By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press
Songs of the heartland have always been a good fit for the Minnesota State Fair. Music about life on farms and growing up in small towns has long been a staple for the artists performing at the fair’s Grandstand, where country is often king.
So perhaps it’s surprising that John Mellencamp — who for decades has been singing about those small towns and the altered expectations of its inhabitants amid economic strife — has never performed at the Grandstand … until Tuesday night.
In some ways, the Indiana-born (and still-based) Mellencamp can sound like he was raised in the same towns as so many country stars, but that he’s always viewed that landscape through a different lens.
It’s a place he loves, but he’s well acquainted with its shortcomings and the anger and despair at the lack of opportunity and fairness encountered by too many who live there. Yet he’s channeled those feelings into many a memorable song, often tapping into an exhilarating sense of commonality that can transform his simple, propulsive rockers into anthems.
On Tuesday, it seemed like Mellencamp was going to tip toward the folk and country feel that’s become a more central part of his sound over the past decade, emphasizing fiddle, accordion, harmonica and strumming acoustic guitars.
But, somewhere during the evening, he decided to unleash the rocker who first graced the radio as John Cougar back in the ‘80s. His set veered more and more toward songs from that decade and his thunderous band subsequently bludgeoned the folk feel out of the set.
On some level, that’s too bad, for the most stripped-down numbers were often the most compelling, such as when Mellencamp howled passionately on Robert Johnson’s vintage blues song, “Stones in My Passway,” accompanied only by steel guitar, upright bass and a small drum kit played with brushes.
He seemed similarly excited about “Grandview,” a blues-based rocker from his latest album for which he exchanged verses with Carlene Carter, who opened the evening with a disarmingly intimate solo set that showed June Carter Cash’s daughter has evolved into a fine singer-songwriter. It’s good to have her back after a lengthy break in her career.
Considering that Mellencamp seems to have been distancing himself from his rocking past and becoming more of a country gentleman — a persona that fit with the black suits and Kentucky colonel ties worn by him and his band — it was a surprise that 11 of the 17 songs Tuesday were from the ‘80s, from a solo acoustic take on 1982’s “Jack and Diane” (mostly a sing-along, but one botched by a crowd anxious to get to the chorus too early) to 1989’s snarling rejection of his industry, “Pop Singer.”
Yet maybe Mellencamp has realized that he likes the rock star role after all, for he certainly seemed the charismatic frontman of old — displaying energy belying his 65 years — after stripping off his jacket to perform in white T-shirt and vest for a closing collection of six ‘80s tunes. The show climaxed when a dark rumble permeated “Crumblin’ Down” and the boisterous crowd of 12,637 made the defeatist “Authority Song” sound like a joyous celebration of a common fate.
When a similar top-of-the-lungs hootenanny broke out on “Pink Houses,” it felt like country music without the drawl and twang, an all-American sing-along with a skeptical smile. Yes, Mellencamp explores the dark side of life in the fields and hamlets, but his affection for those places came through clearly on Tuesday, especially as he closed with the nostalgic “Cherry Bomb” before the fair’s fireworks blew skyward.