By Patrick Yeagle - Illinois Times
John Mellencamp has come a long way since writing his most famous ditty, “Jack and Diane,” at the age of 22.
“Who wants to go back to doing what they were doing when they were 22 years old?” Mellencamp, now 64, asked last night while prefacing an acoustic version of the song for a nearly full house at Sangamon Auditorium.
The legendary singer-songwriter seems to have come to terms with his past – particularly with being tied to the same material he put out decades earlier. He seemed to genuinely enjoy playing many of his past crowd pleasers (“Authority Song,” “Small Town,” “Pink Houses”) last night, spread among newer songs from his 2014 album “Plain Spoken.”
Like many artists, Mellencamp’s early career was characterized by management decisions masking the true intent behind his songs in favor of record sales. He managed to make the Midwest seem cool to the rest of the nation, but he was hardly interested in that. It’s easy to take Mellencamp’s early work as a simple celebration of Midwestern values and lifestyle, but there is a consistent undertone of critique, rebellion and even righteous anger at times. It’s more obvious now, especially since Mellencamp has become a vocal political activist for the left, but it was always there.
Last night’s performance seemed to bring out the John Mellencamp he wanted to be all along: an irreverent cultural observer who tricks listeners into thinking more critically about life.
Compared with the often jaunty “roots rock” which started Mellencamp’s career, some of the songs from “Plain Spoken” seem outright sad, but in a good way. “Troubled Man” is a brutally honest confession of brokenness. Even the ostensibly fun “Lawless Times” tallies up the perils of the modern age. If Socrates was right that the unexamined life is not worth living, Mellencamp has done his best to make his time count.
At one point, Mellencamp told the story behind “Longest Days,” from his 2008 album “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” He said his late grandmother, who always called him “Buddy,” lived to be 100 years old, and she called him over to her house one day to spend time together, knowing that she would die soon. She told “Buddy” to pray with her, at one point exclaiming to God that “Me and Buddy are ready to come home!” When Buddy let her know he still had some sinning to do, her response was that he’d soon learn “life is short, even in its longest days.”
In 1982’s “Jack and Diane,” Mellencamp (then John Cougar), sang “Life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.” Taken together, the two lines illustrate Mellencamp’s growth since his early days and the common thread weaved through his body of work. /p>
The somber tone of Mellencamp’s newer material didn’t seem to bring down the energy at Sangamon Auditorium last night. The crowd eagerly stood for many of the songs, and the sea of heads bobbed like waves as people danced to the more upbeat numbers. At one point, Mellencamp even lead the crowd in a sing-along of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
Some members of Mellencamp’s band have played with Mellencamp for decades, and it showed in their expertly executed playing. Mellencamp had no problem stepping back from the microphone at times and sending his band to play at the front of the stage. Some concert-goers complained about the lack of an encore, but the two-hour concert arguably covered a lot of ground.
Opening for Mellencamp was Carlene Carter, daughter of the late June Carter. The Carter family is credited with helping establish the country music industry, and Carlene Carter lived up to her pedigree last night, with a strong voice like her mama’s and the same knack for comedy. Carter joked that she has calmed down quite a bit since her early performing days, saying had to retire her plastic miniskirt thanks to “mildew.”
“I can still rock the shit out of my leather pants,” she said, eliciting a roar of laughter.
Carter’s skill on both the guitar and piano is impressive, exhibited in a guitar-picking number she learned from Kris Kristofferson and songs she wrote for both her mother and her stepfather, Johnny Cash.
Carter is clearly comfortable in her own skin, and her joy at performing is infectious.
“I always wanted to grow up and be a Carter girl,” she said, “and that’s what I did.”