Bill Hamilton writes:
Today was my 50th birthday, and a day I will never forget. I should say yesterday really as I sit penning this at 2am, tired but unable to contemplate sleep as my brain tries to absorb the events of the last couple of days.
When details of Don’s ‘European’ tour were announced a few months ago, my attention immediately went to one date in particular. Douglas, Isle of Man, 24th August 2005. An incredible coincidence! A concert in a place I had been planning to revisit for years, and on such a significant date in my life.
Initially my rational side took over. The island can be an awkward place to get to and the cost would be fairly high. But sometimes, just occasionally, the devil-may-care aspect of my personality wins out, as it fortunately did this time. It really won by a first round knockout…wild horses couldn’t have kept me away from this one!
A little planning and flexing of the Mastercard and three concerts were lined up. Glasgow, Douglas, Dublin. This reached four as the second night in Dublin became, at a late stage, more than just a phantom date in the Pollstar schedule. I was delighted when Hannah gamely announced that she too intended to go for the ‘quadruple’, and we shared our planning and anticipation. Neil and his son Matthew added their names to the IOM plans. Both Hannah and Neil understand the need to make sacrifices in the cause of seeing Don whenever he reaches UK orbit. However, it’s an entirely emotional thing and defies all logic so I won’t even try to explain it here.
A couple of months ago I got an email from Lenny Conroy of Triskel, the promoter of the Douglas concert. Someone had made what I considered, and what proved to be, blatantly unfair comments on the Internet about his status as a promoter. Since I posted in his defence, Lenny took time to thank me and because I had inadvertently (yeah right!) mentioned my birthday he very kindly offered to replace our four average seats with four within the front two rows that had been held back from public sale. I subsequently exchanged a number of emails with Lenny and ultimately spoke to him on the phone. He seemed about as far from the image of someone only in it for the money as it is possible to get, genuinely concerned to make sure Don and the band were well looked after and to stage a high quality event. I was delighted for him when I heard that the show had sold out. He deserved it and the result was a credit to him and his company.
One thing I knew from my conversations with Lenny was that our flight from Glasgow to the IOM was the same one that Don and the band were taking. So when we walked to Gate 1 at Glasgow Airport the afternoon after the Glasgow show, we weren’t entirely surprised to see a few familiar faces!
We spent a few minutes chatting to Don and to Tony Migliore as we waited for the flight to be called. The plane is a small prop job, so there were only 20 or so people there and none of the others seemed to have the slightest inkling who Don was. Indeed the baggage handler had to ask him to spell his surname! Hannah managed to sneak in a request for ‘Birthday Song’ to be played on the IOM in honour of my birthday – to my surprise Don said that they would ‘work on it’ and that he had already had a request for it (I know Annie wrote and requested it for me. Thanks!).
After a short and uneventful flight, during which we managed not to hum American Pie too loudly, we touched down at a damp and windswept Ronaldsway Airport. As Don and the band waited for their multifarious guitars and stuff to come through (Tony only just managing to get his grand piano off the carousel in one piece!) we headed through and met Lenny who, as good as his word, produced four tickets right in the middle of Row 2, taking ours to pass on to other expectant fans.
Don and the guys in the band were coming through by this stage so we left Lenny to look after them, grabbing a taxi whilst our heroes jumped on a minibus to head for their nearby country club residence. A twenty-minute ride delivered us safely to our central Douglas hotel. As a previous visitor, I was careful to say ‘hello’ to the fairies as we passed the ‘Fairy Bridge’ that lies en-route. I am not sure Hannah did, which is definitely taking a risk if local superstition is to be believed. Hurtling headlong into my second half century, I need all the help I can muster!
After dumping our bags and having a swift freshen up we staggered as far as the hotel bar and polished off a few beers. Then we remembered, just before the alcohol did insurmountable damage, that we should make contact with Neil & his 14 year-old son Matthew (had it been the other way round we could have written a great song!) who had arrived by motorbike the day before. Well actually they used the ferry, even Norton’s can’t travel on water!
