Worcester Telegram and Gazette: John Mellencamp delivers high energy, nuanced songwriting at Hanover Theatre performance

Telegram.com - Photo by Rick Sinclair

There was something indelibly ironic about John Mellencamp’s Monday night show at the Hanover Theatre & Conservatory for the Performing Arts: Whereas a lot of “classic” musical acts making the rounds revel in the karaoke nostalgia of their old hits, Mellencamp seems to have become more of the persona he has long portrayed. The grit and gravel of his voice has deepened, and while he has always brought a sense of authenticity to his work, the gravitas of age wears well with him. It gave lines of old favorites whole new layers. Mellencamp has changed, as we all do, and his music has changed with him, and the result is riveting. 

The show began with a series of clips from Black and white films: "The Fugitive Kind" (1960); "The Misfits" (1961); "Giant" (1956); "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940); "Hud" (1963) and "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951). The clips would go on to reverberate throughout the set, the themes of surviving hardship, rugged individualism and rebelious youth returning again and again, beginning immediately with the night’s first song, a full-blast rendition of “John Cockers.” 

“Well I used to have some values,” sang Mellencamp in a deep growl, “Now they just make me laugh/I used to think things would work out fine/But they never did do that/All these bosses and the rules/It's hard for me to fit in/Must be ten million people/But I ain't got no friends.” “John Cockers” was followed in short order by a blistering rendition of “Paper and Fire” and “Minutes to Memories," before finishing the set’s first passage with the anthemic “Small Town.”  

The crowd erupted in joy, singing along with abandon. Still, it was the first of many times throughout the night where one had to wonder how many people were catching the nuance in Mellencamp’s songwriting, how on one level he really is earnestly singing the praises of small-town America, while at the same time seeing the cracks in that veneer. 

The “American Gothic”-style isolation is a recurring theme throughout Mellencamp’s work and Mellencamp has a way of making it clear he sees the shadows and dangers that come over-romanticizing the “small town.” The persona in “Small Towns” seems happy enough, but as the concert deepens, Mellencamp also shows wasted potential and lives squandered. Unlike most, he doesn’t feel the need to draw a dichotomy. Rough imperfections are, after all, his primary lyrical trade.  

In any case, Mellencamp and band rode out the standing ovation that came from “Small Town” into the rousing "Human Wheels,” before settling in for “Jackie Brown,” a song which is almost the mirror image of “Small Town,” although one where the darkness is more upfront:  “Going nowhere and nowhere fast,” sings Mellencamp. “We shame ourselves to watch people like this live./But who gives a damn about Jackie Brown?/Just another lazy man who couldn't take what was his.”

John Mellencamp's Hanover Theatre show alternated between high-spirited rock energy and deeply nuanced storytelling.

There’s a sense of empathy that permeates Mellencamp’s writing and a definite sense of parallel construction to how he constructs a set. After rocking out the heartbreak of “Jackie Brown” with the audience favorite, “Check it Out,” Mellencamp switched things up again with his recent song, “The Eyes of Portland,” which mulls on the growing number of unhoused persons in America and how poorly we treat them. If empathy is a hallmark of Mellencamp’s writing, a willingness to speak his mind is definitely another:  

“All of these homeless, where do they come from?” sings Mellencamp,” In this land of plenty where nothing gets done/To help those who are empty and unable to run/Your tears and prayers won't help the homeless.” 

In a night where John Mellencamp's rock hits were paramount, his empathy and compassion also burned brightly.

Mellencamp then offered a segment of songs about how quickly life goes by. The first, “Longest Days,” is told from the perspective of someone older, cautioning how quickly it all goes by. Then, “Jack & Diane” — easily Mellencamp’s most well-known song and one eagerly anticipated by the crowd — gave the same message, but as Mellencamp himself noted from stage, he wrote that song when was 25. Somehow, the caution of, “Oh yeah, life goes on/long after the thrill/of living is gone” seems to have more weight from him now. There’s a hard-won wisdom in his vocals when he sings it, one that’s easy to miss if you’re caught up in nostalgia. 

Then, in an absolutely brilliant move, he presented a recording of his friend, actor Joanne Woodward, who is currently wrestling with Alzheimer’s disease, reciting the lyrics to Mellencamp’s song, “The Real Life,” accompanied solely by Troye Kinnett on accordion and Lisa Germano on violin. It was a heart-shattering moment, which recontextualized the song and brought forward the importance of everyday moments, and how easily they can slip away.  

From this point on, the concert moved at a breakneck pace, beginning with a biting, almost sinister rendition of Mellencamp’s ode to rural heartbreak, “Rain on the Scarecrow,” followed by the raucous “Lonely OI’ Night” and a blow-out medley of his song, “Crumblin’ Down” and the Van Morrison (and later Patti Smith) song, “Gloria.”  

The audience’s energy stoked to a fever pitch by now, the band exploded into “Little Pink Houses,” and if there was any irony in the gleeful shouts of the refrain “Ain’t that America” to Mellencamp’s portraits of disparate people’s lives, it was drowned out by the gleeful love of the crowd. 

Mellencamp finished his set with songs “Cherry Bomb” and the classic rock fan-favorite, “Hurts So Good,” leaving the audience on their feet and singing loudly.

Mellencamp is a nuanced songwriter, certainly, and that was definitely in evidence at the Hanover, but he can also put on a show and the joyful vibe he left the crowd with echoed onto the streets well after the music had stopped.