Los Angeles Daily News: John Mellencamp Brings The Heartland To Hollywood

Los Angeles Daily News By Peter Larson / Photo by Michael Owen Baker 

Singer-songwriter John Mellencamp got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years ago. He’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and there are Grammys, a pair of awards named after Woody Guthrie, and other honors, too.

But there was a time 30 years ago when his beloved grandma wasn’t sure about his prospects for the biggest award of all, Mellencamp told the audience in the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Wednesday, March 22.

“She said, ‘You know, Buddy, if you don’t stop that cussing and this wild way of life you’re living, you’re not going to get into heaven,’” he said using the nickname his grandmother always called him.

Grandma’s been gone for years now, though she made it to 100. But we’re here to tell her she shouldn’t worry too much up there in her celestial home. Sure, Mellencamp at 71 still swears like a proverbial sailor, but his beautiful music and big-hearted humanitarian spirit on stage and off should get him through the pearly gates.

John Mellencamp performs at the Dolby Theatre, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker, contributing photographer)

“We’re gonna maybe make you think about some things,” Mellencamp said at the close of “Small Town,” one of his signature hits, and the first song of the night to get the crowd up on their feet to dance and sing. And that’s true, whether the thoughts dealt with the human heart or the world in which we all live – one big community, as Mellencamp urged the audience to become.

The curtain raised on a show that spread 20 songs over two hours with Mellencamp and his six-piece band kicking off the roots-rock tune “John Cockers” before sliding into “Paper In Fire” and “Minutes To Memories,” popular album tracks from “Lonesome Jubilee” and “Scarecrow” respectively.

The backdrop on stage was a French Quarter street scene drawn from the movie “A Streetcar Named Desire,” one of the classic movies from which scenes screened with Mellencamp’s commentary mixed in before the show started. Four life-sized figures dressed as film stars such as Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe stood amid the musicians. (Turner Classic Movies is the sponsor of the Live and In Person Tour, the first time the cinema-loving Mellencamp has ever allowed corporate sponsorship.)

After “Small Town,” the first half of the show focused mostly on deeper cuts and new songs. The unreleased “Hey God” rocked on a bluesy slide guitar and fiddle-fueled melody as Mellencamp pleaded with the Big Guy to lend a hand to a world in turmoil, its chorus seeing Mellencamp singing, “Hey God, if you’re still there, won’t you please come down?”

After a few more familiar tunes, including “Human Wheels” and another great feature of fiddler Lisa Germano on “Check It Out,” a short acoustic set delivered the other new tune. “The Eyes of Portland,” was inspired by an encounter Mellencamp had with a young homeless woman in Oregon several years ago. It, too, featured a simple, direct message in its chorus: “All of these homeless, where do they come from? In this land of plenty, where nothing gets done.”

“Longest Day,” inspired by more of grandma’s wisdom – “You’re gonna find out real soon that life is short even in it’s longest days,” she told him once – added accordion and a second acoustic guitar to Mellencamp’s acoustic.

“Jack & Diane,” another of Mellencamp’s signature odes to small town life, was also done solo acoustic – with backing vocals by several of his young grandchildren, and eventually the entire theater on the a cappella break: “Oh, let it rock, let it roll, let the bible belt come and save my soul.”

The band returned for “I Always Lie to Strangers,” one of two tracks from his 2022 album “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack,” the tune arranged as a kind of cabaret blues number that delivered the today rare sight of a singer on stage smoking an actual cigarette. (There’s probably a fine for that, right?)

“Rain On the Scarecrow,” a terrific heartland anthem, gave voice to the sentiments that led Mellencamp to co-found Farm Aid decades ago, and from there, the rest of the set rocked hard as more and more popular songs surfaced: “Lonely Ol’ Town,” “Crumblin’ Down” mixed with the Van Morrison-led Them’s “Gloria,” and “Pink Houses,” a big hit and a song that like many of his best examines the hard lives and struggling times of ordinary Americans.

After “Chasing Rainbows,” which included introductions for his terrific band, most of whom have played with Mellencamp for years, and one – guitarist Mike Wanchic – who’s been with him for more than 50 years – the night wrapped with a pair of sing-along classics, “Cherry Bomb” and “Hurts So Good.”

Before Mellencamp and the band arrived on the stage, the opening act, such as it was, arrived in the shape of 30 minutes of clips from classic films, chosen by Mellencamp who spoke about their importance to him over time. The movies included Marlon Brando in “On The Waterfront,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Fugitive Kind,” Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in “The Misfits,” and Paul Newman in “Hud.”

Of the James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor film “Giant,” which premiered at the Chinese Theatre next door to the Dolby Theatre 67 years ago, Mellencamp said he’d taken inspiration for the kinds of people and lives led by folks in dusty, isolated places, towns like Seymour, Indiana, where he’d grown up watching these stories.

“Movies of the past just seemed to tell stories that need to be told,” he said in the voice over that accompanied a clip of “Giant” stars James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor. “And the characters seemed like people from the places I grew up.”

“Movies also taught me how to smoke,” he added, but, since that wasn’t on grandma’s list, that probably won’t keep him from heaven.