Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Brando, Dean, Mellencamp: It's a legendary night at the Benedum

Pittsburgh Post Gazette By Scott Mervis 

In the spirit of “Cherry Bomb,” let’s begin with a little nostalgia. 

John Mellencamp played his first Pittsburgh show at the Civic Arena in November 1979, opening for The Outlaws and Molly Hatchet, which probably didn’t go very well for the young glam-rocker from Indiana who went by Johnny Cougar. 

When he came back in September 1980, to The Stanley to open for The Kinks, the esteemed PG critic, who went on to work for The New York Times, wrote, “They seemed a very young band, and they might do well to go back and try to find out more about themselves and their music before they venture out on the stage again.” 

Bernard Holland went on to suggest that maybe their selection was perhaps “a gentle joke” on the part of The Kinks. 

Mr. Cougar probably didn’t read that review. Or maybe he did, and others like it, and took that to heart. 

On Monday night, 43 years later, John Mellencamp returned to the same stage, now the Benedum, as a rock legend and respected member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who has charted 28 Top 100 singles and sold more than 60 million records worldwide. 

 Beyond being just a rock star, he’s written songs that moved people, American anthems about teenage romance, about coming of age into adulthood, about families suffering through hard times in a trickle- down economy. 

 Over time, he built a catalog of swaggering jukebox hits and blue-collar protest songs, which is what he brought to the Benedum for the first of two sold-out nights. 

Why not just do one night at the arena or amphitheater? He offered insight into that at one point saying if he was going to get a little indulgent — like stepping aside for an accordion-violin duo with a voiceover of Joanne Woodward reading “The Real Life” — it was because this was “a performance.” 

“It’s not really a concert,” he explained. “If you wanna go to a concert, go outside and get drunk.” 

The tour, sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, began in a most unusual fashion. The opening act was a 30- minute series of movie clips from such classics as “The Fugitive Kind,” “Giant,” “The Misfits,” “Hud” and “On the Waterfront,” interspersed with segments of Mellencamp talking about how he borrowed his identity from the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman. 

Because attention spans aren’t what they were in 1961, at about the 20-minute mark, the Benedum crowd began to lose their you-know-what, shouting and booing every time a new movie scene began. If they had just listened, they may have learned a few things about what inspired his songs and even caught pieces of dialogue he borrowed. 

It was after Blanche DuBois uttered the immortal line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” that Mellencamp took the stage, with a cigarette, and they hit it heavy with “John Cockers,” a celebration of misanthropy from 2008 on which he declares, in his best Tom Waits growl, “I know many many people/But I ain't got no friends.” 

Despite starting a gnarly deep cut, this wasn’t a repeat of the 2015 show here at the Benedum. He slid right into “Paper in Fire,” led by the searing violin riff of Lisa Germano (she’s back!), guiding us more into a crowd-pleasing greatest-hits show. 

Along with Germano, who was red-hot all night, Mellencamp was joined by guitarist Mike Wanchic, a band member since 1976 (who would have played that Kinks show), guitarist Andy York, keyboardist/accordion player Troye Kinnett and — by far the loudest members of the Mellencamp crew — drummer Dane Clark and bassist John Gunnell. 

From where I was, Orchestra Right Row D, you could feel Gunnell’s bass beating your chest. He got all the volume Mellencamp didn’t get on his guitar. His Telecaster didn’t even seem amplified, which was too bad, but with Wanchic and York more than capable, that didn’t matter much. 

The two guitarists also provided exceptional backup vocals throughout the set. So, about that cigarette.... In a long, profound story about his grandmother who lived to be 100 that opened the solo acoustic “Longest Days,” Mellencamp talked about how he won’t make as far as her or his own father (still going at 93) because he never quit smoking. Let’s hope, by some miracle, he does, but in any case, it’s taken a toll on his voice, to be sure. That said, for certain songs, like “John Cockers,” “Jackie Brown” and “Human Wheels,” it’s given the 71-year-old Mellencamp more raspy, lived-in gravitas. It’s also heighted the pathos of a song like “The Eyes of Portland,” an angry new single about the plight of the homeless that came with a moving story of the young woman he encountered outside a restaurant who inspired the song. (I don’t remember Mellencamp ever talking that much.) 

On the flipside, Mellencamp’s pipes aren’t so shot that he can’t still sound enough like his young self belting out old favorites like “Check it Out” and “Lonely Ol' Night.” He didn’t have to sing much of “Jack & Diane,” part of his acoustic mini-set, because the fans wanted that one to themselves, and they sounded pretty awesome. 

The hard-hitting and still-relevant “Rain on the Scarecrow,” coming about three-quarters of the way through, was the dividing line of the show. After that, “the performance” part was out the way and it became just a good-time, on-your-feet rock ’n’ roll show grooving into “What If I Came Knocking,” “Crumblin’ Down” (with a menacing “Gloria”) and big sing-alongs of “Pink Houses,” “Cherry Bomb” and “Hurts So Good.” 

He might not be Brando or Dean, but Mellencamp is in the range — an American badass and an American treasure. 

John Mellencamp Set List John Cockers, Paper in Fire, Minutes to Memories, Small Town, Human Wheels, Jackie Brown, Check It Out, The Eyes of Portland (Acoustic), Longest Days (Acoustic), Jack & Diane (Acoustic), The Real Life (Joanne Woodward spoken word), Rain on the Scarecrow,Lonely Ol' Night, What If I Came Knocking, Crumblin' Down / Gloria, Pink Houses, Cherry Bomb, Hurts So Good