Americana Now: John Mellencamp - Keller Auditorioum PDX

Americana Now Photos by Julia Varga

Around here, we don’t get to throw the term “legend” around too often; we feel some artists we’ve seen are legends-in-the-making, give them 20 years, but current legends? Not often. An artist rarely sees 50 years in their industry, especially one that can chew up and spit out even the most hardened spirits. But John Mellencamp has persevered, never to stray from his own path, in his own way. I hate when people talk about bands/artists like they’re surprised they’re still around…”they still got it!”, oof that makes me mad. Of course they still got it, they’ll always have it. So I won’t say that here. Mellencamp is here, absolutely rockin’.

I’ve grown up listening to John Mellencamp, his music a gentle behind the scenes soundtrack to adolescence, weaving in and out of life as my musical tastes develop their own identity. I may have strayed recently from him, but there was no way I was missing his show in PDX.

There was no opener for the show, instead a video of clips from various old films, intertwined with an interview of Mellencamp illustrating his inspirations from such films as “On the Waterfront” , “Hud”, “Paper Moon” with actors such as (friend) Paul Newman, James Dean and Marlon Brando; the latter which became subjects for Mellencamp’s paintings. The video stops, the curtain comes up and roaring applause immediately erupts.

The set list was great, the list will follow. It was a fabulous mix of a new and old, and those ones that he has to do for the crowd, which I’m grateful for since this was my first time seeing him live. To hear an acoustic version of “Jack and Diane” with a crowd sing along-albeit them getting it wrong and Mellencamp having to stop and while chuckling correct them, was a dream I didn’t even know I had until I lived it.

What I loved even more, and I wish more artists would do -but apparently you need 50 years in the biz to do it and *almost * everyone listens, is to tell the crowd to keep their big mouths shut during “the quiet ones” , and of course one woman has to yell out in agreement and with the irony completely lost on her, Mellencamp tells her to take it outside and the rest of the crowd claps in approving compliance. Light hearted moments like this are welcome, showing the human he is, and are met with both his and the crowds’ laughter.

Stories interspersed with songs; personal situational accounts that led to songs from our very own Portland, made for a show that was more theatrical narrative than “just” a concert; even the stage, set with movie still background and lights, brought a theater-like experience. “The Eyes of Portland” is one such story, one where he was in town for lunch, came across an anxious homeless woman, whom he just wanted to help. She told him she just wanted to get home and he offered her a bus ticket, but she said she wasn’t welcomed there. He offered her money, to which her first question was if she had to have sex with him. No, of course not, this brought him great sadness that this was the only way she knew in order to accept the money, but the same instance brought her great joy, that she would not have to demean herself another night to make it through. The lyrics “all these homeless, where do they come from?”, repeated throughout the song, are now more poignant knowing the backstory.

So many stories shared, of his time with his aging Grandmother, his dream at the pearly gates, and with his friend Joanne Woodward. Woodward, widow of friend Paul Newman, who herself only recently has lost her speaking voice, recorded one of Mellencamp’s songs, read as poetry, “The Real Life” while accompanied by the accordion and violin, truly brought me chills.

A 2 hour show, and the impressive 21 song set list was incredible. And I’ll tell you, it was really fun getting to sing along to “Hurts so Good”, my inner teen squealed. The man is truly a rock legend.

Set List:
John Cockers
Paper in Fire
Minutes to Memories
Small Town
Hey God
Human Wheels
Don’t Need This Body
Jackie Brown
Check it Out
The Eyes of Portland
Longest Days
Jack and Diane
I Always Lie to Strangers
The Real Life -read by Joanne Woodward
Lonely Ol’ Night
Crumblin’ Down (with Gloria by Them)
Pink Houses
Chasing Rainbows
Cherry Bomb
Hurt So Good