No Depression: John Mellencamp - Plain Spoken - From the Chicago Theatre Album Review

By Jeff Burger - No Depression

A Career High Point for John Mellencamp

If you like John Mellencamp, you’ll probably love Plain Spoken, Live from the Chicago Theatre. The set includes a 73-minute, 16-track concert CD plus a Blu-ray (or DVD) that preserves the same show but runs a few minutes longer because it adds some noteworthy spoken song intros.

(The packaging lists the video disc’s playing time as 160 minutes but that’s because it counts the concert twice—once with just the music and once with an autobiographical voiceover from Mellencamp that is also available in an accompanying 20-page booklet. This material—which covers his entire life, including his parents, his relationship with the music business, his childhood, and his first marriage—is interesting but is probably best consumed via the booklet.)

The concert, which is presented on the Blu-ray in pristine DTS-HD Master surround sound, ranges only from very good to excellent. It draws on material from Mellencamp’s entire career, though he delivers just one song from the 1990s, which were arguably not a high point.

The set features “Authority Song” and “Pink Houses” from 1983’s Uh-huh; “Minutes to Memories,” “Small Town,” and “Rain on the Scarecrow” from 1985’s Scarecrow; “Check It Out,” “Paper in Fire,” and the nostalgic “Cherry Bomb” from 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee, the album where he began to employ violin and accordion to great effect; and “Pop Singer” from 1989’s Big Daddy. Also here are the excellent, fiddle-dominated instrumental “Overture” from 1996’s Mr. Happy Go Lucky; Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” which incorporates mean slide guitar, from 2005’s Trouble No More; a moving solo acoustic “Longest Days,” from 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom; “Troubled Man” and “Lawless Times” from 2014’s Plain Spoken; and“The Full Catastrophe” and “My Soul’s Got Wings” (with Carlene Carter) from 2017’s Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.

Mellencamp is in fine form throughout, and he’s working here with the strongest, most complementary band he’s ever had. Miriam’s Strum’s kinetic fiddle work and Troye Kinnett’s atmospheric accordion make particularly good companions to the singer’s weather-worn vocal work.

At its best, on heartfelt standouts like “Check It Out” and “Longest Days,” this is the kind of music that makes you feel lucky to be alive to hear it.