Illinois Entertainer: Stage Buzz – Live Review: John Mellencamp

Review and Photos By - Andy Argyrakis Illinos Entertainer

For much of the 1980s, ‘90s and early 2000s, John Mellencamp conquered the charts alongside numerous major arenas and amphitheatres with his brand of heartland rock n’ roll, an unmistakable swagger and Midwestern work ethic proudly on display every step of the way. In recent years, the Indiana native shot more from the head than the hips with a series of earthy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?-flavored albums and intimate tours, but given the 63-year-old’s renowned status, he continues to command multiple shows in major cities.

On his first of two packed nights at the historic Chicago Theatre (amid an 80 show run supporting last year’s Plain Spoken), just over half the focus was his singer/songwriter side, though there was at least a sampling from every major era of a career that’s entered its fourth decade. The build was slow but sturdy with new cuts “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man,” which bared much closer resemblance to something Neil Young, Bob Dylan or an unplugged Bruce Springsteen work write than the Cougar of yesteryear.

Shortly thereafter, Mellencamp complained of vocal troubles and admitted he almost considered canceling, but outside of some non-audible coughing, no one seemed to notice as he dove right into “Small Town,” Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway” and “Human Wheels” without missing a beat. A violin-charged version of “Check It Out” kicked up even more dust, though just a few songs later, he took the solo acoustic route for “Jack & Diane,” then recast the normally rhythmic deep cut “The Full Catastrophe” as a dual between his somber strums and a haunting piano.

That chilling vibe continued on “Away From This World” and “Tear This Cabin Down,” from Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County (the 2012 musical he helmed with Stephen King and T Bone Burnett), both of which were enhanced by lively opener Carlene Carter (daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith/stepdaughter of Johnny Cash). Yet it was the stomping 2008 tune “If I Die Sudden” that found Mellencamp flexing those creative muscles the furthest as he firmly plucked the six string, dipped deep into a low southern register and practically summoned the ghost of that very Man In Black.

If those less familiar but nonetheless fulfilling moments showcased the troubadour’s fondness for taking risks, the closing segment was the reward for everyone who supported his 40 million album-selling commercial prime. Not only did “Crumblin’ Down,” “The Authority Song,” “Pink Houses” and “Cherry Bomb” serve up a grand slam (revving up the crowd for a non-existent encore), but they offered another round of reminders that even at his most memorable, Mellencamp has always shot straight from the heart.