Country Standard Times: Mellencamp Flexes His Creative Muscles

Mellencamp flexes his creative muscles
The Greek Theatre, Los Angeles

By Dan MacIntosh - Country Standard Times

For his "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies" tour, John Mellencamp brought along Carlene Carter - the night's self-described hostess who appears on the recent album, as well as Emmylou Harris. Each iconic woman performed her own set, as well as joining in with the headliner's set. With Mellencamp dressed rather formally, this man introduced as being from Bloomington, Ind. put on a show both deep in content and emotion.

Mellencamp naturally, drew liberally from this latest as well as performing a large dosage of hits. The night's most moving moment took place when Mellencamp sang "Easy Target," featuring a lyric inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. In contrast to Mellencamp's usual fiddle-colored folk rock, this performance was far more subdued, with a contrasting cabaret feel. Mellencamp's voice, which has grown into a husky Tom Waits-y growl, sang it like a grizzled social commentator.

Mellencamp also performed the REM-flavored "Grandview" from the "Sad Clowns" album, while Carter chipped in the Apostle Paul-inspired "Damascus Road" from the album during her opening set. While the early part of Mellencamp's set took on a serious, bluesy vibe, he closed out the show with whole-audience sing-alongs for the rumbling "Crumblin' Down," danced to "Authority Song" (which mixed in lyrics and dance moves from "Land of 1000 Dances)," "Pink Houses" (which was transformed this night into a duet with Carter) and sent the audience home feeling nostalgic with "Cherry Bomb." Mellencamp proved there are few better at transforming socially conscious songs into a rocking dance party.

Harris preceded Mellencamp with a set of songs that expertly matched the fine singer's voice with top tier lyrical material. Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl" came early in the set, while "Pancho & Lefty," which she claimed never gets tired of singing, came along later. And calling it her favorite Merle Haggard song, Harris gave the late singer/songwriter's "Kern River" song about love and loss a feminine viewpoint.

Carter, who looks and sounds more like her mother June Carter Cash every day, opened with an acoustic guitar-backed "Every Little Thing," but also found room to sing the wonderful Carter Family gem "Gold Watch and Chain." Although they didn't get a chance to sing any of their own songs, Lily & Madeleine provided lovely harmonies for every act throughout the evening.

Tonight's audience appeared to be a mixture of Americana music fans and hardcore Mellencamp devotees. Unfortunately, many of these Mellencamp fans rudely talked loudly during Carter and Harris' sets, which drew dirty looks from some of the more eclectic audience members. It's sometimes easy to forget Mellencamp was once a big pop star, even though one song he sang ("Pop Singer") expressed his disdain for singing pop music. In fact, Mellencamp turned his smash "Jack and Diane" into an acoustic guitar accompanied throwaway, which he claimed he sings only because his audience demands it.

Mellencamp's hit making days may now behind him, but the songs on "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies" show the Midwestern roots rocker still flexing his creative muscles. And this night gave him ample opportunity to work out these well-developed strengths.