McLean performs for small but attentive crowd in BR

A small but enthusiastic audience showed up for singer-songwriter Don McLean’s Friday night concert at the River Center Theatre.

The crowd may have been a bit too large for the nearby, 325-seat Manship Theatre, but not by much. The majority of seats in the approximately 2,000-capacity River Center Theatre were empty.

But McLean, a music star of the 1970s and ’80s whose career dates to the 1960s, realized early on that those people who came to see him also came to hear him.

Like a show at the Red Dragon Listening Room, the audience truly listened to the performance. When McLean sang his heartfelt tribute to tragic artist Vincent van Gogh, “Vincent (Starry Starry Night),” the silence in the River Center Theatre was remarkable. The Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, a resident ensemble at the venue, can but dream of such a universally attentive audience.

Following an opening-show medley featuring “Well ... All Right” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” two songs by McLean inspiration Buddy Holly the singer gave a capsule description of his musical philosophy.

“I like to sing all kinds of songs,” he said. “I write all kinds of songs.” He didn’t recall when he previously played Baton Rouge, McLean added, or didn’t know if he’d ever play here again, so he was going to make the most of it Friday night.

Following those opening songs written by Holly, one of the early rock ’n’ roll stars mentioned in McLean’s biggest hit, “American Pie,” the singer showed his musical diversity by romping through the Johnny Cash-Ernest Tubb country classic, “So Doggone Lonesome.”

Shifting from love gone so wrong to love gone so right, McLean sang his ballad “And I Love You So.” A late-career hit for crooner Perry Como, it’s an example of McLean at his most poetic and romantic. “How lonely life has been,” McLean sang above his own finger-picked acoustic guitar accompaniment. “But life began again, the day you took my hand.”

McLean and his band went country again with one of his newer compositions, “Lucky Guy.” Upbeat and charming, it’s a natural fit for the likes of Merle Haggard and George Strait.

Onetime folk music troubadour McLean was just as comfortable with “Backwater Blues,” a song he learned during his itinerant youth from blues great Brownie McGhee.

While “Backwater Blues” is a mournful tale of storm-induced displacement, McLean’s blues-oriented original composition, “Botanical Gardens,” ventured happily into the laid-back blues style of Jimmy Reed.

McLean performed two of his biggest hits, “Crying” and “American Pie,” in the final third quarter of his 90-minute, no-intermission show.

“Crying,” originally recorded by king of heartbreak Roy Orbison, received a nearly orchestral performance thanks to Tony Migliore’s simultaneous piano and electric keyboard playing. McLean, who’ll be 69 in October, also reached into his falsetto range for some well-aimed high notes.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Don McLean show without “American Pie,” the 1971 hit and epic concept song with lyrics shaped around the 1959 plane-crash deaths of rock ’n’ roll stars Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens. Many people in the audience rose to their feet, some waved their arms upward and some others danced.