Opening his Live and In Person 2023 tour this week with two performances in his home state of Indiana, followed by a stop in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Wednesday, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer-songwriter John Mellencamp delighted a sold-out crowd in Atlanta, Georgia, on Friday night February 10, 2023. Hosted by the historic Fox Theatre in Midtown Atlanta, this 4,665-capacity venue dates back to 1929 when it was originally designed as the headquarters for a 5,000-member Shriners organization. Citing its architectural uniqueness, the Fox was named a National Historic Landmark in May 1976. The “Fabulous Fox” (as it is locally known) also has a storied musical past, including holding performances by Elvis Presley, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Pearl Jam, Ray Charles, and James Brown.
With the evening temperatures a bit warmer than expected, the early crowd had already snaked around the block by the time the theatre doors were thrown open at 7:00pm. These eager fans took in the ornate theatrical architecture and ambiance of the building as they made their way to the seats, with the assumption that the show was set to start at the posted 8:00pm time. However, perhaps to the surprise of most, the first 30 minutes of the show was actually a video montage featuring vintage movie clips. Turner Classic Movies is the tour sponsor, and in lieu of an opening performance act, a large stage screen played video clips from such films as “The Misfits,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
As the clock hit the 8:30pm hour, the screen rolled up and the stage illuminated in blues and yellows to reveal the 71-year-old Mellencamp and his band to the backdrop of streetscape imagery and set of large mannequins. The group then launched into “John Cockers” from Mellencamp’s 2008 release, Life, Death, Love and Freedom, followed by “The Eyes of Portland,” from his latest album, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack (2022). Early in the show he let the audience know that he was “going to play songs they know, songs they don’t know, and songs to dance to,” which is exactly what happened over the next hour-and-45-minutes.
Having never seen Mellencamp perform live before, I have to say I enjoyed experiencing his biting humor and blue collar personality first-hand as it was weaved in throughout the night. As a lead in to the 1985 hit “Small Town,” Mellencamp reflected that he had been coming to Atlanta “when it was just dirt roads, and every street was called Peachtree. Take Peachtree, and turn on Peachtree, until you get to Peachtree.” The adoring crowd ate up the true reflection. Then a bit later he jokingly snarled that he was about to hit a part of the setlist for slow songs, didn’t want to hear screaming, and told those fans to “keep your fucking mouth shut, or go out and get a drink or buy something.” That eventually lead into a raucous acoustic version of his iconic 1982 tune, “Jack & Diane.”
With the crowd singing at full-lung capacity for “Jack & Diane,” the silver-haired Mellencamp toyed with the audience as they jumped from the first verse into the song’s chorus. “Woah, woah, woah, woah. No, no, no, no. Guys, there’s two verses and a chorus. Verse, verse, chorus.” He continued over the laughter, “You guys jumped straight from the first verse to the chorus, which left out the second verse. If you knew how long it took me to write that second verse, you wouldn’t skip over it. You would say, yeah John, we’ll wait for the second verse.” Yes, Mellencamp’s gruff and gravely voice has aged a bit, but this was a powerful musical moment that transported me back to hearing that song played in heavy radio rotation during my younger years.
The group then proceeded to showcase an enjoyable new tune in typical Mellencamp tone, “I Always Lie to Strangers,” before the show briefly came to a pause to highlight the poem “The Real Life,” which was a piece pre-recorded in the spoken word by Joanne Woodward, actor Paul Newman‘s 92-year-old widow. Lisa Germano, who recently rejoined touring with Mellencamp for the first time in 29 years, accentuated the reading with her violin. Following the reading, the Atlanta audience stood up and never sat again. They danced, clapped and sang their way through the rest of the evening, enjoying such familiar Mellencamp hits as “Paper in Fire,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses,” “Cherry Bomb,” and the 1983 Grammy Award-winning single, “Hurts So Good,” to punctuate the night.
Mellencamp is an American musical treasure, not to be missed. His Live and In Person tour continues on into the summer, wrapping up on Saturday, June 24, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend, Indiana.
John Mellencamp – vocals, guitar
Mike Wanchic – guitars, backing vocals
Andy York – guitars, backing vocals
Lisa Germano – violin
Dane Clark – drums, backing vocals
John Gunnell (a.k.a. Jon E. Gee) – bass
Troye Kinnett – keyboards, accordion, backing vocals