Riverfront Times: Review: John Mellencamp Was Something To See, Baby

Riverfronttimes.com By Steve Leftridge

The theme for John Mellencamp’s current marathon theater tour, which included a two-night stint at the Stifel over the weekend, is the classic American cinema that had a formative influence on him. To set that stage, the audience was treated to a 30-minute pre-show sampling of film clips from the likes of Hud, The Grapes of Wrath and On the Waterfront.

For most of the audience, some of their own formative memories include Mellencamp himself, and they were given a look at the silver-screen figures — James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman — who helped shape the rocker’s scrappy blue-collar heartland image.

Once the curtain dropped, the band appeared to be inside the 1951 film set of A Streetcar Named Desire, complete with a massive backdrop of the Kowalskis’ New Orleans apartment, revolving red siren lights and mannequins of the film’s four principle characters, creating the impression that the seven-piece band had expanded to 11.

Once Mellencamp took center stage, it was clear that the 71-year-old Rock Hall of Famer has lost none of his familiar stage hustle — closed-fisted strutting, gum chewing, sleeve rolling, air punching, hair mussing, etc. — and his familiar rasp is still available to him in all of the original keys.

Opening with a flame-broiled version of “John Cockers” from 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom, Mellencamp leaned into a growl that time and four packs a day have helped build. Yet, when it came to nuzzling the crowd’s nostalgia, he had everything he needed to replicate the classic vocals from his ’80s hitmaking heyday.

“Hi, I’m John Mellencamp,” the singer told the crowd after five songs. “Tonight, we’re going to play some songs you know, some songs you don’t know, some you can dance to, some you can sing along to.” He made good on that promise, and the audience surged to its feet for the hits, which made up the bulk of the evening.

Mellencamp moved the show at a brisk pace, keeping stage banter to a minimum and honoring his long-held fidelity to a don’t-bore-us, get-to-the-chorus philosophy. To that end, the show was decidedly un-jammy: While his band — including Mellencamp lifer Mike Wanchic on guitar and the return of Lisa Germano on violin — painted rich, vibrant renditions of the songs, the musicians maintained ancillary roles and were given refreshingly little room to stretch out soloistically.

The result was a tough, airtight operation in three acts. Act I was a dexterous opening round of rousing hits (“Paper in Fire,” “Check It Out”), deeper favorites (“Minutes to Memories” from 1985’s Scarecrow), and reworked versions of slower vignettes (“Small Town,” “Jackie Brown,” given a slinky syncopated tom-tom treatment).

Act II was an acoustic interlude of Mellencamp mostly alone on stage, demonstrating that despite a half-century of experience, he remains a rudimentary guitar strummer, most roughly on the new “Eyes of Portland,” a song about the plight of the homeless from the forthcoming Orpheus Descending, which is due in June.

It was one of two new songs in the setlist, along with the searing gun-violence meditation “Hey God.” While Mellencamp has been playing tracks from last year’s terrific Strictly a One-Eyed Jack on this tour, he included nary a one of them at the Stifel on Friday.

“Longest Days” was smoother, aided by guitarist Andy York’s backing guitar and Troye Kinnett’s accordion, a nod to the dusty folk-music fields Mellencamp has been plowing for the last couple of decades, at the end of which Mellencamp intoned, “Enjoy life while you can / Because this is all there is.” It was as though, for Mellencamp, what used to hurt so good now just simply hurts.

It was the only time the music matched the bleakness of Mellencamp’s lyrics, which have always been freighted with life’s disappointments, albeit masked by what often sounds like fist-pumping musical bravado. The juxtapositions between Mellencamp’s musical swagger and his downcast lyrics fooled everybody back in the Reagan years, just as the mournful chorus to “Jack & Diane” — “Oh, yeah, life goes on / Long after the thrill of living is gone” — turned into a deafeningly ecstatic singalong at the Stifel. (In fact, the crowd was so eager to get to the chorus, they jumped the gun, nearly cheating themselves out of the pleasure of group-singing “suckin’ on a chili dog” in the second verse until Mellencamp stopped the song to correct them.)

After a transitory instrumental passage featuring a recording of actress Joanne Woodward reciting the lyrics to The Lonesome Jubilee album track “The Real Life,” Mellencamp returned for Act III, a delirious seven-song run of haymakers to bring things home, everything culled from ’82 to ’87 with the exception of 1993’s rarely played “What If I Came Knocking.”

“Rain on the Scarecrow” was given an urgent guitar-heavy reading, “Lonely Ol’ Night” was shot through with romantic swoon as Mellencamp worked the wings of the stage and the obligatory “Pink Houses” was played with enough cup-hoisting enthusiasm to make the audience forget that Mellencamp has performed it a thousand times. It was something to see, baby.

“Crumblin’ Down” came with a mid-song breakdown that incorporated Them staple “Gloria” and a Mellencamp spoken-word yarn on the art of foreplay, but he saved the most satisfying ringer for the end: “Hurts So Good,” added to Mellencamp’s setlist on this tour for the first time in 20 years.

For an artist who likes to tell us that some people ain’t no damn good and that his old crazy dreams just kind of came and went, Mellencamp poured himself into his Stifel performance with an undiminished passion and, like the crowd on hand, seemed revitalized by the sheer joy and power of songs that everyone knows by heart.