Entertaining thousands of revelers on America’s birthday by singing his iconic rock anthem “American Pie” with the Portland Symphony Orchestra will be both “a great joy and a challenge” for Camden resident Don McLean.
“The joy, of course, is hearing it with a symphony, the symphony arrangement, the lyric quality of the strings,” said McLean, 67. “The challenge is that I’m a free-spirit type of artist. I don’t rehearse, and I don’t like structure too much. But I’m only doing a couple of songs, so I can manage.”
McLean, who has lived in Maine for about 20 years, is the added attraction to this year’s annual “Stars and Stripes Spectacular, ” Portland’s Fourth of July fireworks and concert celebration on the Eastern Promenade.
The event will begin around noon July 4, when vendors begin selling food and crafts in the park and people will be able stake out a space with their blankets and lawn chairs. From 3 to 6 p.m., the park will host an all-you-can-eat ice cream festival, with $5 tickets benefiting the Share Our Strengths No Kid Hungry campaign against childhood hunger.
After some opening remarks and announcements, the “Patriotic Pops Concert” featuring the Portland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Moody will begin around 7:40 p.m. The hourlong concert will feature the 80-plus-member symphony performing 18 works ranging from patriotic marches to pop hits.
McLean will sing his hit “Vincent” (inspired by Vincent van Gogh and featuring the lyric “starry, starry night”) with the symphony as the fifth song of the program. After an intermission, “American Pie” — a No. 1 hit in 1972 and considered one of the best pop songs ever written — will be performed.
The rest of the program will include patriotic standards such as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, “America, the Beautiful,” “God Bless America” and “Stars and Stripes Forever” mixed with music from the films “The Patriot” and “Superman,” as well as “The Maine Stein Song.”
The concert will air live on Portland radio station WHOM (94.9 FM). The 25-minute fireworks show will provide the finale around 9:20 p.m.
The “Stars and Stripes Spectacular” is organized by a nonprofit group that took over funding of the city’s annual fireworks bash four years ago, when the funds for it were cut from the city budget. It’s now funded by sponsorships and donations. More than 60,000 people are expected to attend.
McLean said he didn’t agree to sing at Portland’s Fourth of July event simply because he lives in Maine. He’s asked to sing at July Fourth celebrations fairly often, and this one happened to fit into his schedule. The fact that it’s close to home is nice, but not necessarily a deciding factor.
“I don’t necessarily like to travel, but sometimes I like to get away. I’m lucky that I’m still able to travel the world and perform,” said McLean. “I don’t write or record songs anymore; I’m basically a performer now.”
“American Pie” hits a sentimental chord, as it references the 1959 plane crash that killed early rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson). But it’s also filled with pop culture imagery and Americana — McLean has sometimes referred to it as a “rock and roll dream.”
McLean thinks the song’s enduring popularity has more to do with how it was written than what it’s about — at least, on the surface.
“Songs like ‘Vincent’ and ‘American Pie’ are aspects of my soul, my essence. Any good songwriter is capturing something in his mind, in expressible emotions,” said McLean. “There are some very by-the-book writers who have had hits, but that’s not what I do.”
McLean has had a house in Maine for 30 years, but moved to the Camden area permanently about 20 years ago to raise his two children.
“It’s been a great place for raising children,” said McLean. “And I like the ruggedness. I like being up to plowing and blizzards. I like having challenges.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: