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Delaware's The News Journal: No Arena Rock in Mellencamp Tour
02.18.2011 - The News Journal By Peter  Bothum

It was a major bummer to discover that the man behind "Jack & Diane" does not do phone interviews in advance of shows.

But it was a nice consolation prize to discover the man who came up with the tune's unforgettable guitar hook, Mike Wanchic, was willing to serve as John Mellencamp's mouthpiece.

As Mellencamp's bandleader for more than 34 years, Wanchic (who came up with the little guitar part that comes before the handclaps) has become a master at handling Mellencamp's dirty work, which often requires checking his ego at the door of the studio or the foot of the stage.

"John's a songwriter. He has incredibly good instincts. My job is to lay stuff on him. I'm a melody writer," Wanchic said, calling from Washington, D.C., where Mellencamp and the band were slated to play on Tuesday. "I think democracy is a bad thing in rock and roll. I think you have to have creative vision, and someone has to see that thing all the way through.

"I've come up with parts that I thought were brilliant and they got pitched, but ultimately they got pitched for the greater good."

Wanchic said Mellencamp's current tour reflects the direction he went in his latest album, the stripped-down, critically hailed "No Better Than This." It's an exploration into honest, barebones folk and roots, and as such the tour is a more mature affair, where audiences can sit instead of stand to better focus on the actual music.

"It's not an arena rock show like it's been for the last 30 years," said Wanchic, who lives 10 miles from Mellencamp in their native Bloomington, Ind. "This tour is based very seriously around

great songs and a lot of times doesn't involve big hits."

Don't worry: Fans will still hear a fair share of hits.

"We know we owe certain things to our audience," Wanchic said. "Yeah, you gotta play 'Jack and Diane.' (But) we've completely rearranged it. The song is there, the music is there. We've allowed all of these old hits to grow with us."

In addition to classic songs and a heavy dose from the new record, fans will also hear deeper cuts like "The Real Life" off of 1987's "Lonesome Jubilee." There are three sets with different band arrangements that interchange upright bass, mandolin, violin and acoustic guitars.

Because of the more intimate musical setup -- at one point Andy York is on banjo, Mellencamp is on acoustic guitar and Wanchic plays mandolin -- the players have less margin for error.

"Your ass is hanging out," Wanchic said. "I've never seen John this exposed, this vulnerable on stage."

This isn't exactly true. Mellencamp was quite exposed in the 1980s as an early icon of MTV. And because he was a star of those epic videos -- kicking dust with the band in "Pink Houses," rocking out in the biker bar in "Hurts So Good" -- Wanchic was exposed too and is now a part of pop culture history.

"I guess I don't think about it a great deal. Nobody thinks a thing of it. It's just part of the fabric of my daily life," Wanchic said. "We were there at the very beginnings of MTV, and I think it provided people with a lot of exposure to an audience. It just doesn't exist anymore, in the same way that physical product doesn't exist anymore."

Mellencamp, with Wanchic leading his band, will be at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia at 7 p.m. Monday. Tickets range from $48.50-$130 and are available by calling 215-893-1999 or online at www.kimmelcenter.org.


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