By Joe Lawler - Juice Magazine
John Mellencamp is a musician whose career has been all over the map. He’s rocked arenas, written a musical with Stephen King and seamlessly transitioned from a heartthrob performing with the last (and then middle) name Cougar to being one of the strongest Midwestern voices in rock.
Sunday night’s show at the Des Moines Civic Center was a long way from the John Cougar who played his first Des Moines show opening for Kiss. There were no arena rock special effects; Mellencamp’s stage show was just seven musicians playing instruments. That’s kind of novel for someone of Mellencamp’s stature, but what he lacked in jumbo screens and explosions, he more than made up in his own natural showmanship.
Mellencamp kicked off the show with “Lawless” times off his 2014 album “Plain Spoken,” followed up by another new song, “Troubled Man.” From there it was a 30 year hop back to 1985 for “Minutes to Memories.”
On the latter song, Mellencamp seemed to be channeling Tom Waits, singing with a raspy voice that perfectly matched the song’s beaten down lyrics.
It was a seated show and the audience of 2,400 regularly made use of its seats, but when the crowd decided to take to its feet, it was always a unanimous decision. The first such instance of that came early in the set with “Small Town.”
After the song, the crowd remained on its feet, seemingly uncertain if the show was going to switch from seated to standing full time. A cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” seemed to be permission to sit back down, but “Check it Out” got everyone up again. Shortly after that, “Jack & Diane” had the same effect.
The crowd did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to singing “Jack & Diane.” Mellencamp was along on stage at that point, but with the crowd’s involvement it was one of the loudest songs of the night. Surprisingly, the crowd didn’t attempt to replicate the song’s signature clapping.
“Full Catastrophe of Life” saw Mellencamp return to his Waits-ish ways, with a bit of Van Morrison’s stage movements thrown in for good measure.
After that, Mellencamp name-dropped “Steve King” on stage, though it quickly became clear he was referring to author and his “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” collaborator Stephen King, not Iowa’s congressman. Mellencamp brought opening act Carlene Carter back out at that point to sing with him on a selection of songs from the musical.
Mellencamp’s songs “Scarecrow” and “Paper in the Fire” got the crowd on its feet once again, but the one-two punch of “Crumblin’ Down” and “Authority” was the biggest moment of the night.
“I was about 25 when I wrote this song (“Authority”), and I still feel the same way tonight,” Mellencamp told the crowd.
“Pink Houses” calmed the room down a bit, but Mellencamp returned things to a boil with the closing number, “Cherry Bomb.” Then Mellencamp took his bow, the lights came up and the band left the stage. There was no encore, which seems to be par for the course for Mellencamp’s current tour.
Despite the abrupt end, Mellencamp’s show was substantive, both in terms of the number of songs played and their quality. It was a great stroll down memory lane, with enough quality new material to remind us that Mellencamp is looking to the future, not the past.