Don McLean's third official live album, Starry Starry Night, isn't precisely the soundtrack to the video of his PBS special, from a November 2, 1999, performance at Austin, TX's Paramount Theater, so much as another permutation of the show. Nanci Griffith's contribution is present, but Garth Brooks's songs aren't (as he explains in the notes, there are two different video editions that don't overlap 100 percent with each other or this release). Backed by a quartet (including drummer), and with a synthesizer replacing the string arrangements used in the original broadcast, as a result of an unspecified technical problem, this performance doesn't sound like either of McLean's two earlier live albums. As this was a Texas concert, it made doubly good sense to open with Buddy Holly's "Every Day" (and include Holly's "Raining in My Heart"), and he also provides a pair of songs from his then recent Marty Robbins album, plus Roy Orbison's "Crying." The rest is all McLean's material, and it's interesting to realize, beyond "American Pie," "Vincent," and "And I Love You So," just how many of his songs have penetrated the consciousness, more subtly but just as surely as those others -- "Castles in the Air," "Winterwood," and "If We Try" have all achieved some familiarity. Some of the material, such as "Tulsa Time/Deep in the Heart of Texas," works better with the full band than, say, "Castles in the Air," which didn't need the drummer, however restrained the latter tries to be. McLean seems a little less relaxed overall as a performer than he was on his other live releases, and Griffith's harmonies are welcome on "And I Love You So," which is delightfully extended, and on "Raining in My Heart." Other songs come to life in fresh and unique ways here, such as "Jerusalem," for which the band moves to the fore, playing full out and, coupled with McLean's robust singing, creating a truly majestic sound. As for "American Pie," it's done with fairly heavy synthesizer accompaniment, and between the latter and the two guitars and bass, this can safely be called the "big band" version (perhaps almost the "folk-rock" version?) of the song. The best moment in the performance comes immediately after that song, when McLean sings "Superman's Ghost," which refers to the actor George Reeves and the dangers of typecasting and career dead-ends -- his performance here is so good that even if the rest of the show weren't any good (and it is very good) the double-disc set would be worth owning just for this track. And the best is saved for last with a particularly poignant rendition of "Vincent."
© Bruce Eder /TiVo