Don McLean performed a 14-minute version of "American Pie" deep into his set at Knuckleheads on Friday. The fact that just a couple dozen members of the audience of about 700 bolted for the exit as McLean concluded his indelible 1972 folk-rock hit reflects his considerable skill as an entertainer.
The audience had already been treated to an exquisite appearance by folk legend Judy Collins and McLean was leaning heavily on standard bar-band fare. Even so, McLean and a stalwart four-piece backing ensemble continued to enthrall fans with a heady mix of original material and cover songs.
Loaded with familiar material like "Tulsa Time," "Little Sister" and "Love Hurts" and amiable but trifling selections such as "Love In My Heart," most of McLean's 80-minute outing resembled the output of a carefully curated jukebox. Aside from the sturdy rendition of "American Pie," only the aching love ballad "And I Love You So," the introspective "Crossroads" and the delicate "Vincent" demonstrated McLean's distinctive talent as a sensitive songwriter.
The easygoing McLean characterized the booking as "a great, low-pressure gig," but Collins seemed jittery as she opened the show. Repeatedly distracted by the clatter of boxcars rumbling past the East Bottoms venue, Collins exclaimed that "this is really unusual" shortly after her set began. More befitting of a concert hall than a roadhouse, Collins' elegant attire and regal bearing elicited a compliment from a fan.
"You don't know how much work it takes to look like this," Collins replied.
After adjusting to the setting, Collins became entirely engaging. She spent much of her 75-minute appearance regaling the audience with stories about her childhood, making self-deprecating jokes and sharing insights into her career as one of the most popular folk singers of the '60s and '70s.
Collins recalled eavesdropping on Bob Dylan in 1964 as he wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man" in an adjacent room. She also noted that Stephen Stills wrote Crosby Stills & Nash's 1969 hit "Suite: Judy Blues Eyes" in an unsuccessful effort to regain her affection after their romance had soured.
Accompanied by pianist Russell Walden, Collins’ readings of "Mr. Tambourine Man," Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon" and Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" were charming. Although her voice is no longer a crystalline instrument, Collins has retained her quaintly formal enunciation and steadfast sincerity.
The contrast between Collins' distinguished presence and McLean's relaxed joviality was striking. Yet the inspired pairing of the folk-based titans provided nostalgic fans of the form with an impeccably wistful evening.