&nbBy Jay Miller - Eastonwickerlocal.com
Consider the case of John Mellencamp, who after four decades near the top of the popular music world has a song bag full of hits, albeit most of them going back a decade or two. But he’s also been relentlessly creative, if rather less enamored of the spotlight in recent years, so that he has many fine new songs deserving wider notice.
It’s not an uncommon problem on the summer concert circuit, as many music icons have to decide how to balance those old chestnuts everybody knows by heart, with new music the majority may be hearing for the first time. Factor in that Mellencamp, 65, hasn’t done what he termed “the beer and circus” type of tour–aka outdoor venues–for about 15 years before this, and as he told Variety in a rare interview before the start of this tour, he prefers venues where people come more to listen than to party. That’s the same interview where he embraced the description of himself as a “curmudgeon,” but last night in Boston he was a warm and appealing curmudgeon.
But the secret weapons in this summer’s “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies Tour,” named after his 23rd album, which was released at the end of April, are both Mellencamp’s superb songwriting which makes those new tunes immediately compelling, and the stellar band he has backing him, not to mention opening act Carlene Carter, who is also featured on the latest album. (Many dates on this tour have also included Emmylou Harris, but she didn’t make this leg of the tour.)
Monday night at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion in Boston, Mellencamp and his backing sextet delivered a 90-minute set of his old and new music, interspersing several new, or latter-day compositions, with hefty chunks of his biggest chartbusters, and leaving the audience of 4350 (roughly 90 percent capacity) thrilled and happy after a night of numerous singalongs.
Mellencamp performed his songs in various formats last night, with six-pieces behind him, as part of a stripped down quartet, and trio. But the moment that may stand out for most fans was his solo acoustic take on “Jack and Diane.” He wasn’t more than a line or two into it before the throng was finishing his lines for him, and they joyfully jumped right into the chorus. “Hold it, hold it, hold it, that’s wrong,” Mellencamp laughed, as he halted. He pointed out that he’d written two verses, which both come before the chorus is ever heard. The crowd dutifully laid back until he did both verses and then roared out that familiar chorus with extra verve.
No doubt the most striking moment, especially this week, was when Mellencamp did his “Easy Target” from the new album, with just electric piano, violin and drums, so that it came across almost as a surreal hymn. The fact that the song is an unsparing look at the racial divide, noting “Crosses burning,Such a long time ago, 400 Years, And we still don’t let it go” made the final line “Our country’s broken heart..” ring ever more resonant.
Mellencamp has been sticking pretty close to the same setlist on this tour, and it makes sense, when you note how it’s constructed. He started off with a couple newer tunes that rock, slipped in a couple oldies, did an old blues classic, then three more of his best sellers. Three songs from the new album came mid-set, and the homestretch was a half-dozen of his best loved classic rockers.
Mellencamp has always had standout drummers in his bands, and Dane Clark was superb last night, while longtime violinist/fiddler Miriam Sturm and longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic are crucial parts of his sound. Troye Kinnett on accordion, and Andy York on guitar, and bassist John Gunnell filled out the group. On tunes where Mellencamp himself was playing guitar–which was most of the time–the band boasted a three-guitar frontline.
But the band also reminded listeners that Mellencamp deserves some credit for bringing instruments like violin and accordion into his rock music back in the 1980s, presaging the whole Americana movement that seems to be everywhere today.
A deep blues vamp powered the opening number, “Lawless Times,” as Mellencamp strolled out in a black suit with black vest, looking like some riverboat gambler who’d just landed. That down and dirty aura continued through the gutbucket blues of “John Cockers,” whose protagonist lives in a world where he can’t trust anyone to be his friend. But all that dark mystery dissipated with a soaring rendition of “Minutes to Memories,” with Mellencamp playing some impressive leads on his hollow-body electric guitar.
A gloriously giddy march introduced “Small Town,” which quickly turned into a massive singalong. Mellencamp worked with a stripped down foursome for the Robert Johnson blues nugget “Stones In My Passway,” turning it into rather jaunty swing. His own chestnut “Pop Singer” got a bit of a revamped treatment, coming across more as Texas roadhouse than the original, and “Check It Out” was centered on the fiddle and accordion in a warm and wistful reading.
After that “Jack and Diane” moment, Mellencamp uncorked “Grandview,” a muscular rocker from the new album that had Carter coming out to trade verses with him. (On the record, it’s a duet with Martina McBride). “My Soul’s Got Wings,” also from the new CD, worked off a rat-a-tat-tat, fast shuffle rhythm, to create a sound that was a gospel-rock hybrid, with Carter trading vocals again.
After that quiet interlude for “Easy Target,” Mellencamp left the stage briefly as Sturm and the accordionist played a marvelously stirring overture, which led into “Rain on the Scarecrow.” That anthem of the displaced workingman may be twenty odd years old, but rings as true today. Wanchic played electric mandolin for a cool version of “Paper in Fire,” which seemed to slow the tempo down a bit, lending the song a more ruminative tone.
“Crumblin’ Down” was a huge singalong, and the racing momentum of “Authority Song” had every self-styled rebel in the big tent belting it out, and even sticking with the singer when he inserted a brief trip to “Boney Maronie.” Carter rejoined the band for “Pink Houses,” again swapping verses with Mellencamp, and adding immeasurable heft to that chorus “ain’t that America?”
Mellencamp mused that as we age we tend to want to look back on younger days, and suggested Wanchic, for one, had been a ne’er-do-well in their heyday. But there’s no harm in celebrating some of those youthful adventures, which led into the rowdy finale of “Cherry Bomb,” the tune about a bygone rock club.
Carlene Carter’s forty-minute opening set was a delectable sample of her work, and especially her heritage–her mother was June Carter Cash, grandma was Maybelle Carter, and her stepadad was Johnny Cash. With a multi-colored top and suede boots that went over her knees, Carter, 61, cut quite the figure of an Americana queen. She noted that one song, which Emmylou had recorded, was inspired by Carter dropping “husband number two,” and “Easy From Now On” was a neat little ballad of getting out and starting over. The Carter Family chestnut “Little Black Train” featured a gritty vocal that proved that old country music had plenty of guts.
Carter noted that one year when Cash’s birthday rolled around, she had little kids and couldn’t afford a present, so she wrote him a song. “Takes One to Know Me” was a warm ballad with just a hint of bittersweet self-deprecation. Carter did one song from Mellencamp’s new album, but it was a song she wrote, and, as she said, “Damascus Road” deals with the crossroads of love and hate and how we deal with them, and with her impressive finger-picked guitar work and evocative vocal, that song had an impact Monday night. Carter finished her set at the piano, with the slow and thoughtful anthem “Change,” capping off one of the best opening sets we’ve seen all year. p;