Singing Along with Don McLean at the Barre Opera House

by Nat Frothingham

Singer-songwriter Don McLean Photo by Keith Perry

Singer-songwriter Don McLean
Photo by Keith Perry

BARRE — Singer-songwriter Don McLean — with his five-piece back-up band — thrilled a near-capacity audience at the Barre Opera House on October 23 by singing the hit songs that have made him am American folk singing legend.

At points throughout the show McLean brought his audience to their feet — some calling out, many singing along or swaying to the music.

In a concert heavy with remembered songs — these stood out: “Crying,” “Castles in the Air,” “Vincent” — a song that pays tribute to artist Vincent Van Gogh’s swirling, powerful painting, “Starry Night.”

These songs became a platform for the concert’s dramatic close as McLean sang and led his audience in singing “American Pie,” his blockbuster classic.

In the breaks between songs, McLean, now 70, lamented how human activity has come to destroy the planet. He said he wasn’t convinced we’d have another planet to go to, after we’ve wrecked this one. He called attention to the information explosion that is filling the world with more junk than anyone can process. In his song, “Headroom,” he sang, “I need headroom, got to have headroom/Some place to rest my head/Thinkin’ is getting smaller/Time is winnin’ out instead.”

Much has been written about “American Pie” the song that McLean ended his concert with.

Listeners and critics alike have tried to explain the song’s mysterious hold on the nation’s imagination and many people believe “American Pie” partly defines, and in some ways haunts, that generation of Americans who grew up in the early days of rock and roll, who lived through the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, who witnessed the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and who were part of the angry, divisive years during the War in Vietnam.

Leaving aside the meaning and significance of “American Pie” — what we do know is that in 2001 when the Recording Industry Association of America assembled its list of the top 25 songs from the century just passed (1900 to 2000), American Pie was voted number five on the list. And as recently as April 7, McLean’s original, handwritten manuscript of “American Pie” sold at auction for $1.2 million.

Upcoming at the Barre Opera House

Two or three days after the Don McLean concert — Dan Casey, executive director of the Barre Opera House — talked by phone to The Bridge about the new (2015 to 2016) season, saying: “We actually got off to a pretty fast start this year.”

The McLean concert was the fifth show at the Barre Opera House since late September.

But in talking about the current season and the fast start, Casey who’s in his 10th year at the Opera House, said essentially that you can never completely predict what people will turn out for.

Take the Alan Boyd Band — and Casey said he’d certainly consider bringing the Alan Boyd Band back at another time — but it only drew an audience of about 200 people. So there’s no certainty. You never really know about what attracts.

Casey went on to say that his programs have finished in the black for 10 years running. What he’s trying to do, he said, in choosing shows “is to represent different genres,” and he said, “I do my best to vet everything that’s out there.”

Reflecting on changes at the opera house, Casey said, “After the recession of 2008-2009, the Opera House Board noticed that rentals of the opera house to outside groups were down. And he and the board decided they’d fill the void by bringing on more shows.

“And they’re doing well,” Casey said. And though every show is not a winner, he and the board look at what’s available and look at the season. And again, for the past 10 years the Barre Opera House has been in the black.

Looking ahead, the Barre Opera House will be presenting a John Denver tribute on November 13, and after the holidays, on February 12 as part of the Celebration Series, The Taj Mahal Trio, known for its contemporary blues.

Right now the Barre Opera House is mounting a big push for memberships. As Casey explained, the cost of a ticket is a vote of support. It helps pay for the performing artist. But the cost of a ticket doesn’t pay for staff time. Nor does it pay to turn on the lights and heat the building. Then there are those big improvements such as painting the hall, renewing the seating, improving the mechanics of sound and light — all these improvements will cost at least half a million dollars over the next several years.

Paying for the costs beyond the artists’ fee — that’s where membership support comes in. And the benefits are impressive. Thousands of people coming through the doors and enjoying the show each year. Out of town visitors staying overnight, eating meals and generating over a million dollars a year of spending in central Vermont.

The impacts of the Barre Opera House are many. Thousands of people coming through the door and enjoying the shows each year; out-of-town visitors from Mass., N.Y. and Canada. Said Casey, “They’re staying overnight, eating meals and generating over of a million dollars a year of spending in central Vermont.

American Pie (refrain)

Bye, bye Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee

but the levee was dry

And them good ole boys were

drinking whiskey and rye

Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die

This’ll be the day that I die

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