Indiana’s favorite son may look older, but he sounds better than ever. Ohioans
knew they were in for a treat from the get-go.
John Mellencamp’s once dark-brown locks are graying at the temples, but he still has that trademark swoop spilling over his forehead. He occasionally ran his hands through his hair during his stellar show at Playhouse Square Saturday night, pushing it back into what resembled a combination pompadour / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, from the X-MEN films). His beard looked more white than black.
A lot of Mellencamp’s best songs find him examining the human condition and marveling at the maturation process:
“Now seventeen has turned thirty-five,” he sang on 1987’s Lonesome Jubilee. “I’m surprised we’re still living.”
So what happens when 35 becomes 63?
Concertgoers at sold-out The Connor Palace found out January 31st when the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee took the stage with his six-piece band.
The former Johnny Cougar once again demonstrated that age really is just a number, and that putting on a memorable rock show has less to do with athletics and pyrotechnics than it does with offering up a slate of engaging, insightful, accessible tunes.
Easier said than done, we know.
But Mellencamp’s racked dozens of hits over the last three decades (the 2004 two-disc retrospective Words & Music is a perfect gateway for the uninitiated). And starting with late ‘90s fare like Rough Harvest and ‘00s discs Trouble No More and Freedom’s Road, he’s only gotten better at distilling American culture into four-minute, acoustic guitar-driven masterpieces. Grizzled yet grungy, the sexagenarian Mellencamp is a little Woody Guthrie, a pinch of Pete Seeger, and a bit of Bob Dylan rolled into one ferocious firecracker. And like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Billy Joel (who inducted Mellencamp), John has a knack for using music to speak to—and for—America’s everyman (and woman).
And if streamlining a message means stripping an arrangement down to three jangly guitar chords and a strident Sixties backbeat, then so be it.
The first half of Saturday’s set saw Mellencamp and friends march through several selections from his new Republic Records album Plain Spoken. The lyrics of openers “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man” encapsulated modern societal frustrations (police brutality, economic hardship) and benefited from Mellencamp’s passionate vocals and stabbing strums on his yellow Telecaster. “Isolation of Mister” was another gem.
Folks not already hip to the Plain Spoken oeuvre could brush up at home later: Everyone received a digital download of the music with their paid admission.
But Bloomington's “Little Bastard” of heartland rock carefully peppered the proceedings with familiar throwbacks like “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town” (both from 1985’s Scarecrow). Coming in forth, the latter tune brought fans to their feet and got ‘em singing along.
“Gonna die in a small town, and that’s probably where they’ll bury me,” surmised Mellencamp, who paused a couple beats for dramatic effect.
Guitarists Andy York and Mike Wanchic juggled slide, lead, and rhythm duties on their elegant, big-bodied Gibsons and other instruments (no Fender Stratocasters or Flying-V’s here, thanks), allowing John to give his Tele a rest and focus on singing the still-melancholy “Human Wheels” and whimsical “Check It Out.” Fiddle player Mirium Sturm’s bow strains were integral to the mix, adding country flair and Zydeco flourish. Sometimes she dueled with keyboardist Troye Kinnett, who came down front and center to pump an accordion. The pair offered an instrumental medley midway through that incorporated parts of early Mellencamp songs like “I Need a Lover.”
The ensemble's wardrobe was predominantly black. Even Sturm wore a classy dark gown and puffy tulle accoutrements. Drummer Dave Clark was the only gent not wearing a jacket; his suspenders were visible as he pounded away. Mellencamp himself rolled up his sleeves early on—then ditched his coat completely, prowling the stage in black slacks, vest, and white Tee (tattoo on his right forearm in full view). Like a panther.
Or a cougar.
Clark had two distinct drum kits. He throttled a smaller-scale auxiliary set for the more stripped-down rock numbers, using sticks and brushes to make his snare and resonate. John E. Gee thumped rhythms on an electric bass, but he too switched things up by moving to upright, rumbling away on “Longest Days.”
Most of the band quit the stage for “Stones in My Passway,” leaving John to belt the Robert Johnson classic, accompanied only by Kinnett’s bluesy piano. He and York picked acoustics on “Longest Days” (from 2008’s Life, Death, Love & Freedom), pondering things mortal and mundane. The lounge-like “Full Catastrophe” showcased John’s still-smoky voice.
