The Chronicle Herald: Mellencamp Wows Fans With Rock-And-Roll Dance Party
07.10.2012 - By Stephen Cooke -
The Chronicle Herald
Just in case the nearly 4,000 people assembled at the Dartmouth Sportsplex
weren’t sure who they were there to see on Monday night, there was an
announcement to remind us after the arena went completely dark and we were
treated to a blast of late-career Johnny Cash.
“He’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ... a champion for family farms
... and an advocate of freedom of speech ... John Mellencamp!”
After that impressive resume, I felt a tad underdressed for the evening in jeans
and a Willie Nelson T-shirt, but within seconds reassurance came as Mellencamp
and his band came out swinging, shaking his fist at The Man with Authority Song,
and raising the room to its feet to sing along, wave its hands in the air, and
face constant admonishment from facility staff for trying to take pictures.
Like the song says, “authority always wins,” but you can’t blame folks for
trying, especially when the singer and his band were so darn dapper; even
drummer Dane Clark wore a vest, which couldn’t have been the most comfortable
garment by the end of the hour-and-40-minute set, the first half of a two-night
stand at the downtown Dartmouth complex.
Clad in black jacket and slacks, with a bit more grey in his trademark
pompadour, the rock icon of Indiana indicated that this was going to be a
rock-and-roll dance party. He kept the energy going with the Sun Records stomp
of No One Cares About Me from his recent triumph No Better Than This, recorded
at Sun and other iconic rooms using only a single microphone and a 1950s Ampex
As Andy York played rockabilly guitar licks somewhere between Carl and Luther
Perkins, John Gunnell’s standup bass and Troye Kinnett on upright piano provided
the seal of authenticity. Unfortunately, Miriam Sturm’s violin was buried
somewhere in the mix, a fault that would be corrected a song later as her
strings combined with Kinnett’s accordion to provide mournful backup to York’s
swampy slide guitar on a cover of Death Letter, from Mellencamp’s 2003
collection of blues and roots covers, Trouble No More.
I would have been perfectly happy if the evening had continued in this vein, the
gruffer edge in Mellencamp’s voice really suits the newer material on No Better
Than This, but folks were largely there to hear the hits, and Lord knows he’s
got a trunk full of them.
Easing us into the pool with the relaxed groove of Key West Intermezo (I Saw You
First), there were still a few people up and dancing, displaying moves I haven’t
seen since high school — in the ’80s, natch — as Kinnett’s accordion set the
Then it was Sturm’s turn to carry the more passionate Love and Happiness, before
both musicians united for Check It Out, a plea for “a better understanding” of
living and making the most of your life. Accordingly (accordioningly?), there
was even more dancing in the aisles and up on the mezzanine as arcs of blue,
white and yellow lights lit up the stage like it was a summer backyard
“Good evening, I’m John Mellencamp,” he said, strapping on an acoustic guitar
and introducing himself for the first time (and for those who missed his CV over
the PA at the start). “Tonight we’re gonna play some songs you know, some songs
you don’t know, songs you can dance to, and songs that might make you think a
The next song didn’t require any thought at all, merely a Pavlovian response as
Mellencamp sang the first line, “A little ditty...” and immediately everyone
fell in line with the rest of the words about Jack and Diane, heartland love and
Tastee-Freez chili dogs. It was a great moment and a good sign that the crowd
would be putty in his hands for the rest of the evening.
The band slowly built back up through The Longest Days — following an amusing
anecdote about the singer’s 100-year-old grandmother — and Small Town, before
coming back in full-on electric mode for Rain on the Scarecrow. Mellencamp
rolled up his sleeves to tackle his anthem for Farm Aid — which returns Sept. 22
with Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews, to Hershey, Pa. — sung with
all the menace and fury of the 1985 original.
Through it all, Mellencamp never lost the audience’s attention, keeping the
tight rein of a Roman charioteer on his band, most of whom have been with him
since the late ’90s (guitarist Mike Wanchic is unfortunately recovering from
surgery in Indianapolis). He drove them to a fever pitch on If I Die Sudden —
with a thumping big beat from Clark, screaming guitar from York and Sturm’s
virtuoso bowing — before bursting the dam on Crumblin’ Down, with everyone
dancing and perfectly in sync with the action on stage.
Bigger hits followed, Pink Houses, the creaky R.O.C.K. in the USA (does anyone
know if the title’s acronym actually stands for anything?) and the show closer
Cherry Bomb, but it felt like the Hoosier hotshot was cooling everyone off and
getting them ready for the ride back home.
The energy of Mellencamp and his band was a good contrast to opening act Cowboy
Junkies, whose set of trance-inducing beauty was ill-suited to hockey rink
They worked their transformative magic on Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You
Down and the cover that brought them international attention, Lou Reed’s Sweet
Jane, while original tunes like 3rd Crusades and Good Friday showed them working
the darkness of the room to their advantage.
Michael Timmins’ guitar snarled like a junkyard dog straining at the end of its
leash on the former, and sister Margo worked herself up from cafe croon to a
throat full of soul on the latter, making me want to spend more time with their
recent Nomad Series of four CDs, showcasing Cowboy Junkies as a band still
brimming with ideas and inspiration.