Sunday, June 29, 2003

For Don McLean, Pops' strings help pop ballads

Concert review

By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It was one of those concerts when one song makes the night.

Of course, it wasn't just any song; it was "American Pie," the ultimate allegorical rock 'n' roll sing-along.

Don McLean's No.1 hit song from 1971 provided the climax to the singer-songwriter's Saturday-night appearance at Riverbend with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

With Erich Kunzel conducting, the Pops played a 40-minute set to open the show. Following an intermission, McLean did an hour, backed by the orchestra and his own four-piece band.

McLean and the Pops was a good match. After beginning on a shaky note with a cover of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" -- Holly's minimalist magic doesn't fare well when given the big-sound treatment -- McLean and company recovered.

The remaining 11 songs were arranged well, going from the piano-only accompaniment on McLean's own "Crossroads" to the full-blown sweeping strings on Roy Orbison's "Crying." Pop ballads like "Crying" and McLean's "Angry Words" and "And I Love You So" were perfect fits for the orchestration treatment.

The Pops picked a winner in McLean, making his debut with the orchestra. The crowd appeared larger than the average Pops draw, and McLean brought a bit of offbeat attitude to make the show a little less scripted than usual.

When introducing "And I Love You So," which was a hit for Perry Como, he noted that Elvis Presley also recorded it. "But he didn't know where he was at the time," McLean joked, alluding to the decaying '70s version of the King.

Later, as the orchestra prepared to begin a new song, McLean turned to Kunzel and told him to "skip it" in order to leave enough time for the big finish.

That ending included - what else - "American Pie," to which the crowd sang and danced with an energy uncommon at Pops shows. McLean followed it up with what may be his second most famous tune, "Vincent."

The first set was somewhat Western-themed. Aaron Copland's "Hoe-Down," a selection from the ballet Rodeo, had a Pavlovian effect, conjuring up visions of juicy steaks thanks to its usage in TV commercials for the Beef Council. Later, "Dueling Banjos," from the film Deliverance, fueled a less-savory vision.


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