London England's Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp & Bob Dylan - Live!

By Jelisa Castrodale
The July sun was at its most brutal as the crowd started filing into the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Tuesday afternoon, quickly staking out standing room in the outfield grass and spreading their blankets in the base paths.

The baseball field took a break from hosting Triple-A teams like the Buffalo Bisons or Toledo Mudhens to welcome a more formidable lineup of Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Bob Dylan. The trio has been playing one-night only gigs in minor league ballparks since early July, each with a family friendly 5:30 start time. From the ballfield settings to Nelson’s red, white and blue guitar strap to Mellencamp’s familiar “Oh, but ain’t that America” refrain, these events couldn’t be more overtly patriotic without involving apple pies and handguns.

John Mellencamp was up next and proved to be the heart of the order, both because of his spot in the middle of the lineup and because of the amount of energy he packed into his hour-long performance. The fifty-seven year old quickly proved he hasn’t lost any of the attitude and swagger he had back when he was an American Fool who wore ‘Cougar’ as his last name.

Sometimes it’s forgotten, but for the bulk of the 1980s John (Cougar) Mellencamp was one of the biggest names around. He was never as clean cut as Huey Lewis and he didn’t try to save your soul like Bruce Springsteen, but--just like any bad boy worth his weight in white t-shirts--he’d sure as hell show you a good time. He did it again on Tuesday night, stacking his set list with seven songs from his Greatest Hits collection and proving with his newer material that he’s still as introspective and socially aware as ever.

Mellencamp’s voice still carries the same familar rasp--even twenty-five years ago he sounded like a thirty year smoker--and his vocals are enhanced by the strength and precision of the musicians who share his stage. “Don’t Need This Body” from last year’s stripped down Life, Death, Love and Freedom was made all the more haunting because of the accompaniment of John Gunnell on standup bass and Miriam Sturm on the violin. The violin has long been a part of Mellencamp’s heartland sound and Sturm’s deft bow work gives the crowd the opportunity to play air fiddle, something you rarely see outside of Charlie Daniels concerts.

At one point, Mellencamp approached the microphone, rolled the sleeves of his white shirt to reveal a faded patch of forearm ink and asked “So do you want to hear an old song or a new song?” He laughed when the crowd shouted in favor of the former, probably because he knew the answer anyway. Although he left Jack and Diane sitting back at the Tastee Freeze, he did break into an a capella version of “Cherry Bomb”--with the audience enthusiastically providing all of the “yeah yeah yeah”s--before stopping to introduce a new Pete Seeger-y composition, “Save Some Time to Dream”.

Mellencamp, guitarist Andy York, and Life producer T-Bone Burnett had just recorded a version of the track at Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios the day before. “I stood on the X where Elvis stood [to record],” Mellencamp said with a grin. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had making a record.”

As promised, he followed it up with an old song, “Small Town”, changing one of the lines to “My wife was 13 years old when I wrote this song.” His wife Elaine--a model and current face of Almay cosmetics--was watching from the wings of the stage.

He closed the show with hard-charging versions of “Crumblin’ Down” and “Hurt So Good”, infusing the final song with all the sly charm it had in 1982, proving that bad boys might have to grow older but they don’t have to grow up.

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