The Daily Texan: Liveshot: Still rebellious, John Mellencamp makes Austin “Small Town”

Logan Dubel Senior Life&Arts Reporter
Photo by Peyton Sims 

With a cigarette, classic movies and countless “Cherry Bombs,” Austin’s Bass Concert Hall embodied the gritty American heartland Tuesday night as singer-songwriter John Mellencamp took to the stage.  

Mellencamp brought his signature roots rock to the Live Music Capital of the World in a ravenous yet soulful two-hour performance of 21 songs. Mellencamp’s Austin stop wraps the first month of his “Live and In Person” tour, which continues nationwide through June with a total of 76 performances. 

Before the Indiana-born rocker and self-proclaimed “Little Bastard” arrived on stage, the audience might have wondered whether they bought tickets to a movie night instead of a live concert. Tour sponsor and Mellencamp favorite, Turner Classic Movies, played one movie scene after another. Featured films such as 1940’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and 1961’s “The Misfits” showed Mellencamp’s rural America background on the big screen. 

Then, after 30 minutes, red sirens blasted and the curtain rose. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, originally and reluctantly known as “John Cougar,” proved that at 71, he can still “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” As expected with any artist, Mellencamp’s voice has grown gruffer, perhaps aggravated by his smoking — which he jokingly noted began at age 10 — but the give-no-damns artist still exuded raw vocal power. 

The nearly sold-out, largely older crowd of about 3,000 stayed on their feet for much of the show, and Mellancamp even taught them lyrics to “Chasing Rainbows,” a folk song from his most recent album. 

While the seven-piece band breezed through the first half of the set with minimal commentary, Mellencamp’s remarks through his three-song acoustic set highlighted a softer side from the typically tough-as-nails artist. He brought the venue to silence as he poignantly described his encounter with a young woman experiencing homelessness who wanted to accept Mellencamp’s offers for a bus ticket, yet said she had no place to go. This experience eventually inspired the song, “The Eyes of Portland,” which calls on the government to take action, especially regarding homelessness within the veterans’ community. Unafraid to tackle social issues, the song’s theme had heightened relevance in Austin, which faces high rates of homelessness. 

Mortality seemed to be a running theme, as he later recounted memories of his late grandmother. The band performed a gut-wrenching instrumentation of “The Real Life,” behind a spoken word recording from famed actress Joanne Woodward. 

He closed the show with “Hurts So Good,” and also played “Pink Houses” and “Small Town” among other fan favorites. However, with 25 studio albums to his name and another, “Orpheus Descending,” on the way, Mellencamp played his lesser-known compositions, and the audience grooved along. 

Despite his incredible solo success, the Grammy winner could not perform alone. Violinist Lisa Germano, making her return to Mellencamp’s touring band after an almost 30-year hiatus, stole the show with her wailing presence, earning endless applause for her mastery of an instrument not usually in the limelight of a hard rock stage. 

Mellencamp’s celebrated performance proved timeless even as “life goes on.”