Arkansas Democrat Gazette: John Mellencamp Brings Heartland Rock To Little Rock's Robinson Center

Arkansas Democrat Gazette by Sheila Yount  / Photo by Kyle McDaniel 

For a while Wednesday night, it looked like a night at the movies for fans of heartland rock icon John Mellencamp as his show began with clips from classic films played on a large screen above the stage at Robinson Center in Little Rock. 

The clips from such films as "The Fugitive Kind" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," both starring a very young Marlon Brando, set the stage for one hour and 40 minutes of songs from Mellencamp's vast catalog of hits spanning more than four decades. Part Woody Guthrie and part Bruce Springsteen with a Midwestern accent, Mellencamp, a native of Seymour, Ind., writes songs that are the stuff of movies, telling stories of the downtrodden and homeless, fractured homes and families, life in small towns and the disappearing American dream. 

Dressed in black coveralls with rolled up sleeves, Mellencamp, 72, exhibited his blue-collar cred, looking more like an auto mechanic than a rock star and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He took the stage in dramatic fashion as the sound and lights of sirens filled the theater, creating, along with the backdrop image of a building in the New Orleans' French Quarter, the sense of being in the "Streetcar" movie set. Playing his butterscotch blonde telecaster, he opened the musical portion of the show with "John Cockers" from his 2008 album "Life, Death, Love and Freedom." Three more songs in, he brought the enthusiastic audience of the 2,200-seat theater to its feet with his hit "Small Town" from the 1985 "Scarecrow" album.

 "Just so you know, what you have in store for you this evening, we are going to be doing some songs you know and some songs you don't know and some songs you can dance to and some songs you can sing along with," Mellencamp said. 

The audience obliged by singing along, as well as swaying and clapping, as Mellencamp and six-piece band performed his best-known songs, including "Jack and Diane," "Pink Houses," "Crumblin' Down," "Lonely Ol' Night" and "Cherry Bomb," from a body of work that includes 22 "Top 40" hits and 13 Grammy nominations with one win. 

Violinist Lisa Germano's performance was stellar, including solo moments during such songs as "Check it Out" and "Paper in Fire" from the 1987 album "The Lonesome Jubilee." She also delivered one of the night's most poignant moments when she introduced and played background music for a recorded reading of Mellencamp's "The Real Life" by legendary actress Joanne Woodward, a longtime friend of Mellencamp's. 

Mellencamp also delivered an especially emotionally charged performance as he played acoustic guitar and harmonica for "The Eyes of Portland" from his latest album "Orpheus Descending." The song was inspired by a homeless woman Mellencamp met on the streets of Portland. "I am so sorry and so sick of seeing all these homeless people in America," he said as he introduced the song. 

A longtime and unapologetic smoker, Mellencamp's voice was noticeably deeper and raspier than when he recorded his hits, but it seemed a better fit for dark-themed songs such as "Rain on the Scarecrow," a driving rock song about the plight of American family farmers. Mellencamp is a longtime supporter of family farms and co-founded Farm Aid in 1985 to raise money for those in need. 

Mellencamp finished up the show with a rousing performance of his Grammy Award-winning "Hurts So Good," which once again had the audience singing and swaying along to the song. The Little Rock show was part of Mellencamp's "Live and In Person 2024" tour of 27 cities, which began on March 8 and will wrap up on April 23 in Savannah, Ga.