By Kyle Cravens - Iowa State Daily
Every musician’s greatest enemy is time.
Fans of any genre can debate and digress about simple questions that arise from the constant forward flow of time: how aging influences their lyrics, how long one can stay relevant, how good one sounds as they exhale their final breath.
Some acts have become renowned for their inability to let time stop them from sharing their message and creativity with the world. Walking into the Stephens Auditorium Sunday night, I was anxious to see if John Mellencamp was one of these outliers.
Mellencamp's music is truly timeless. His melodies were cemented in my brain long before I knew how to turn a radio on. From the hits constantly playing in the car to my later interest in my families’ personal collection, recounting the lyrics of “Jack and Diane” has never been hard.
Resisting this bias and looking at his performance through innocent eyes would prove to be a welcome challenge.
After 40 years of touring, Mellencamp's Plain Spoken Tour serves as both a route to promote his material off the 2014 album of the same name while also reflecting on his musical career and life.
When dealing with aging musicians of this caliber, it is always interesting to see how a set list gets put together, as Mellencamps discography now contains 22 albums, with that even subject to change, as he is always creating new music.
Sure, it is easy to assume that he will play songs off his most commercially successful mid-1980s albums such as Scarecrow or The Lonesome Jubilee. However, the songs he selected offered an interesting and meaningful glimpse into his life.
After an enriching performance by third generation musician Carleen Carter, the primarily middle aged crowd was ready for the Indiana native to take the stage.
Kicking off the show with new fast paced jams “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man,” fears of time's effect on the aging voice of Mellencamp crossed through my head.
The band was tight and fluid, but Mellencamp's voice did not sound normal, I would find later that this was intentional and a great play on his part. What I did not realize then was that Mellencamp's newest works see him change his musical style to better fit the folk Americana music that he helped revitalize in the heartland of America 40 years ago.
His voice growled and crackled through these opening tracks like Louis Armstrong. The more this fact settled in my head, the theme of Plain Spoken became prominent: He comes off as a weary veteran storyteller, and the audience just ate it up.
The performance really kicked into gear during the fourth song, the classic didley, “Small Town.” After hearing his new work and that side to his inner artist, it was refreshing for his familiar vocal tone to make its debut in the show. As soon as the song began all my worries about his aging voice evaporated; With help from his fellow musicians supplying backing vocals, he sounded great even after all these years.
Mellencamp really understood the crowd he was dealing with, no doubt due to the seasoning that comes from constant touring. This fact was very apparent during heartfelt connections during two tracks. “Longest Days” is a song about Mellencamp's deceased Grandma. Before the songs cue, Mellencamp shared a story with the audience and reminded everyone that life is short and one day all we can do is reflect on the memories created.
“Life is short, even in its longest days,” he said -- words that still resonate now because of the embrace Mellencamp showed on stage and the vulnerability the farm-strong Indiana native allowed.
Following that song was the long awaited “Jack and Diane,” which has been a fan favorite for Mellencamp's entire career. He laughingly stated on stage, “I don’t even know why I keep playing this song, I guess this is the one you guys want to hear.”
He smartly let the audience sing this one while he strummed the guitar. This was impressive because it showed the stance Mellencamp takes on his performances. From this song alone I could finally understand that, even now toward the end of his career, he doesn’t want to just keep playing the same songs, which is something other bands are perfectly contempt with. Mellencamp tires of communicating to the audience through his greatest hits, so he utilized selections from every decade of his career in the show.
However, The end of the show brought an onslaught of hits. “Crumblin Down,” “Pink Houses,” “Authority Song” and “Cherry Bomb” all followed one another and then the show ended.
Sadly, there was no encore, which came as a sheer shock to the crowd. “Lonely Ol Night,” “Hurts So Good” and “I Need a Lover” are just a few of the classics not played in the show that would have made perfect candidates for an encore.
Sure, Mellencamp feels the need to play songs that can be taken as obscure, but once the end block of the set list occurred, everyone was dying just to sing along to more songs they knew by heart. This fact made the show feel too short at the time.
The absence of an encore could be due to the fact of Mellencamp's aging; that can’t tolerate longer shows.
It was apparent early on that Mellencamp was not the performer who used to dance around the stage following his own beat. At times, he almost limped around, but I could tell he was doing the best he could, he was still full of humor and life and the behaviors he showed are all effects in the battle against time.
His band, especially the violinist, Miriam Sturm, really played their hearts out and turned the show into a spectacle at times. I also really appreciated seeing the standup bass which accompanied Mellencamp on his newer tracks.
This performance made me appreciate Mellencamp's newer projects, which have an old bluesy flavor, while still reminding me why he is a staple in classic rock and an immortal storyteller and performer.
If you weren’t sold on the rock-and-roll hall of famer's ability coming into the show, you left with a reminder that time isn’t getting the better of his songwriting, which seems to only get more intriguing as the years go on.