Chicago Show Review

John Mellencamp: No American Fool (Live In Chicago 7-22-08 Review)
Chicago, IL
Northerly Island

A John Mellencamp tour in the midst of summer is about as American as apple pie, cotton candy and hot dogs, yet six-years ago this month, I swore off ever seeing John Mellencamp again. Moments after he finished “Pink Houses” in Tinley Park back in 2002; I left for my car saddened as I felt like I had been taken. An artist I revered so profoundly was full steam ahead on a nostalgia train that wasn’t stopping for anyone. Nine-months earlier Mellencamp had released the vastly underappreciated Cuttin’ Heads and the show I saw was performed as if the album never existed. It was a frustrating moment as I felt that it was pointless to record albums if one never plans to perform songs from them in concert. How else does one expect these people to hear them in a day and age where music on MTV is non-existent and where radio is bound by rules and regulations that will never allow for a whole album to ever be played in its entirety ever again? For the last decade and a half, it’s been rare for Mellencamp to perform anymore than three songs from any of his new discs in concert. This has been an excruciating experience for me. I find most music reveal itself to me in ways I never imagined on record. Whenever an artist ignores their music in this fashion, I almost feel as if they secretly deemed the material subpar and unworthy of being aired, which in Mellencamp’s case is not true. Over the last decade, while some of his albums haven’t been epic top to bottom masterpieces, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t created some of his best work in a career that spans four decades. Even worse is when the next tour comes around, those two or three songs that were performed are gone from the set list often never to return. However, I’m happy to say that John Mellencamp has given me a reason to believe once again.

Over the course of the last nine-months, John Mellencamp has punctured a hole through my consciousness as he has revealed himself in ways I never deemed imaginable through concerts, induction speeches and a brilliant new album. When he opened the recent Chicago show with a restrained version of “Pink Houses”, I knew he had an ace up his sleeve. On record, “Pink Houses” sounds triumphant, yet the lyrics paint a different picture of an American dream that appears out of reach. Featuring a mean slide guitar by Andy York in a more rustic and reserved version, “Pink Houses” wouldn’t have been out of place on Rough Harvest and yet the subtleness of this track set the tone for the evening as one of reflection and ultimately revival. Throughout most of the concert, Mellencamp’s catalog was strident as these are anthems so engrained in our brains; he barely needs to sing them as the crowd does his job for him. However, what makes these classics so energizing is their imaginative reinterpretations often revealing new shades and colors we never knew were there. “Paper in Fire” was performed in a subtle arrangement before the highway to hell cleared and opened up for him to rev off as he never once looked back with a clear eye on the road ahead. These arrangements build a perfect bridge between the past and the present furthering Mellencamp’s credibility as an ever evolving artist. He’s more than an act dipped into nostalgia but an ever developing artist. At the Chicago show, Mellencamp performed six songs off his new album, something that he has not done in over two-decades. Ever since 1994, no tour has featured more than three songs from any album in concert. He appears to be rededicated to his craft and the classic reinventions are performed in unabashed intensity. This partnered with ethereal performances of nearly half of his new album Life, Love, Death and Freedom (his best album in a decade and a half) proved to be a revitalizing concert experience as the albums themes, lyrics and arrangements cut right through your soul. Even at fourteen-songs, Mellencamp has crafted a lean and reflective album with some of his most ingenuous and illuminating lyrics ever committed to tape. More importantly, he’s found a way to properly present them thanks to the guided hand of producer T-Bone Burnett.

After the rustic and bittersweet opening trio of “Pink Houses”, “Paper In Fire” and “I’m Not Running Anymore” Mellencamp dug in for a ride through the American psyche. “My Sweet Love” has its roots from the American songbook but in reality isn’t that far removed from “Paper On Fire” with a fervent big beat and soulful chorus. The entire concert was a study in light and darkness, something Mellencamp would glide between skillfully over the course of his 100-minute show. “A Ride Back Home” and “Young Without Lovers” were performed acoustic allowing for the lush and enlightening lyrics to roll off his tongue. The poignancy of his lyrics hasn’t been this compelling in eons. What’s most surprising is how well the new songs went over and how they meld with his catalog proving that there is a cohesive ongoing theme throughout his entire career. In Mellencamp four-decade career, his lyrics have never been as opulent or poetic, they summon you to reflect and take action, something no singular album of original material has done since Human Wheels. This is an album that is something Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen I am sure would be envious of when they hear it. If I had any complaint, it would be that the show was longer so he could reveal more of these songs in the live environment.

The most surprising moments if his recent concert came during the full band set as “Troubled Land”, “If I Die Sudden” and “Jena” was performed back-to-back with nary a fan in sight sitting or heading for the beer lines. Mellencamp found a way to invigorate his set while keeping the interest of the audience, no simple feat especially on a gorgeous summer evening when people would most likely want to let loose and dance. These songs ring true to Mellencamp’s ideologies and the themes in his larger body of work. The subtle production pulls you in and doesn’t let go. His art is pouring out of him in a way it hasn’t in decades and it shows on stage through devilish performances paired with divine lyrics which find a common ground of redemption. There’s a lot of life in these songs yet one can still see the same determination in Mellencamp from a quarter of a century back, he’s still full of piss and vinegar. The ending of the show was a blitzkrieg of rockers as a reward to the patient and attentive crowd for allowing him to indulge and express his current art. With a clear understanding of the importance of his past with his foot steeped deep into the future, he’s back on track and I look forward to more resounding triumphs.

As the concert reached its climax, the sold-out crowd of 8,000 rapturously roared as the opening arena rock muscle riff of “Authority Song” swept trough like a hurricane. The sight is one that has been seen and experienced hundreds of times in the last two decades as Mellencamp’s cocky in-your-face rock anthems have served as the soundtrack for an entire generation. “Authority Song” is merely one of dozens of war horses Mellencamp pulls out on every tour to appease the die-hards and to justify the price of the ticket but this concert and this tour is about so much more as the stakes have been raised. We’re living in unique times where artists are finding it difficult to communicate their art. Back in the 1980’s you had MTV and radio and even though this technically limited how you were exposed to new music, it was impossible to deny. In today’s day and age you have to go out there and fight for it to be heard, something I am happy to report that John Mellencamp is once again all too happy to do. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would see a concert that showcased six of his new songs. I’m sure there were people upset he didn’t perform “Lonely ‘Ol Night” and “Hurts So Good”, but the truth is that if you pay your money to see Mellencamp you’re not just seeing a blast from the past but witnessing the creative rebirth of an artist who is living in the here and now with a widescreen and lucid focus on life, love, death and freedom.

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