Mark Nicklawske, For the News Tribune
If you mixed a preacher, a punch press operator and an old bluesman together in the back of a cement mixer, John Mellencamp would come out in the pour.
The Bloomington, Ind., native knows the power of words, the sweat of hard work and the guts of a good song.
Mellencamp hauled his “Plain Spoken” tour, now in its second year, to a sold-out Duluth Symphony Hall on Thursday night. More than 2,200 people witnessed a 21-song, 110-minute show that covered almost 40 years of music-making, from the heartland anthems of his “Cougar” days to newer, more introspective work.
Strolling on stage chewing gum and dressed in the black formal wear of an orchestra conductor, Mellencamp kicked off the show with two songs from the “Plain Spoken” album, his 20th studio album, which was released in September 2014.
Backed by a six-piece band, dressed in matching black tuxedos and, in the case of the fiddle player, a long black dress, Mellencamp was in fine voice and hearty spirit.
“You’re going to hear all kinds of songs tonight,” he told the audience. “Some you know. Some you don’t know. Some you can dance to and some you can sing to,” he said.
Indeed, the audience got to hear every shot of music Mellencamp pours into his song cocktail.
A string of hits early in the set showcased his strong, from the heart songwriting ability: “Minutes to Memories,” “Small Town” and “Human Wheels.”
Mellencamp then grabbed an acoustic guitar and led the audience through his 1982 No. 1 single “Jack & Diane.”
He even admonished fans for skipping the second verse and going straight to the chorus.
Mellencamp duetted with his opening act, Carlene Carter, the daughter of country music legend June Carter, saying the two will release a new album together called “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies” later this year. Mellencamp and Carter held hands as they sang “Indigo Sunset,” easily the sweetest moment of the show.
After a wonderful fiddle and accordion instrumental break, the band opened up the show.
Mellencamp stripped off his black suit jacket and roared full throttle through six classic rock anthems straight out of the KQ playlist. The largely middle-aged audience stood through the whole finish, roaring its approval at the final song of the night, “Cherry Bomb.”
Maybe add rock star to the Mellencamp mixture, too.
As one of the biggest hitmakers of the 1980s, Mellencamp has a huge fan base capable of filling hockey arenas all over the county. But the “Plain Spoken” tour has been booked into smaller, more intimate venues giving fans a closer look at the singer and his songs.
Mellencamp, 64, has built a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career by putting simple, fun and sometimes melancholy music to the lives of working men and women across the country. He has landed 22 songs in the Top 10, been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards and worked with giants like Willie Nelson and Neil Young to establish Farm Aid, an annual music festival raising awareness to the plight of the family farm.
Carter, 60, opened the show singing solo acoustic songs and dedicating the night to the recently departed country giant Merle Haggard. Her most recent studio album, “Carter Girl,” was released in 2014.