Triblive.com By Mike Palm
John Mellencamp has spent much of his career using songs to document his outlook on America, the past and the present, both good and bad.
Monday night’s sold-out show at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh was a celebration of those hits, with a few newer songs that didn’t seem out of place. (He’s back for a repeat performance Tuesday with limited ticket availability.)
Wearing dark worker’s coveralls with a white T-shirt, the 71-year-old Mellencamp strolled the stage, did some smoking and danced through the night. His two-hour show had stories both touching and humorous, while he offered social commentary as well. About 60 years of smoking has left his voice more gravelly but no less passionate.
A 30-minute montage of film clips meaningful to Mellencamp had some in the crowd growing antsy around 20 minutes in before the music started. “John Cockers,” from 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” opened the set before settling into more familiar songs “Paper in Fire,” “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town.” Then came “Human Wheels,” “Jackie Brown” and “Check It Out.”
After those first seven songs, Mellencamp slowed it down with an acoustic break that began with “The Eyes of Portland,” a lamentation on the homeless crisis in our country. It will be a part of his latest album, “Orpheus Descending,” which is scheduled for release on June 16.
“If you guys think you have a homeless problem here, it ain’t (crap) compared to what they have (in Portland, Oregon),” he said.
In a lengthy introduction, he detailed an encounter from six or seven years ago in Portland, Oregon, with a homeless woman in her 20s whose family didn’t want her to around because she was too much trouble.
“There’s no way I could ever know whatever happened to that kid or if she’s still alive or if she made it home or what happened. … Periodically, I think about her because we travel around and I see what’s happening in this country, so I wrote this song for her,” he said. “She’ll never know this song is about her.”
Then came “Longest Days,” with a story of how the song was inspired by a conversation with his grandmother.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member finished the acoustic portion of the show — he made sure to clarify that what he does is a performance, not a concert — with “Jack & Diane,” which drew big applause and a big sing-along from the crowd.
After a spoken word recording of Joanne Woodward reciting his “The Real Life,” Mellencamp and the band returned with a rocking “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Lonely Ol’ Night” before a rousing version of “What If I Came Knocking.”
Mellencamp’s band — guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York, bassist John Gunnell, drummer Dane Clark, pianist Troye Kinnett and violinist Lisa Germano — each got their time to shine with “Crumblin’ Down” which featured a dive into Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” (Germano also stood out on “Rain on the Scarecrow.”)
Monday’s concert skewed toward his older material, like 1985’s “Scarecrow” and 1987’s “Lonesome Jubilee,” with only three songs from 2008 or later. Such is the depth of his catalog that the omission of hits like “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” “Authority Song,” “I Need a Lover” or “Wild Night” didn’t even feel glaring.
After “Pink Houses,” Mellencamp made some jokes at Wanchic’s expense and then said they’d finish off with some songs about old times. Fan favorites “Cherry Bomb” and “Hurts So Good” closed the show.
Just as some of Mellencamp’s songs hearken back to “better days” and looking back fondly, his performance Monday allowed those in attendance to do the same.