyday,” a Buddy Holly chestnut that requires some youthful spunk. It didn’t help that he was fighting a murky sound mix for the show’s first few numbers.

The sound crew never did come up with a proper balance on the more aggressive songs, as McLean’s acoustic strumming overcame the undistinguished electric leads and fills of the backup guitarist who was his sole accompanist. The two seemed to be playing independently on those mildly rocking songs, with little thought to interweaving their parts.

As a guitarist, McLean gave a good account of himself on ballads, embroidering songs with graceful touches that enhanced their reflective mood.

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McLean was most in his element in simplistic portraits of characters who have been used up, neglected, or outcast, allowing him to summon sympathy for their suffering while indicting the indifferent, powerful “they” who have been doing the using and neglecting.

One song that had more dimension to it was an account of a Vietnam veteran and his sad, tender remembrance of a buddy who died in the war.

Also on McLean’s list of martyrs were the hobos of “Homeless Brother,” the aging cowboy of “Bronco Billy’s Lament,” and the actor George Reeves, who played Superman on television and wound up a suicide. And, of course, there was Vincent Van Gogh, McLean’s sweetly memorialized epitome of the unappreciated outcast.

In “American Pie,” the martyr is ‘60s rock--or its failed Utopian promise. McLean’s sketchy but catchy allegory declared the music dead, having flopped in its supposed mission to save our mortal souls. He played it with the brisk competence a trouper gives to a meal-ticket hit that he can’t kiss off, but no longer finds inspiring.

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