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Bloomington Herald -Times: Mellencamp Retrospective Sparks New Interpretations
09.26.2008 - Commentary
By Mike Leonard

The motivation to stage a John Mellencamp concert in the crumbling Crump Theater in Columbus came out of brainstorming for a new cable television series, tentatively titled “Back Where We Started.”

The concept is to take someone both famous and accomplished — Mellencamp’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year pretty much set his legacy in stone — and go back to take an in-depth look at that person’s early years.

“It was perfect for us to have John as the premiere for the series because for this kind of show to work, we need someone who is both prolific and been in the business a long time,” explained Anthony Uro, executive director for original programming for Stage 3 Productions, a Philadelphia firm. “It wouldn’t work with someone who was famous for five years and then went away. Or someone who has done the same thing all their lives.”

The film crew has gone to impressive lengths to tell the story of Mellencamp’s beginnings. Uro said on Wednesday that when filming is completed they will have interviewed 17 people on camera, ranging from Mellencamp and his wife, Elaine, to Mellencamp’s old friends and one-time bandmates from his hometown of Seymour. Current band members also have been interviewed, as well as musicians from the “Johnny Cougar” years such as Robert “Ferd” Frank. They even interviewed this columnist, based on his coverage of Mellencamp over the last 25 years.

Mellencamp admitted at Tuesday night’s performance that he remembered playing at the Crump 32 years ago but he didn’t remember much else about it. The once-grand art deco palace clearly is in dire need of renovation before too much decay sets in. Workers had to construct a new fire escape from the balcony and install new seats just to get the place ready for the show some Columbus residents called the biggest thing to happen for years in that handsome but sedate city.

Mellencamp and band performed a typically professional and dynamic show. The star and his audience laughed together when he tried to reach back into his bag of golden oldies and repeatedly got partway into a song and then muffed the words. “Bring back the band!” he called out, chuckling after about three false starts.

That the 56-year-old performer couldn’t immediately recall songs he hadn’t played in 30 years was no surprise. What was unexpected, and a real treat, was the three-song opening set by a mixed show choir from Columbus North High School — an ensemble with the anachronistic name of The Debuteens and Music Men.

The a capella choir gave an ebullient performance of three Mellencamp songs: “Our Country,” “Peaceful World” and “Your Life Is Now.” It was the first time that even ardent Mellencamp fans had ever heard Mellencamp’s music done by a chorale.
Columbus North choral director Janie Gordon said she and her students did all the arrangements and rehearsals between last Wednesday and Sunday — a remarkable feat.

“I pretty much said yes to this before I knew what was going to be involved,” Gordon admitted after the show. “After saying yes, I realized I’d never seen a capella arrangements for any Mellencamp songs, and I’m state chairman for all state vocal jazz with the IMEA (Indiana Music Educators Association).”

It turned out to be both a lot of hard work and an inspiring collaboration with her students. “I couldn’t have done it all by myself. The kids got really inspired and we started taking the songs apart, hearing what instruments were doing what, and then seeing what we could do vocally to make the songs work,” she said.

“I thought it sounded pretty good,” Gordon said. “It was very rockapella.”

The high school vocal performance also introduced an unexpected new component to a program aimed at uncovering the old. Choral arrangements for Mellencamp’s music didn’t exist a week ago. They do now, and they serve to illustrate just how strong some of the Mellencamp catalog is.

The student performance, Mellencamp’s show and the interviews will all be put together into a 90-minute program by Stage 3 Productions. “Back Where We Started” will air on the A&E Biography channel in December or January, depending on when the network decides to launch the new series.

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