Charlestonscene.com: Charleston NC Show Preview From Mike Wanchic, Miriam Sturm And Andy York
11.03.2011 - By Stratton Lawrence -
There's a curious lyric on John Mellencamp's latest album, 2010's "No Better
Than This." On the lost-love track, "Thinking About You," he opens the song by
singing, "It's not my nature to be nostalgic at all."
Mellencamp, not nostalgic? The southern Indiana native built his 35-year career
as the patron saint of small towns, America's heartland and a simpler way of
The entirety of "No Better Than This" was recorded with one microphone in rooms
chock-full of nostalgia: Savannah's First African Baptist Church (the first
black congregation in America), the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (where Robert
Johnson laid down "Crossroad Blues") and standing on the very spot where Elvis
sang in Memphis' Sun Studio.
If you go:
What: John Mellencamp's "No Better Than This" tour
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: North Charleston Performing Arts Center
For tickets: In person at North Charleston Performing Arts Center advance ticket
window off Montague Avenue, at all Ticketmaster outlets (including select Publix
grocery stores); by phone at 800-745-3000; or online at www.ticketmaster.com and
For more info: Go to www.northcharlestoncoliseumpac.com or www.aeglive.com.
"In making music, John is not nostalgic," says Miriam Sturm, his violinist for
15 years and one of three band members Charleston Scene spoke with about
Mellencamp's ongoing influence on American music.
"One thing that's so marvelous about him, he keeps trying to plum the depths of
what he's able to write now and what he wrote in the past, and reconfigure it
into something that feels more gritty and visceral and genuine. Maybe even more
Mellencamp and his band arrive in Charleston on Wednesday at the tail end of a
yearlong tour in support of the album, an event that marks the songwriter's
first performance here ("Unless he snuck out and played without me," says Mike
Wanchic, his guitarist of 34 years).
The show opens with a screening of "It's About You," a documentary of the "No
Better Than This" recording process filmed entirely on Super 8 film, the grainy
but vivid classic format rarely used in the digital age.
Then the concert begins with a blues/country set probing Mellencamp's rockabilly
roots, followed by an acoustic segment.
"It's the most 'solo John' I've ever witnessed in my life," says Wanchic. "It's
a great chance for the audience to actually hear how he wrote these songs.
Sometimes the translation between initial writing and finished arrangements can
be quite different.
"Sometimes that means taking all that big, loud arena rock out and getting to
the sweet, sweet kernel of what that original song was."
Call it the T Bone Burnett effect. Known for taking rockers and stripping them
down to their roots (Robert Plant's "Raising Sand," Gregg Allman's "Low Country
Blues"), the famed producer's hand is evident in Mellencamp's most recent career
Hiring Burnett to produce "No Better Than This" proved to be a smart move. By
stripping his rig down and recording with one microphone in the style of the
blues pioneers, Mellencamp remains relevant as a middle-America hero in 2011.
In 1982, when he broke through as John Cougar with "American Fool" and its hits,
"Hurts So Good" and "Jack & Diane," his big rock sound fit the Bruce Springsteen
motif of the hard-working everyman rocker.
Each release thereafter went platinum, including 1985's "Scarecrow" and 1994's
"Dance Naked." Then in 1996, Mellencamp released "Mr. Happy Go Lucky." The album
featured more production and hidden twists than anything he'd recorded prior.
Sturm made her studio debut on that album, composing an album-opening overture
of the dozen tracks, including hits "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" and
"Just Another Day."
Although subsequent albums continued to chart well, including his eponymous 1998
release and 2007's "Freedom's Road," nothing has garnered the sort of media
attention "No Better Than This" has received, largely for its unorthodox
recording method and back story.
"The whole point of longevity in music is evolution, being able to continue to
develop yourself musically, not underestimating the audience and being able to
offer fans something different and interesting," says Wanchic.
"This show is not about playing the hit records for John Q. Public. The whole
point of this entire tour is to settle in on what we consider the great songs
we've come up with over the years, being able to put people in a good
environment and to play music for the sake of music."
Even in this digital age, where the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and
New York shapes what people in the heartland consume, Mellencamp still seems to
resound with small-town America in the same way he did three decades ago.
It's evident in his audiences and the response he receives, including at the
annual Farm Aid concert, which he co-founded with Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
"If you fly from Charleston to Los Angeles and look down below you on the plane,
you'll see that virtually this entire country is rural, punctuated by cities,"
says Wanchic. "The press and critics might like you to think that L.A. and New
York are this country. But they're not even remotely representative. We're a
small-town nation. The human condition is universal, whether you're in L.A. or
Bloomington (Indiana) or Beaufort, South Carolina, we're all struggling with the
The band's other guitarist, Andy York, recalls playing in Boston three days
after Sept. 11, 2001.
"The reaction to us being there was absolutely overwhelming. There was
indescribable emotion," he recalls. "It was such a fine moment to be a part of,
and we all felt united with this music, like we were one person with the
audience. It was a way of moving forward that I'll never forget."
Of course, the entire nation was looking to connect in the days after that
tragedy, but the honest American nature of Mellencamp's songwriting provided him
a special opportunity and perspective.
"He values friendships and people he's known all his life. That's the reason he
still lives in southern Indiana," says Sturm, who met and connected with Wanchic
and the band after graduating from Indiana University.
"He still keeps people that he knew in grade school and high school near to him.
It's not nostalgia so much as really valuing your roots."
Sturm says that the band collectively values traits like forgiveness and
compassion, and that they generally agree with the motivations of the Occupy
In October, their bus got caught in traffic because of Occupy Montreal protests
after a show in the city. Discussion ensued about their general disdain for
By keeping in touch with the rural America that bred him and supports him,
Mellencamp, who turned 60 last month, continues to remain viable as a
songwriter, even after spending half his life in the spotlight.
In the film "It's About You," we witness his full-immersion baptism at the First
African Baptist Church in Savannah. His visit there wasn't just a
run-in-and-record flyover, but a religious experience. (Interestingly, he did
leave the lyric "I ain't been baptized/I ain't got no church" in the song "Each
Day of Sorrow" from those recording sessions).
For fans concerned that the roots-inspired concert format might ignore their old
favorites, there's no need to worry. The show begins with a small four-piece
band, including banjo and mandolin.
Players are added progressively, leading up to Mellencamp's solo set, explains
"But then, the third set is just all out, blasting, burning rock 'n' roll."
In the final set, the guitars and bass switch from acoustic to electric, the
drums from a cocktail kit to a full set, and the sound explodes into more of
what classic Mellencamp fans are accustomed to.
"We play the hits, and people are singing along with them, but they won't sound
exactly like they did in the '80s," says Sturm. "We're not just coming out with
Marshall stacks and playing an arena rock show all night."
According to Wanchic, the adaptation of songs and constant reinvention is
exactly the opposite of nostalgia.
"John continues to develop his craft and become a better artist all the time,"
says the guitarist. "There are risks when you put yourself out there like that.
But if you're not risking failure, then you're really not pushing. Anybody who
says that age takes you down is wrong, in terms of music."