John Mellencamp turns a lonely ol' night in Clearwater into a sentimental pre-Valentine's Day party  Photo by Caesar Carbajal - Article includes photo gallery 

On Monday night, John Mellencamp shamed himself for having been loud during quiet moments as a young man. That should've been a context clue that you probably shouldn’t follow in those footsteps. 

“I’m inviting you to get up onstage now, and say what the fuck ever you wanna say. Come on, big shot,” he dared a fan who started yelling about fuck-knows-what, moments after Mellencamp introduced a quiet, acoustic segment of his first of three consecutive shows at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Monday night.

“Ah, not so tough out there in the dark,” he chuckled. 

The 71-year-old singer-songwriter is finally back on the road, following a three-year live music drought thanks to the lingering threat of COVID-19. He managed to cut his first new album in five years last winter, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, which features a trio of guest spots from another legendary rocker, Bruce Springsteen. None of said collaborations made it onto his current “Live and In Person” tour setlist, but with a healthy mix of deep cuts, radio tracks, and newer songs, there wasn’t really too much room to complain. 

The closest thing Clearwater got to an opening act Monday night was a 30-minute long montage of scenes from Golden Age of Hollywood films, such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Grapes of Wrath.” Around 8:25 p.m., fans were getting antsy, and starting yelling about how they wanted Mr. “Jack and Diane,” just to be answered with blaring sirens on both stage right and stage left. The curtain with the screen up, and Mellencamp, along with a six-piece band—and four mannequins watching from all corners of the stage— launched straight into “John Cockers,” originally off of 2008’s Life, Death, Love, and Freedom

A few rockers later (“Paper In Fire,” “Small Town,”) John put his electric axe—which strongly resembled a Fender Telecaster—down, and reminded us that he who penned harmless jams like “Hurts So Good” is also fully capable of penning poignant lyrics that takes on far heavier topics. “Don’t Need This Body” was Mellencamp’s way of accepting that he’s getting older, but while his peers and friends may be dying one by one, he’s satisfied with the way he lived his life. 

But mortality wasn’t the only reality check Mellencamp—who plays Clearwater two more times this week—presented. “We Are the People” from 1987 takes on a whole new meaning in 2023, with one-percenters and gun lovers always offering thoughts and prayers to those who really are facing hard situations, from mass shootings to racial injustice. “If you are one of the homeless/May my thoughts be with you/If you are scared and alone/You know, our thoughts are with you,” John sang. 

Speaking of the housing insecurity, he told a story about a woman he met while visiting Portland, Oregon a few years ago, adding, “Let me tell you something: If you guys think you have a homeless problem here, you should go to Portland,. I mean, it’s sad.” 

This woman’s home was 300 miles from where Mellencamp met her, and when asked where she sleeps at night, he learned that she doesn’t sleep at night, out of fear of getting raped in her sleep.

“I thought ‘What the fuck kind of life is this in America?’” Mellencamp recalled. As a result, he went home and wrote a straightforward lament about how the homeless rates are in America are unacceptable, while also knocking the privatization of hospitals and psychiatric care centers. “That’s why we pay so much money!” he observed. 

Mellencamp later took an offstage break, and got a little help from a recording of Hollywood legend Joanne Woodward reading his “The Real Life” lyrics, with musical accompaniment from accordionist/keyboardist Troye Kinnett and violinist Lisa Germano. The lyrics center around how we shouldn’t let age define us, and that all the fun and excitement that people think they should be through with by their mid-twenties doesn’t necessarily have to end. 

And that’s one thing that all Mellenheads—most of the ones in Ruth Eckerd Hall being over the age of 50—can agree on. One minute, everyone is feeling old while the Cougs sings about how nothing lasts forever (“Longest Days,”) and the next, it’s 1982 again, and the sold-out crowd is on its feet, singing the chorus of “Jack and Diane” one verse too early. “Wrong! Wrong!” John jabbed. “You people went ‘fuck the second verse!’” 

But as John expressed over 40 years ago, life goes on.