By Ken Abrams, GoLocalProv Music Critic
John Mellencamp brought an inspired set of "Heartland Rock" to the Providence
Performing Arts Center Thursday night. Behind a stellar band, he played an
impressive show featuring selections from his recent album Plain Spoken, a
couple of Blues rarities, and some fresh takes on his own classics. It was one
of the better PPAC shows in recent memory.
Mellencamp has been around the block a few times. His chart topping rock hits of the 80’s are old news to the man who has gone on to bigger and better things – think Farm Aid, or his recent musical collaboration with Stephen King and T-Bone Burnett, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.”
His new album, Plain Spoken, takes him pretty far from the pop charts. It’s an inspiring piece of songwriting and roots-rock that falls in nicely under the Americana label. Some have compared the album to Bob Dylan’s classic Blood on the Tracks. It’s intense and hard hitting, and belongs in the pantheon of great songwriting.
In fact, with apologies to the bard, a John Mellencamp show is what a Bob Dylan show should look like. (Note: lifelong Dylan fan here.) The performance is tight, heartfelt and moving at times. There’s just a tad of mutual admiration and engaging stage chatter to remind fans and artist that it’s a two way street.
Mellencamp’s set began with several from the new album, including the stinging opener “Lawless Times.” The lyrics offer a powerful critique on contemporary affairs:
“Well, you can’t trust your neighbor; Husband or wife
Can’t trust the police; With their guns or their nights
Look out for the creepers; Tappin’ on your cell phone
You’d better lock your door; Even when you’re at home”
“Troubled Man,” a self–reflective blues as the title suggests, was next. “Minutes to Memories” and crowd favorite “Small Town” followed, and then the singer really bluesed it up with the Robert Johnson cover, “Stones in My Passway.”
All the Hits
The familiar “Check it Out,” was re-arranged as a rolling mellow rocker with the house lights on. An acoustic “Jack and Dianne” followed, with the audience handling most of the lyrics. With the band on a quick break, Mellencamp brought his best Tom Waits gravel to “The Full Catastrophe,” accompanied only by piano.
Opener Carlene Carter joined Mellencamp on stage for a couple of songs from the “Darkland” soundtrack including “Away From this World” and “Tear This Cabin Down,” a guitar driven power rocker. Next up was a dark and raucous “Rain on the Scarecrow,” an emotional high of the show. Mellencamp sung with enthusiasm and intensity, driving home the desperate message found in the 1985 hit.
The singer ended his set on a high note, with noteworthy favorites like "Paper in Fire," "Crumblin Down,""Authority Song," and "Pink Houses."
Mellencamp’s commitment to social action was apparent throughout the evening. His message rivals some of the great songwriters. But unlike say, Bruce Springsteen, who’s lyrics represent the urban “working man,” Mellencamp is more the populist, reflecting the heart and soul of the family farmer, a “mid-western working man,” in a sense.
Indeed, his “heartland rock” credentials are strong – Mellencamp is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has won numerous awards including a Grammy in 1982.
Opening Act - Carlene Carter
Country singer-songwriter Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, opened up for Mellencamp. A pleasing set of mostly originals was sprinkled with her accounts of “growing up Carter/Cash.” In a memorable story, she described her grandmother Mabel Carter, matriarch of the legendary Carter family, speeding through Midwestern states on her way to concerts. “She was on a first name basis with the state troopers,” laughed Carlene.
Carter played piano and strummed guitar on songs like “Little Black Train,” (“a song about the devil,”) and “Black Jack David,” (“the very first song my grandmother taught me”). Later, Carter was joined by husband, Joe Breen, on “My Dixie Darlin” and “Lonesome Valley 2003,” a song penned after the deaths of her mother and stepfather. The lyrics are poignant:
“Mamma and daddy loves you dearly,
Sister does and brother, too,
They may beg you to go with them,
But they cannot go for you.”
Combined, these two artists provided another memorable night of music at PPAC - click here for their schedule of future shows.