Connect Savannah: This One's For The Fans - Mike Wanchic Interview
11.08.2011 - This one's for the fans
John Mellencamp's longtime guitarist on the 'new' concert
By Bill DeYoung
For a year now, John Mellencamp and his band have been touring America with a
show ostensibly to promote No Better Than This, the acclaimed lo-fi album
Mellencamp recorded in various historic locations - including First African
Baptist Church in Savannah.
The concert, however, is about much more than plugging a record. For Mellencamp,
who's sold more than 40 million albums over a 30-year period, understands all
too well that playing No Better Than This in its entirety, in every arena in the
country, probably won't move a handful of CDs. The music business has changed
Mike Wanchic has been Mellencamp's friend, confidante, co-writer and band
guitarist for nearly 40 years - he's the Joe Perry to John's Steven Tyler, the
Mike Campbell to his Tom Petty. The Keith to his Mick.
In this interview, Wanchic explains how the new show works, and why Mellencamp
has switched things up. Because he can - and he's earned the right.
And these days, there's no reason not to.
Things kick off with a screening of It's About You, Kurt Marcus' documentary
film about the recording of the last couple of Mellencamp albumns (including No
Better Than This) and the band's 2010 tour of U.S. baseball stadiums,
co-headlining with Bob Dylan.
That starts at 7 p.m.. Mellencamp, Wanchic and the other musicians will take the
stage around 8:20.
Oh, you'll probably hear "Pink Houses," "Jack & Diane" and a few others you know
well. But be forewarned, this isn't a retread of John Mellencamp's greatest
hits. "The casual fan may find it a little perplexing," Wanchic says. "But
that's not who comes to these shows."
Mike Wanchic: "The whole concept behind this show is music, as opposed to hit
parade. So many years in arenas, doing big arena rock shows and all that, that
really kind of relegates you to a certain realm of your catalogue. The object of
this exercise was to move past that, and into what we consider the great songs.
We have a hundred and something other songs that we don't ever get a chance to
play - most of our great songs were never really on the radio. Some of them
were. There were 20 Top 10 hits, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially
when you're coming up through the ranks. That's how you build audience loyalty."
Radio bye bye
"We call (playing the hits again and again) being a monkey on a string. You do
what you have to do, you know? But now that John's an elder statesman in the
rock industry, and a legitimate writer of the highest level, the material is
there. No longer is radio a concern for us, nor is building a fan base any more.
So the object is to go out and play to the people who really love us, really
love what we've done in the last 30 years, and treat them to a very musical show
in a very comfortable environment. It's much more mature. It's great adult
Starting the show
"The crowd kind of knows what to expect. It's liberating in a lot of senses. The
show doesn't begin the way we used to - with whistles, bells and fireworks, and
full-on-heat rock ‘n' roll. It starts with a broken down quartet, with a
cocktail kit upright bass and two electric guitars. And that's it. No violins,
no accordions, nothing like that. We bust down to a real basic format. And we do
play a few hits in that format. And a few new songs."
"The second set moves into even further broken down, with John doing acoustic
material, and then ramping it back into duos, quartets, full band, but all in an
acoustic environment. And then the third set is the first time you actually hear
full-on rock ‘n roll, bass and drums. At which point we start giving it up!
Look, you've gotta play the hits. You've got to in some sense. When I see Neil
Young, I want to hear him and Crazy Horse do ‘Southern Man' and all these great
songs. So I understand from a fan's perspective, why you do want to hear what
you want to hear. We're never gonna please everybody because we've got 20-plus
Strictly about music
"We don't want to knock people off their seats with weirdness, but what we want
to do is respect the listener enough to know that our crowd is not stupid, you
know? Anybody who wants to hear us play the hits has heard us play the hits. You
may have missed your chance if you wanted to hear nothing but anthemic arena
rock. I think at this point in John's career, it's about music, and it's
strictly about music."
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe
When: At 7 p.m. (film), 8:20 p.m. (concert) Friday, Nov. 11
Tickets: $39.50-$125 at etix.com