By Jim Bessman - Examiner.com
John Mellencamp’s longtime guitarist Andy York says that Mellencamp's current
Plain Spoken North American Tour show is the best they’ve done in the 20-some
years he’s been in the band—and he might well be right.
York was overheard making the observation after Tuesday night’s concert at Carnegie Hall, the second of two there, with two more New York shows at the Apollo tonight and tomorrow. For sure, it was a show that had it all, starting with opening act Carlene Carter’s solo spot: She sang her big country hit “Every Little Thing” and her "Easy From Now On" co-write for Emmylou Harris, but her songs from her Carter Family-inspired latest album Carter Girl (including “Black Jack David,” with her husband Joe Breen ably standing in for the record’s Kris Kristofferson) were central and celebratory. Like she observed, it’s 2015, and these Carter Family songs are still alive 100 years after their time--and being played in Carnegie Hall, no less, and like they were new.
When Mellencamp and band came out for their set they were in tuxes—and in fiddler Miriam Sturm’s case, black gown—just as it was for John Cougar at Radio City for his first headlining show in New York following his pop chart breakthrough in 1982 with “Hurts So Good.” Here, however, he opened with two cuts from Plain Spoken, “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man,” then the intense “Minutes to Memories” track from his 1985 landmark album Scarecrow, and the album’s big hit “Small Town,” which brought the packed hall’s crowd to its feet.
The rest of the set tightly followed suit in that excellent lesser known choices, like Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” (covered on Mellencamp’s 2003 Trouble No More album of blues and folk classics), which was performed in small group format (for which drummer Dane Clark had two kits, one for acoustic songs, the other for electric, while John Gunnell likewise switched between electric and upright bass depending on group size), followed by 1987 smash “Check It Out.”
York was also flexible instrumentally, sliding on a resonator guitar on “Stones” and employing various electric and acoustic guitars, the latter in tandem with Mellencamp on “Longest Days,” the lead track from his 2008 album Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Mellencamp followed it with a fun solo acoustic guitar version of “Jack and Diane” in which he gently scolded the crowd for jumping ahead to the chorus before singing along on the second verse.
Multi-keyboardist/harmonica player Troye Kinnett returned to accompany him on a dark and sparing “The Full Catastrophe” from his ironically titled 1996 album Mr. Happy Go Lucky, and then Mellencamp hospitably brought back Carter to perform two songs--"Away From This World" and "Tear This Cabin Down”--from his musical theater collaboration with Stephen King, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which she starred in. After a beautifully rendered suite of Mellencamp standards including “The Real Life” and “I Need a Lover” performed by Kinnett on accordion and Sturm on fiddle, the full band returned to close out the show big with “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper and Fire,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Authority Song,” “Pink Houses” and “Cherry Bomb.”
It should be noted that guitarist Mike Wanchic, who’s been with Mellencamp from his 1970s beginnings, played electric mandolin on “Paper and Fire,” and at his boss’s insistence, sang a line on “Cherry Bomb.” Both had come a long way from Bloomington, Indiana to the Carnegie Hall stage, music roots intact.