Halftime consisted of Mellencamp dusting off American Fool classic “Jack and Diane” all by his lonesome. The Palace audience was so enthused they began singing along (especially the ladies)—but they cut right to the chorus after the first verse.
“Now wait a minute! It’s verse-verse-chorus!” Mellencamp chided, halting his unplugged highlight.
“I know I’ve only been playing the thing for thirty years, but if you guys wanna rewrite it, we can rewrite it!”
Sorry, John. Cleveland gets overzealous when it comes to our favorite Midwestern rockers. Heck, we still talk in reverent tones about your WMMS “Coffee Break” concert (Summer 1984) at The Agora.
Mellencamp resumed playing, picking up the teenage lovers’ exploits with the verse about chili dogs outside the Tastee Freeze. Then the crowd took over for the “Oh yeah, life goes on” refrain.
Opener Carlene Carter (daughter of June Carter Cash) joined John on “Away from this World” and Tear This Cabin Down”—a tune Mellencamp wrote with horror novelist Stephen King for their recent Ghost Brothers of Darkland County musical.
It was familiar territory from then on. The lyrics to “Rain on the Scarecrow” (about farmers beholden to bankers) still stings, and “Paper in Fire” still sizzles. Uh-Huh! entries “Crumblin’ Down” and “Authority Song” cooked—and it wasn’t mere nostalgia fanning the flames. John and the gang had folks dancing in the aisles with their gritty guitars, muscular rhythms, and Mellencamp’s trademark uppity, middle-fingered, You ain’t the boss of me melodies.
Nice to see he’s retained his rebel streak.
“A man is born into the world, and from day one they tell you, ‘Shut up, keep your head down, and eat your eggs!’” Mellencamp reflected.
John’s successfully thwarted a life of submission and complacence, heading up the annual Farm Aid benefit with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in between his solo albums and tours. The hits slowed to a trickle in the Nineties—with Van Morrison cover “Wild Night” and “Key West Intermezzo” among his latter-day singles—but Mellencamp’s music took on deeper meaning as he explored his troubadour roots and small-town sensibilities in the new millennium.
In addition to play-writing with the Carrie author, John’s also dabbled in painting. Turns out Indiana’s “Big Daddy” is quite the renaissance man.
"These days, eating eggs is in itself a noble enough cause!" mused Mellencamp.
Penultimate "Pink Houses" felt genuinely patriotic and was charged with optimism, even if the woes Mellencamp lamented way back when still haunt today's America.
Following the well-deserved band introductions, the rooty-tootin' rocker signed off with ode-to-youth anthem “Cherry Bomb.” It was a choice closer: The easygoing beat, relaxed guitars, and wistful fiddle provided Ohio fans with a mid-tempo last dance without sacrificing any of the song's lump-in-the-throat appeal.
Carter, 59, warmed up the Palace with a half hour of bright country-folk. Armed with only her sweet, warm voice and acoustic guitar (with a capo enabling trebly open chords and ringing notes), the Rounder Records artists delighted with tunes from her own catalog as well as that of Mama June’s (with the Carter Sisters). “Storms are on the Ocean,” “Easy from Now On,” and “My Dixie Darling” truly shined in the historic theatre.
Carter shared girlhood memories of growing up in Nashville with stepfather Johnny Cash and doting over the impossibly handsome Kris Kristofferson (who visited the family compound by helicopter). She said she’d always stand in the wings, watching her mother perform with her aunts (Helen and Anita), just dreaming of the day she could join them.
The dream finally came true: Carter made a name for herself in the Seventies and Eighties, notching twenty singles on the country charts. She fought her way back to health and happiness after overcoming addiction (and a husband’s death) and celebrated life anew with 2008’s Stronger.
Her newest album, Carter Girl, revels in the very music that shaped her fondest family memories.
Carter, resplendent in blue, demonstrated considerable finger-style guitar skills and considerable vocal range on “Little Black Train” and “Takes One to Know Me.” She even teased with a snippet of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”—a traditional Christian hymn reworked by patriarch A.P. Carter and popularized by Carlene’s grandmother, “Mother” Maybelle Carter.
Carter rested her guitar to sit at a grand piano on a couple tunes (availing herself a competent keyboardist as well). She also welcomed her current husband, actor Joe Breen, onstage for a couple duets.
This was a not-to-be-missed concert, and will surely top our list of 2015 Best Shows. Mellencamp’s still got it, and Carter was a pleasant surprise. Their Plain Spoken tour runs well into August; be sure to catch it if you can.