AntiMusic: John Mellencamp Live In Chicago
By Anthony Kuzminski - AntiMusic
Outside the Chicago Theatre, downtown Chicago glistens amongst the splendour of State Street. Theaters, retail, restaurants and art line the streets. During the day, it is a kaleidoscope of life wanders the streets. All colors of life hustle through the intersections between their social and work lives. Later at night, the city is still bustling, but there are cracks in the surface. As I am about to enter the Chicago Theatre for John Mellencamp's show in support of his Plain Spoken album, I'm taken aback by a homeless man in a doorway in a sleeping bag. Another man stands in front of the theatre looking for spare change and another is selling newspapers in the hopes of attaining a few dollars for some food. While these homeless men may be a minority, they are a part of its Chicago's DNA and one of the characters in John Mellencamp's catalog. Somewhere along the line, they were let down by someone. Their faces are weathered with lines, their clothes stained and by all appearances, their souls stolen. Forgotten by many and ignored by the masses, it often takes an artist like Mellencamp to put their stories into focus.
Inside the Chicago Theatre stood a man, weathered with lines of grey in his thick slicked back hair singing about those people on the streets, inside the theater, skyscrapers and farms. Forty years after his first record, John Mellencamp has aged gracefully. Starting with 1982's American Fool he began a two decade run that yielded at least one major radio anthem The sprinting arena shows are relics of the past, but in place of them are concentrated and intimate showcases for his music. Whenever one turns up the volume, there is bound to be some distortion, but starting nearly a decade back, Mellencamp has stripped back his approach from writing and recording to the concert stage. Beginning with his 2010 tour, he has largely toured theaters allowing his music blossom in the darkness. By choosing the road less traveled, he has been reborn as an artist.
Beginning with Trouble No More in 2003, Mellencamp stopped worrying about hit singles and focused on a bare bones approach. Consisting of a dozen blues and folk numbers, Mellencamp went beyond his roots and approached each record that followed with a keen eye on embodying these origins. With the release of his twenty-second album, Plain Spoken, Mellencamp doesn't shy away from societal terrors ("Lawless Times), despondency ("Tears In Vain") and self-reflection ("The Isolation of Mister"). He has modified his stage show as well and the Plain Spoken tour, which has now surpassed over one-hundred shows, is amongst the strongest of his career.
Opening with the barroom blues of "Lawless Time" and closing nearly two-hours later with the yearning "Cherry Bomb", the fastidiously crafted set list allowed the audience to walk through the different corridors of his career. Like an art exhibition, the Plain Spoken tour displays a wide range of his career. "Minutes To Memories", from his 1985 masterpiece Scarecrow, was warm and welcoming with "Stones In My Passway" bristling with the blues and a burning "Pop Singer" which he sung with personal fervor. Inside the theaters, Mellencamp is pulling the curtain open for people to take in. While he has never shied away from his audiences, there is a sense of vulnerability that makes the current arc of his career one of his richest. Piano player Troye Kinnett gave Mellencamp an opportunity to reinvent "The Full Catastrophe" into an after-hours tonic. The cut from Mr. Happy Go Lucky was a mouth gaping performance with Mellencamp never swaying from the seriousness of his script.
Two songs from a forthcoming record with Carlene Carter, who opened the tour, "Indigo Sunset" and "My Soul's Got Wings" are both rich in the traditional folk and soul Mellencamp has channelled in the last decade. "Longest Days" was preceded by a delightful story about his grandmother who affectionately referred to him as "Buddy". He told the story on Showtime's Roadies earlier this year, but it still sends chills down my spine. Bob Dylan mentioned "Longest Days" a few years back in his MusicCares acceptance speech. It is Mellencamp's most poignant and personal song. I also happen to think it is his greatest as he brings his audience into his grandmother's bedroom where she is dying. You can feel time slipping away, you no longer see the future and even for the younger generation, it is a jolts you to life. At its best, music opens dimensions and worlds to its listeners. "Rain on the Scarecrow" is more than an abounding arena rocker, but a tale of the failure of the American dream. When farmers did not have a voice, Mellencamp gave them one.
"Paper in Fire" always roared off the concert stage, but in 2016, the arrangement transforms the song. Often included in the early part of the show, it is now on the backend of the set, channelling gritty and grimy guitars courtesy of Andy York and Mike Wanchic. Dreams and desires give way to realities that often cannot be overcome much like the men sleeping on the streets in the blocks around the neighborhood. Many say the classic rockers are riding a wave of nostalgia and their current albums do not have the impact needed to be heard. I believe Mellencamp's message is louder than ever. His new music is at the center of his shows and he uses the past to punctuate the new songs. It is no coincidence that "Pop Singer" and "The Isolation of Mister" were performed back-to-back. Some songs may have been written decades apart, but they are connected through the musical DNA strains forming an all-encompassing story that is uniquely American. Bassist John Gunnell and drummer Dane Clark fused their collective heft for "Crumblin' Down" while Miriam Sturm painted "Pink Houses" with a lengthy violin solo in the middle before Mellencamp shined a light on the intricate nature of our society. There is a heightened awareness to his music from the last decade. Death makes many appearances and the firecracker confidence has given way to a more in-touch man who is not afraid to tackle the injustices of society or even himself. He is not just tapping into the folk roots of Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie, but he is going even further channeling the blues of Robert Johnson and the literature of John Steinbeck.
Whether it is comfort from a mad world, entertainment or an evening where we can look at ourselves in the mirror, John Mellencamp is an artist who serves many purposes and is only getting better with age. The Chicago show was taped for a future DVD, so if you missed the tour, it will be documented for posterity in the near future. He may not need to tour or record ever again, but he is still weaving tales together that speak to and guide us. The musical landscape of today often guides the listener towards indulgence; as fans do not seek meaning in the music so much as escape. The men on the street seek shelter and warmth while those inside the theater may have their bodies taken care of but came seeking something more. Nevertheless, when I passed the men seeking shelter on a cold fall Chicago night, I thought about what their dreams and desires must have been and their current life could not have been in their youth. John Mellencamp's music has reflected multiple facets of America and despite the failed dreams of many, he is still telling stories that are more than plainspoken, but are still potently powerful