Longstanding Heartland Songwriter Proved His Vitality Without Alienating His Fan Base

By Kevin Oliver - Free -Time

Aging rock 'n' roll hitmakers inevitably face a choice: They either become an oldies act and play what the crowds come to hear, or they continue to grow, risking the alienation of an established fan base to make bolder choices. Tuesday night at the Township Auditorium, John Mellencamp proved he's still not willing to play it safe.

Opening with “Lawless Times,” the closer from 2014's Plain Spoken, Mellencamp eased the crowd in by alternating lesser known material with classics such as “Small Town,” which got the first big audience reaction a few songs into the set. In recent years he has explored roots and blues music as well as his beloved soul classics, and an impassioned, blues-rocking “Stones in My Passway” reflected that direction.

After nearly half a century of making music, Mellencamp is comfortable in front of an audience. His band is top-notch but never to the point of drawing attention away from the boss up front — with the happy exception of violinist Miriam Sturm, who served as a needed visual counterpoint throughout.

Mellencamp has always been more than just another guy with a guitar, and on this particular night, his axe was mostly a prop slung around his shoulder as he danced and paced the stage.

More recent ruminations such as “Troubled Man” stood shoulder-to-shoulder with classics like “Rain on the Scarecrow,” both benefiting from the proximity. Mellencamp has been writing darkly cynical, finger-pointing anthems for decades, and their ability to hold up through a changing backdrop of current events says more about America, perhaps, than it does about Mellencamp.

The other thing Mellencamp has been good at for a very long time is working roots and acoustic tones into his heartland rock 'n' roll; songs such as “Check it Out” and “Human Wheels” hit all the right populist themes and recalled every alt-country outfit this side of their original release dates (1988 and 1993, respectively). To the crowd's delight, he stripped one of his biggest hits, “Jack & Diane,” down in a solo acoustic performance that immediately became a giant audience singalong.

Looking for more info on concerts and nightlife in Columbia SC? Visit Carlene Carter is no stranger to roots music, being the daughter of June Carter Cash and granddaughter of Mother Maybelle of the original Carter Family. Carlene's place as a third-generation Carter was central to her set, punctuated by a version of the group's “The Storms Are on the Ocean” and “Lonesome Valley 2003,” a sentimental gospel rewrite from her 2014 release Carter Girl dedicated to her grandmother. Mellencamp showed his appreciation, bringing Carter on for a couple of songs during his set.

Surprisingly for the famously opinionated Mellencamp, the night was free of polemics or rants. Save for reminiscing about “old times” before the show-closing retro blast of “Cherry Bomb” and some platitudes about keeping dreams alive, the focus was squarely on the songs, which are pointed enough to stand on their own.

During one intro Mellencamp remarked how “the only critic that really matters, with no agenda, is time.” Given how he's grown into his position as an elder statesman of rock 'n' roll without becoming a caricature of himself or a frozen-in-time oldies act, I'd say that time is definitely on his side.