With our quartet successfully gathered together, we depleted the Hilton’s alcohol stocks a little further before pangs of hunger drove us out in search of food. Neil’s local knowledge led us to a restaurant called appropriately Min Y Don. I suspect this may be Manx for ‘we don’t accept credit cards’, something I only realised at the end of the meal as I tried to pay the bill! Anyway, I managed to scrape enough together to avoid embarrassment and the food was excellent if a little slow to appear.
All fairly tired after a long day we retired to our respective hotels to contemplate the feast to come and, in my case, impending old age. I had agreed with Hannah that we would breakfast at 10 the following morning. It was therefore an especially grumpy bear who answered a knock on the door at 9am to be greeted by the aforesaid Hannah hidden behind a bundle of ‘Happy 50th Birthday’ balloons! I must apologise here to her if my sleepy response was less than ecstatic – I’m by no means a morning person 50th birthday or not! But I did appreciate it…honest! And the balloons were displayed in the corner of my room till I left the hotel 3 days later.
Once I had managed to wake up a little, Hannah also presented me with a lovely mug emblazoned with a picture of Don and the legend ‘Bill 50th Birthday Song’ and a silver tankard with my name and the date. Thanks Hannah for taking the time to arrange such personal gifts and for lugging them halfway around the country…. no wonder your case weighed a ton!
We spent a lovely day travelling on the steam train to Castletown in the south of the island, a place I had visited more than 30 years ago. It didn’t seem to have changed much – nothing really does in this time warp of an island. The park where we used to camp looked exactly as I remembered it, as though we had left the day before. Closely we’re falling through time….
By the harbour we spent 30 minutes in the warm sunshine getting caught by the spray as they high tide crashed into the harbour wall. Neil and Matthew arrived having motorcycled down after riding the 37 miles around the famous Manx TT course. For those who aren’t familiar with the island it is a Mecca for motorcycle fans – home of one of the last genuine road circuits left where one mistake can, and often does, lead to death. Sadly, a rider was killed in practice whilst we were there.
For the committed fan there comes a point during the day of a show when you can’t think of anything else and all your energies become focussed on that event. This usually occurs for me at 3 or 4 o’clock for an evening show, or earlier depending on how close I am to the venue. The possibility of missing a show due to delay or other factor means that a totally disproportionate time is allowed to get there. Castletown is probably no more than a dozen miles from Douglas but at 3.50 we were all anxious to get back within touching distance of the venue – we could have walked it in the time available!
We all made it of course, and with plenty of time to powder our noses and feed our faces before heading to the beautiful Royal Hall for the show. This is part of a complex called the Villa Marina, which was built in the Victorian heyday of the island, and recently restored at a cost of many millions. It looks stunning and a wonderful venue for any concert, with lovely acoustics. A large part of the audience is seated on its large dance floor, whilst many more sit in the elegant balconies that run around the sides. In all it accommodates considerably more than 1000 people and it was (of course!) a sell out.
Having made our way to our prime seats we discovered that sitting immediately behind us was a McLean fanatic called Joe who lives on the island and whom I have previously met at concerts in London and Dublin. Given that the promoter had held the front two rows back, Joe had typically bought the first available seats for the show. We chatted to him and his wife Syl and they were kind enough to invite myself and Hannah to visit them in Peel, on the west of the island, the following day.
The concert kicked off with a local band called ‘Back Door Slam’. The collective age of the three members in this band are comfortably accommodated within Don’s (almost) three score years, but they produced a performance of maturity and musicianship well beyond their years. Most of the blues-rock material they played was their own compositions along with a number of ‘interpretations’ of standards. Despite the fact that this is not especially my style of music I always think that quality shines through and this trio of lads had it in spades. They fully deserved the great reception they received at the end and would undoubtedly have earned an encore had not Lenny rushed on to try to ensure that the main event would finish the right side of midnight!
So, after a short interval, we reached the main event.
