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Don McLean

Don McLean performed Saturday at the ABT. The show was a fundraiser for the Billings Symphony Orchestra.

It wasn't very surprising that every member of the audience Saturday night at the Alberta Bair Theater knew at least some of the chorus of "American Pie" and happily shouted it out.

Kids as young as 12 joined in with Don McLean on his iconic ‘60s anthem and most of the crowd stood throughout the song, which McLean stretched into 15 minutes. What was surprising is that McLean's 66-year-old tenor voice is still sharp and that after singing the song for 40-some years, he brings so much heart to its lyrics.

The deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in a 1959 plane crash inspired the song and the lyric, "the day the music died." But McLean said the ballad is also part of his life story. And as he cruised through lyrics about being jilted at the dance and carrying a pink carnation in a pickup truck with hundreds of baby boomers singing along Saturday, it was clear that this is part of their life story, too.

At times during McLean's eclectic two-hour set, it felt like he mixed in material just for the fun of it and on the spot. Twice, McLean turned to his piano player and asked what key he was in. McLean has been working with this tight four-piece Nashville band for a dozen years and the polished players added depth to the uptempo rock songs McLean performed. But the best moments of the night were when McLean accompanied himself on guitar or when he was joined only by the piano player. His performance of "Vincent" was so heartfelt and simple that it nearly overshadowed the power of "American Pie."

McLean was remarkably down to earth and modest, asking someone in the front row if she would leave after he played "American Pie" and earlier telling the audience that as a young folk artist in the 1960s, he didn't care about trends but simply wanted to mix folk and "1950s rock the way I remember it being played."

"Those were songs with emotion and feeling," McLean said. "Now that we live in a Prozac nation where no one feels anything."

Several times, McLean spoke of his appreciation for Marty Robbins so it was fitting that as his final encore song, McLean played one of Robbins' biggest hits "El Paso."

"I'm not sure I can get it right, but this is the way I recorded it," McLean said.

McLean nailed the ballad and got most everything else right as well Saturday night.

Contact Jaci Webb at 657-1359 or jwebb@billingsgazette.com

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