In Omaha, John Mellencamp, The Midwest's Rock Star, Sings His Songs And Our Stories

By Kevin Coffey / World-Herald staff writer

John Mellencamp is our voice.

He wears coveralls with the sleeves rolled up, showing off his tattoos. Onstage, he chews gum, his hair slicked back. And he talks like us too, his voice with a plain Midwestern accent, a quick joke and the occasional f-bomb.

He looks like, sounds like, seems like 1,000 guys sitting in 1,000 small-town bars.

But unlike most of us regular people, Mellencamp has the uncanny ability to say things in a plainspoken way that expresses and explains our lives in a universal way.

He sings our stories.

And he did so again Monday night in Omaha, where a sold-out Orpheum Theater cheered him on, sang his songs to him and danced.

Mellencamp’s songs are the ones you know by heart.

He’s singing for us, whether he’s telling a story about growing up in a small town or singing about farmers or rocking an old folk protest song. We all know the girl who calls everyone baby. We’ve all had chili dogs. We’ve all had the simple thrills and bills.

We’ve all felt like just another American kid living in the heartland. (Especially if you’re from around these parts.)

When he strummed “Jack & Diane,” the well-practiced audience shouted the words. Everyone knows every word to the song. You. Me. Everybody. And we’ve all sang it in the car, at the bar, to yourself in the shower. But unless you were at the concert, have you ever sang it while John Mellencamp plays the guitar part just for you?

Mellencamp wrote these tunes. But these are our songs. They’re our stories.

Mellencamp is our voice.

Monday’s concert was a masterful performance from the Midwest’s rock ‘n’ roll hero, a guy who was born in a small town, lives in a small town and will probably die in a small town.

Mellencamp’s set list swung between his biggest hits — songs like “Jack & Diane,” “Small Town,” “Crumbling Down,” “Authority Song,” “Pink Houses” and “Cherry Bomb” — and a wide-ranging selection that sampled his whole career.

A new arrangement of “Rain on the Scarecrow” had fans on their feet. His protest song, “Eyes on the Prize,” is a new version of “Keep Your Hands on the Plow” that had fans rapt with attention and cheering individual lines.

Years of smoking have turned Mellencamp’s croon into something more resembling Louis Armstrong. He sounds like if John Cougar swallowed sandpaper. But his voice also has a soulful edge that helps him sing the blues, including covers of Armstrong and Robert Johnson songs.

Mellencamp’s story about writing “Longest Days” was both heartwarming and hilarious, and it made his emotional delivery of the acoustic track all the more engaging.

Throughout the show, Mellencamp performed with gusto, giving quite a show to the audience, which stayed with him — singing and dancing and laughing — for the whole 90-minute concert.

After the crowd’s choral performance of “Jack & Diane,” Mellencamp applauded the audience and gave a quick nod of fatherly approval.

And to close the show, he told stories of old times, including a possibly apocryphal escapade in Omaha long, long ago.

“The first time that we came here was in the early ’70s, you know. At the time, this town didn’t look anything like it does now,” Mellencamp said. He went on to say, “It’s good to have memories and it’s good to have people in your heart. ... On that note, I thought we’d end the show on a song about old times.”

So the crowd joined the troubadour in one last singalong, shouting about groovin’ and dancin’ and laughin’, back when we were young and holding hands meant something, baby.