Glide Magazine: John Mellencamp Keeps His Creative Torch Burning with Hits and New material in Portland, OR

Glide Magazine by Greg Homolka

Back in the early 1980s, in my pre-teen years, I made my first attempt at staying up all night. It was at a county fair in a rural Nebraska town, where lots of farm kids were allowed to spend the night, often on makeshift beds in the back of stock trailers, without the close supervision of adults. The only things I can remember from that night, other than it being really hard to keep my eyes open, were seeing, for my first time, a girl chewing tobacco, and hearing the sounds of John Cougar’s American Fool coming from someone’s boombox in the cattle barn.

Growing up on a farm in middle America in the 80s, John Mellencamp’s music spoke to me, and often for me, as I was growing up. His music served as a sort of soundtrack for our small town tribulations and triumphs. Whenever I saw a pink house I invariably started singing the chorus to the 1983 Uh-HUH! hit. When “Rain On The Scarecrow” came out in 1985, its story of struggling family farms hit uncomfortably close to home. Later, when I went to college and beyond, I adopted “Small Town” as a sort of personal theme song that held me close to my roots. I appreciated and loved other music and musicians at the time. Country and rock n’ roll music often embraced the working class of America. But there was only one mainstream American rocker who was sporting a Future Farmers of America jacket in popular music videos.

John Mellencamp dropped the “Cougar” moniker many years ago, and I haven’t, thankfully, slept in a stock trailer for a few decades. But, I still can’t drive by a pink house without breaking into song. And, there’s a good chance that upon hearing “Check It Out,” I just might shed a tear or two. So it had been a long time coming when, on Saturday, March 11th, at the Keller Auditorium in Portland, Oregon, I attended my first John Mellencamp concert.

Before I remembered reading that the 76-date “Live and In Person 2023” tour was being sponsored by Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I was a bit confused by old black and white movie clips playing as the audience got settled in. I don’t know what might have precipitated the TCM sponsorship, as it’s apparently the first time Mellencamp has had a tour sponsor in all his years of touring. About 30 minutes in, when the title “A Streetcar Named Desire” came up on the screen, signaling yet another movie snippet, the audience audibly signaled its desire to move on. No offense to Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, but we were there to see a different American icon.

The lights went down and the band took the stage, opening the show with “John Cockers” from 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom. The movie theme carried over to the stage, with antique stage flood lights and a backdrop resembling an old movie set. Some mannequins flanked the performers. The lights went from blue to red as the band went into “Paper In Fire,” the first of many hits played over the course of the two-hour show. Mellencamp’s voice was strong and his band tight. Most of the members have been involved for a good long while. In addition to guitarist Mike Wanchic, who’s been with Mellencamp the better part of 50 years, there were relative newcomers Dane Clark on drums, John Gunnel on bass, and Andy York on guitars, who’ve “only” been in the band since the 90s, and newest member Troye Kinnett who’s been playing keyboards and accordion since 20006. The band also recently welcomed back veteran violinist Lisa Germano. The accordion and violin really help set Mellencamp’s sound apart, and Germano was fun to watch as she never stopped grooving the entire night.

As nostalgic as I was feeling that evening, Mellencamp himself has never been one to rest on his laurels. We got a lot of hits — “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “Cherry Bomb,” Hurts So Good,” etc. — but we also got brand new material. It’s evident that he still stands up for the disadvantaged and downtrodden. He told a devastating story about a woman he tried to help out in Portland, leading him to write a song about homelessness and how the land of the free was not standing up to challenges facing our neighbors and fellow citizens. That song, “The Eyes of Portland,” came during a solo acoustic section of the show, which began with a public service announcement that anyone who couldn’t keep their mouth shut during the quiet portion should head out to the hallway or a neighborhood bar. It ended with a singalong of “Jack and Diane.” Who needs a band when you have a 3,000-member choir?

It was great to hear new material and know that Mellencamp won’t stop creating for as long as he is able. But it was also great hearing those old songs, with a big room full of folks unabashedly singing along, to remind us of how strongly his art has connected with people over the years, and, more generally, to serve as an illustration of the power of music.

John Mellencamp, Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, 2023.3.11

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 (solo acoustic), Longest Days (solo acoustic), Jack and Diane (solo acoustic), I Always Lie To Strangers, The Real Life (Joanne Woodward spoken word recording w/Lisa Germano (violin) & Troye Kinnet (accordion) live accompaniment), Rain on the Scarecrow, Lonely Ol’ Night, Crumblin’ Down / Gloria, Pink Houses, Chasing Rainbows, Cherry Bomb, Hurts So Good