Americana Highways: John Mellencamp At DAR Constitution Hall

Americana Highways By Glenn Cook 

John Mellencamp has always had a canny understanding of the lure and value of nostalgia. It permeates a number of his best-known songs — many of them recorded more than 30 years ago — and it remains a draw to the fans who see his shows hoping to relive a part of their youth.

But Mellencamp also is a contrarian and a contradiction — a hardcore liberal who continues to live in conservative Indiana, a touring musician who plays theaters rather than arenas and calls his shows “performances” instead of concerts, and a self-professed “Little Bastard” who challenges audiences through his songs and over their behavior at shows.

All of those characteristics — and more — were on display when Mellencamp brought his “Live and In Person 2024” tour to the 3,700-seat D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on Thursday night. The show featured no opening act, a 23-minute series of clips from old and classic films, and a 19-song set that included only four numbers recorded after 1989.

The setlist has not changed during the tour, which ends on Wednesday, but the artist and his crack six-piece band did anything but phone it in, resulting in a tremendously entertaining evening.

Mellencamp’s emphasis on “performance” — signs in the lobby and the final card from the clip show implored the audience to “exercise theater etiquette” — was evident throughout the two-hour show. That edict was tested early as the “clip show” — scenes from “The Fugitive Kind,” “The Misfits,” “Giant,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Hud,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” — played on the screen.

The clips showcased rebels, misfits and outlaws of different kinds played by Marlon Brando, James Dean, Clark Gable, and Paul Newman, among others. They set a definite mood, even as the audience started to become impatient, which I have to think was part of Mellencamp’s point. Knowing the audience wanted comfort food, he gave it to them, with a dollop of Tabasco to add spice.

Now 72, Mellencamp remains engaging and charismatic, moving around with the energy of someone 20 years younger. A longtime chain smoker, his singing voice is raspy and gravel-soaked, but he knows how to work around it, using the deficit of age to give his best-known hits the combination of joy and melancholy.

Mellencamp and his crack six-piece band took the stage with “John Cockers,” one of three songs played from 2008’s “Life, Death, Love, and Freedom” during the show. The song’s refrain (“I ain’t got no friends”) was quickly rebuffed, however, when the string of 1980s hits began.

Seven songs followed in rapid succession. “Paper in Fire” segued into “Minutes to Memories” then “Small Town” into “Human Wheels.” Mellencamp slowed it down for the plaintive “Jackie Brown,” starting the song in a semi-circle with guitar players Mike Wanchic and Andy York and violinist Lisa Germano. Then, after “Troubled Land” came the first of the massive singalongs — “Check It Out” from 1987’s “The Lonesome Jubilee.”

Germano’s violin was a huge part of the sound of “The Lonesome Jubilee,” and her entrance on “Check It Out” remains one of the most joyous instrumental pieces I’ve heard three and a half decades after its release. She left Mellencamp’s band in the mid 1990s for a solo career and did not return until last year. Seeing her back in the fold, particularly on these songs, was a highlight of the show.

With the audience hooked, Mellencamp veered left for a three-song interlude. On acoustic guitar and harmonica, he talked about played “The Eyes of Portland,” the lone cut from his most recent album, 2023’s “Orpheus Descending.” Earlier in the tour, Mellencamp’s confrontation with a “Don’t preach, just play the hits” fan over his monologue on the homeless went viral. But on Thursday, the boo-bird was shrugged off, by the singer and the rest of the audience that drowned him out with applause.

The interlude continued with another story from Mellencamp about his grandmother, who lived to be 100 and said he wouldn’t make it that far if he didn’t stop “cussing and smoking.” The last time she saw him, she pointed an arthritic finger at him and said, “You’re gonna find out life is short, even in its longest days.”

That line became the centerpiece of “Longest Days,” a song that appeared on “Life, Death, Love, and Freedom,” the themes of which have dominated the past 15 years of Mellencamp’s life as a musician and visual artist. Wanchic and Troye Kinnett, playing accordian, rejoined during the song, which was followed by “Jack and Diane.”

One of Mellencamp’s biggest and enduring hits, “Jack and Diane” is a nostalgic ode from 1982 to the high school sweethearts you find in in every small town, and Germano’s violin returned to emphasize the point that “life goes on, even after the thrill of living it is gone.” Then, again emphasizing the “performance” piece of the show, Mellencamp left the stage for a brief break while Germano, Wanchic, and Kinnett accompanied Joanne Woodward’s narration of “The Real Life.”

Hearing Woodward’s voice again — the 94-year-old actress no longer speaks due to Alzheimer’s disease — served as an audio coda to the clip show that features icons (including Woodward’s husband, Paul Newman) who are no longer with us.

At this point, Mellencamp returned to the stage and to the hits — a powerful “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “What If I Came Knocking,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Cherry Bomb,” and the closer “Hurts So Good.”

Before “Cherry Bomb,” itself a love song to the “good ole’ days,” Mellencamp acknowledged the nostalgia factor of his current performances. He laughed telling a story about his son, now 30, asking him if he remembers things that happened just two years ago and said, “You have to be old to have old times.”

It was nice to relive some of those old times, at least for a minute, with a favorite musician whose songs feel like old friends. At the same time, the show served as a reminder to be grateful for the now. I hope others felt the same way.