I knew that the concert would be different from Glasgow. There are always differences in any Don show and he made a point of showing the top of his guitar to the audience to prove that there were no set lists involved. Friends often ask me why I travel to so many shows and my answer is always the same…every show is different and at every one you have the chance of hearing something new and more importantly the more I watch the more I appreciate that Don never performs the songs exactly the same way. He is constantly making small vocal changes, the arrangements change, he reacts to audience response. This is art and performance in its purest form. Unlike many of the audience, I don’t attend primarily to hear American Pie, Vincent and Crying, though I still love to hear each of them. I go to hear the quirky little tunes that Don regularly dredges up to keep him and the band on their toes. After 30 odd years of seeing him live there is no other artist that you could give me a ticket to go and watch that I would swap for a seat at one of his concerts. When I first saw him in concert in Glasgow in October 1973 I was stunned and overwhelmed. I still am.
Each performance of Don’s is there for an all too brief and magical moment of time. The next one will be different and unique. Here we had a much more laid back mellow selection of music than in Glasgow, tailored for the audience and location. So we got ‘Superman’s Ghost’, one of my very favourite and underrated songs – Don’s storytelling at its best. The audience lapped up a great rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘If You Could Read My Mind’. There were two or three ‘For the Memories’ type songs – Don vocalising to Tony’s majestic piano accompaniment. In all Don sang a dozen or more songs that were different to those in Glasgow. When you consider that at least 20 minutes of any show is taken up with the three ‘hits’ that means a radically different show.
Somewhere in the middle of it all I heard Don start to say something about performing a song he didn’t often sing from the ‘Don McLean’ album. Surely not, it couldn’t be, could it? I have often heard Don say that he has been asked to sing this or that song without naming any specific individual. That would be enough…I and those close enough to know would realise it was for me.
The rest is a bit of a blur. ‘For someone who has been a fan for about 150 years and whose birthday it is today…for Bill’. Laughter as Don jokes that he is definitely singing the song ‘for me’ and not ‘to me’ realising that while the title might fit the situation, the words might create the wrong impression!
I’ll leave it to others to comment on how well Don sang ‘Birthday Song’ because I didn’t really hear much of it. To have someone for whom you have such respect and admiration honour you with such a gesture renders the brain numb, for about 24 hours in my case. Of all the presents I could have received on my birthday there is none that could come close to that one.
It seems so inadequate simply to say thank you to Don and the band, but I want to do that properly here. You guys are the best and it is a privilege simply to listen to you. Since I am on the topic, just a further word about the band. Many of us ‘mature’ fans were I think a more than a little upset when Don started playing with a full band back around 2000. We didn’t quite respond with cries of Judas but there was certainly disquiet.
No more, no way. The band has grown into and melded itself so beautifully to Don’s music and style and the whole thing works wonderfully as one unit. Old songs have been given a complete new life, a life they could never ever have attained with Don performing solo or with limited backing. Thank you Ralph, Tony, Pat and Jerry (and occasionally Kerry) stay well, stay happy, and never retire!
Although the foregoing implies it, I should confirm that the Isle of Man show was a huge triumph, brought to it’s inclusion by a wonderful encore where Don and Ralph performed a couple of Josh White songs including the nostalgic ‘Where were you Baby’. Don then brought the whole thing to a fitting solo climax with the new song – it may be called ‘I’ve Grown Old Loving You’, I’m not sure. Whatever the title, it’s a beauty and sure to be one of the highlights of the new studio album (Addicted to Black) when it finally emerges.
We spent a further couple of days enjoying the pleasures of the island whilst the band went to the west coast of Ireland for a couple of dates. During this time we visited Joe and Syl and a very pleasant evening was spent looking at old Don memorabilia and with Joe and Hannah entertaining me with Don songs on Joe’s guitars including his Martin Don McLean D40. The video will be available shortly via Sloppy Night Music J.
One final thank you is necessary. To Lenny Conroy at Triskel for sorting out our privileged seats and more importantly for having the immense good sense to take Don over to the island. We owe you Lenny. Hopefully we can do it all again soon!
So to Dublin. The Isle of Man seemed impossible to top. Dublin managed it though as our group of ordinary fans were given amazing opportunities to watch Don and the band sound check, and get the low down from Don himself. But that is for another day.