Kendra Meinert, Press-Gazette Media
"Seventeen has turned 35" – and then some – for John Mellencamp and his fans, but the songs, they're just getting broken in.
Like a well-worn leather jacket from those days outside the Cherry Bomb, Mellencamp's music felt as timeless as it did nostalgic Monday night at the Weidner Center in Green Bay before what was essentially a sold-out crowd.
The singer/songwriter/authority fighter who still walks out on stage with an introduction that says simply "From Bloomington, Ind. ..." got a standing ovation before he even sang a word. The iconic moments that would bring the audience to its feet time and again during the nearly two-hour show on his "Plain Spoken" Tour felt like freeze frames in a gritty, black-and-white home movie about not just growing up in the heartland but seeing life from that vantage point now with the wisdom of age.
Mellencamp stopped as the audience erupted into cheers after he sang from "Small Town": "Gonna die in this small town/And that's probably where they'll bury me." He delivered that little ditty about "Jack & Diane" solo on acoustic guitar, letting the crowd handle the vocals of the melancholy chorus: "Oh yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of livin' is gone." There was the unbridled joy of 2,000 people singing "Oh, but ain't that America, for you and me" during "Pink Houses," and the hush of the hall as they hung on every word of the advice of his 100-year-old grandmother in "Longest Days": "But nothing lasts forever/Your best efforts don't always pay/Sometimes you get sick and you don't get better/That's when life is short even in its longest days."
Let there be no doubt why Mellencamp has a T-shirt at his merch booth that proclaims him an "American poet." He is.
He and his phenomenal six-piece band, including guitarist Mike Wanchic, who has been playing with Mellencamp for 45 years, and barefooted violinist Miriam Sturm in a ball gown, covered a wide swath of the hits: "Check It Out," "Paper in Fire," "Human Wheels" and "Rain on the Scarecrow." They turned "If I Die Sudden" into the most fiery performance of the night, with "Crumblin' Down" and "Authority Song" fast on its heels.
At 63, there's a grizzled quality to Mellencamp's vocals that gives added
weight to the richness of his words, particularly for an artist who finds
himself pondering his own mortality in his music these days. He didn't just
write those lyrics; it's clear he's lived them. He's found his sweet spot making
the move from arenas to theaters, where his masterful storytelling gets the
He was joined for two songs, "Away from This World" and "Tear This Cabin Down," by opener Carlene Carter, whose own 40-minute set was a delight. The daughter of June Carter Cash put her sweet voice to such beauties as "Me and the Wildwood Rose" and "My Dixie Darling" and warmly shared stories of being a child riding in the backseat of Mother Maybelle Carter's Cadillac and seeing a handsome Kris Kristofferson – in leather pants – for the first time as a 12-year-old girl. Her heartbreaking piano ballad to her mother, "Lonesome Valley 2003," was unforgettable, not unlike the rest of the night.