Pennsylvania's The Morning Call: For John Mellencamp, Oh, Yeah, Life Goes On
The Morning Call By John J. Moser
More than almost any of his stylistic forebears, or contemporaries, John
Mellencamp has faced aging not with the sage understanding of a Bob Dylan or a
sad searching of a Bruce Springsteen, but with the same defiance that has always
marked his music.
That still was the case, perhaps more than ever, during Mellencamp’s nearly
sold-out show Monday at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.
John Mellencamp at Philadelphia's Academy of Music on Monday
Photos by John J. Moser
It wasn’t that Mellencamp was trying to fight age — although, by playing 24
songs in a show that lasted two hours and 10 minutes, he certainly was giving it
Rather, Mellencamp was refusing to let age dictate his life.
He knows, for example, that being 59 has brought limitations (“This getting
older, hell it ain’t for cowards,” he sang in “Don’t Need This Body”).
But he wants to face it his way, saying in a great, heartfelt “The Real Life”
that “it don't matter how old you are/Or how old one lives to be/I guess it
boils down to what we did with our lives/And how we deal with our own
Mellencamp did that by confronting his past rather than either embracing or
avoiding it. He played most of his hits, but often gave them a more rustic feel,
starting with the opening “Authority Song,” which he recast as rockabilly.
Late in the show, he played his biggest hit, “Jack and Diane,” as
folk-bluegrass. He sang a shortened “Cherry Bomb” alone and a cappella.
He was backed by a four-piece band that on other songs would swell to six to add
accordion, piano or fiddle. Or, it would shrink to him and another player or
two. He started “Small Town,” for example, alone on acoustic guitar before the
fiddle and accordion joined him.
But none of the changes seemed to faze Mellencamp’s crowd, which, because it has
aged — or at least matured — with him, seems to also have followed his musical
journey, and embraced it.
They shared not only in the emotions of his new songs, but seemed to connect to
the maturation of his hits. On the new “Save Some Time to Dream,” they cheered
such sentiments as “Always question your faith” and “so others will not judge
The first third of the show was heavy on songs from Mellencamp’s last two discs,
2008’s excellent “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” and last year’s ”No Better Than
This.” He sang “No One Cares About Me” in a latter-day Dylan growl, his band
playing as if in a session at Memphis’ Sun Studios (where, not coincidently,
some of the disc was recorded).
But it was on bluesman Son House’s “Death Letter” that Mellencamp, chewing gum
and wearing a whispy gray beard (he’s also allowed his hair to go gray) really
opened up. Backed by an ominous violin, accordion, mandolin and slide guitar,
dancing like James Brown, he forcefully spat out the lyrics: “It’s hard to love
somebody when they don’t love you.”
That song and several others through the night were reminders of Mellencamp’s
recent divorce from Boyertown native Elaine Irwin. In “Small Town,” he changed
the lyrics to say, “Married a couple of girls and brought them to this small
He closed the first part of the show with a transcendent “Check It Out,” which
has become more regretful and less soaring. But it still was so good that it
raised goosebumps, and the crowd shouted along.
The middle of the show often found him singling alone in a spotlight or telling
stories, such as how his 100-year-old grandmother’s comment led to his
devastating “Longest Days” or a shaggy-dog tale about how he encountered the
devil at 15 before the wonderful new story song, “Easter Eve.”
But the end of the show was full-bore arena rock — the kind that made Mellencamp
famous. “Rain on the Scarecrow” was brooding and ominous. There was no ambiguity
on “Paper in Fire,” as Mellencamp stood at the edge of the stage firing guitar
riffs and swings of his fist with equal intensity.
It was fitting that Mellencamp looked his happiest on “What If I Came Knocking,”
a song about romantic possibilities, and was so emphatic and defiant on “If I
Die Sudden” that he dropped the gum from his mouth.
Perhaps the irony is that, while Mellencamp’s confrontation of age seems to
resonate so loudly these days, it’s what he’s been singing about all along: from
“holding on to 16 as long as you can” in “Jack and Diane” to “17 has turned 35”
in “Cherry Bomb.”
And his closing songs — faithful versions of “Pink Houses” and “R.O.C.K. in the
U.S.A” — demonstrated that.
The former had one of the coolest concerts moments I’ve ever seen: A guy in an
opera box high above the stage was got so caught up, he took off his cowboy hat
and threw it to Mellencamp, who not only caught it and put it on his head, but
then threw it back. And the guy caught it.
And for the latter, Mellencamp brought a woman on stage to dance, as Springsteen
did in his “Dancing in the Dark” video, back when Mellencamp was just starting
Mellencamp and audience member, dancing in the dark
But this was no act of youthful exuberance — it was a celebration.
Celebration that, Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is