Stephen Hanks: Don McLean: Storyteller

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Stephen Hanks

Don McLean: Storyteller

Metropolitan Room, NYC, April 28, 2016

Reviewed by Victoria Ordin for Cabaret Scenes

Stephen-Hanks-Cabaret-Scenes-Magazine_212“You saw a cabaret show about Don McLean? The ‘American Pie’ guy?” This was, without exception, the response I received when I told friends about Stephen Hanks’ entertaining, informative and often moving show about the prolific singer-songwriter Hanks refers to as the “Joni Mitchell for straight, white, angst-ridden teen boys [of his generation].” Don McLean: Storyteller is Hanks’ second tribute to the artist with whose music he came of age as a working class kid in the Bronx who spent the proceeds from his paper route on McLean albums and Mets games. 

The first show convinced audiences that McLean was not just a “one-hit wonder” (He had other songs that charted well and, between 1970 and 1974, he released four albums of his originals, a prodigious output by any standard.) This revised version pitches McLean as a serious writer of story songs. After 18 numbers, we may not feel about McLean’s music as Hanks does, but we certainly come away with a new appreciation of his writing, in no small part because of Hanks’ own considerable storytelling gifts. Hanks is neither a professional nor a trained singer, but in a show of this nature, it doesn’t matter. Backed by a fine band, including Musical Director Sean Harkness on guitar, Frank Ponzio on piano, and Skip Ward on bass, Hanks infuses McLean’s lyrics with meaning and feeling. 

After opening with the first verse and chorus of “American Pie”—number 5 on the 2001 “Songs of the Century”—Hanks established an immediate rapport with the audience by asking for titles of the top four songs on the list. Even in a crowd of musicians, Hanks had to provide hints. Bill Dyszel did something similar in his highly interactive The Internet Ate My Brain, and the laughter in both cases made me wonder why more performers don’t do this. 

“Homeless Brother,” the title track of McLean’s 1974 release, evoked Pete Seeger. A fairly typical folk song urging greater empathy for the downtrodden among us, the lyrics move one in spite of the dull melody. Far better, in this vein, is “The Grave,” McLean’s dramatic, spare song in protest of the Vietnam War, which Hanks delivered with appropriate solemnity.
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“The More You Pay, The More It’s Worth” drives home the show’s ultimate point—that McLean is among the most underrated songwriters of the 1970s—as powerfully as any song Hanks performed. The lyrics stand up as poetry—rich, vivid, yet ambiguous—apart from the melody, which doesn’t really go anywhere: “My pockets hung with empty blues/Silent heels were standin’ on my growin’ pains/My bid was not too bad, two bits was all I had….And where was the boy, who rode on her back/With his arms holding tight round her neck?/How tightly he clung/When they were both young.” 

“Sister Fatima,” a wistful ballad about a fortune teller and mystic in Times Square, was beautifully rendered and melodically much more interesting than the material in the first third of the show. “Bronco Bill’s Lament” and “Superman’s Ghost” both take up regret and disappointment in quite different contexts.
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Hanks provided interesting background on George Reeves, who became despondent at his inability to secure roles post-Superman. McLean, Hanks argued, identified with Reeve, frustrated that he continued to be known only as the author of “American Pie.” “Castles in the Air” and the “Birthday Song” stood out as songs whose melodies equalled their lyrics, and both were artfully interpreted.

One of the evening’s highlights was the exuberant “Narcissisima,” an up-tempo but enigmatic song whose meaning—like “American Pie” itself, which McLean famously resisted explicating—partly resides in the sheer pleasure of wordplay. “Vincent” was nicely set up by a story about Hanks’ daughter’s college graduation gift: a cruise along the Rhine. The evening drew to a close on an emotional note with “You Have Lived,” a tribute to Dana Lorge, to whom Hanks dedicated the show and for whom the audience observed a moment of silence. 

Don McLean: Storyteller finished where it began, with the final verse of “American Pie.” Or did it? The familiar tune sounded somehow different after 90 minutes of songs and background unfamiliar to most. This, surely, was what Hanks hoped for—and what, with his easy manner and sense of humor, he achieved.