John Mellencamp Takes Tobin Center Down Reflective Journey Throughout Career

By Jay Nanda -

The lights went out, the anticipation came to its peak, and a voice matter-of-factly declared: "Ladies and gentlemen, from Bloomington, Indiana, John Mellencamp."

And with that, the classic rock mainstay who has always done things his way took to the stage to kick off the second leg of his 80-show tour Thursday night before a sold-out crowd of 1,750 at downtown San Antonio's Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Touring in support of new album Plain Spoken, and with the album cover serving as a backdrop but curiously never mentioning it throughout his 1-hour, 54-minute performance, the suspense over Mellencamp's entrance revolved around whether he was going to open with something old or something new. The latter held true, with the 63-year-old setting the tone for a mostly reflective concert as he and his talented band debuted with "Lawless Times," the final song on the latest disc.

It wasn't until four songs in when Mellencamp addressed the crowd, having eased into the evening with another new tune "Troubled Man" before back-to-back offerings from 1985's Scarecrow: "Minutes to Memories" and the ever-popular "Small Town." Even some of his most well-known tunes had a toned-down, take-me-back aura to them. That was never more apparent than Mellencamp's version of "Jack & Diane," which he changed up by performing acoustically while the band temporarily left the stage.

When he did talk to the audience, Mellencamp made it count, giving off a conversation feel rather than a quick how-do-you-do. "We're going to play some songs you know, we're going to play some songs you don't know," he said. "Some songs you can dance to . . . "

Mellencamp curiously never mentioned the words "San Antonio," but he did mention another city. And no, it wasn't Bloomington, which was well-represented by the Indiana University Alumni Association of San Antonio. "We were playing Minneapolis a couple weeks ago, and it was only 30 below," Mellencamp recounted, going on to say that he was still fighting a sore throat incurred that night. Mellencamp immediately followed with arguably his strongest vocal performance of the evening, bellowing out his cover of Robert Johnson's "Stones In My Passway."

A personal favorite, the title track to 1993's Human Wheels segued into new song "The Isolation of Mister." Other highlights included "Longest Days" -- a tribute to his grandmother who lived to be 100 -- "Rain on the Scarecrow" and the always catchy "Paper In Fire." On 1996 tune "The Full Catastrophe," Mellencamp had some folks oohing and aahing with the line, "I was loving your wife -- while you were lovin' mine."

Mellencamp brought out opening artist Carlene Carter (coverage of her set here) for "Away From This World" and "Tear This Cabin Down." They shared vocal duties on one, while Mellencamp retreated to stand in front of the drums with his guitar and allowed Carter to shine vocally on the other. The former tune also spotlighted accordion/piano/guitar player Troye Kinnett and violinist Miriam Sturm -- musicians who demonstrated they can solidly play any style of Mellencamp's diverse catalog. While introducing the rest of his band to an audience that was likely reflecting in amazement about just how long the singer/guitarist has been performing, Mellencamp topped it by singling out guitarist Mike Wanchic: "He's been in this band with me for 47 years," Mellencamp said. "That's ridiculous!"

While many watching from the sides of the balcony stood throughout most of the show, those on the floor of the performance hall seemed to have a hard time realizing they were at a rock concert, appearing to need extra incentive to stand, dance and let their hair down. They finally did on the first of three consecutive timeless classics from 1983's Uh-Huh:"Crumblin' Down," "Authority Song" and "Pink Houses." Mellencamp ended the middle tune by declaring, "I was 28 years old when I wrote that song. I still feel the same way tonight as when I wrote it."

As with any artist who's been around for more than four decades and continues to make new music, a tour in support of a new album means some favorites are going to be left out. The absence of a saxophonist signified that "Love and Happiness" would not pierce the ears on this night. Even more surprisingly, Mellencamp and Co. left "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," "Hurts So Good," and "Lonely Ol' Night" to be dusted off another day. If you were seeing Mellencamp for the first time, you were out of luck regarding such tunes.

But there was little reason to object about such omissions given that Mellencamp has more than earned the right to do as he pleases. From his early rebellious years of recording to his farm-awareness mid-'80s period to now playing in his early 60s, the native of the Hoosier State clearly has moved on to a reflective period that allows him to appreciate his musical life while he still can. He continued that theme by ending the night with one last message for the Tobin Center: "The only problem with old times is that you have to be old to have them," he said to more laughter. "We're going to close the show with a song about old times."

And as 1987 hit "Cherry Bomb" drew the evening to an end, at least one person in the audience realized everyone watching could feel fortunate they continue to be invited along for the ride.