OOTB Publications: Heartland Roots Rocker Brings Good Old Days To Cincinnati

By BRIAN WAGNER - OOTB Publications

John Mellencamp's sold-out Plain Spoken Tour stop at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati felt more like 3,300 old friends getting back together rather than 3,300 strangers meeting for a night of music--that's the effect of Mellencamp's music. It feels good and familiar, like going back home after being away for years; and Saturday night, it felt damn good to all that attended. Using Mellencamp's words, much of his music reminds listeners of "Talking about the good old days."

The night opened with singer-songwriter Carlene Carter. For those unfamiliar with Carter she is the daughter of late June Carter Cash. The highlights of her set were mainly old Carter family songs, including "Little Black Train" from her newest album Carter Girl. Although she mainly stayed on guitar, she moved to the piano to do a beautiful rendition of a song she wrote back in 2003 when her mother passed away. The song titled "Lonesome Valley 2003" was a moving and honest look at the pain and grieving one goes through when losing a loved one. Carter sang it beautifully and really touched the crowd. She closed the set with some fine guitar fingerpicking and her energy set the mood for the headliner.

Although the words "good old days" are often used to describe John Mellencamp, he is by no means a nostalgia act. He proved this when he hit the stage with two straight album tracks from his new album Plain Spoken. The tracks "Lawless Times" and "Troubled Man" follow familiar themes in his music: music about everyday life and people. These songs resonate as much as any of his older material, but when he hit the third song "Minutes to Memories," you knew what the crowd was here for.

The rest of the show felt like a sing-along for many in the crowd as he veered from the Robert Johnson blues of "Stones in My Passway" to an intimate rendition of one of his first hits "Jack and Diane" with him alone on his acoustic guitar. Mellencamp seemed to really be enjoying the crowd's enthusiasm as they sang every word.

The real ace in the hole of the night was his fantastic band. Led by longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic and lead guitarist Andy York, the band stood out on a number of tracks. Accordion player Troye Kinnett and hometown girl violinist Miriam Sturm gave the band a brief intermission while playing "Overture." They really are the secret weapon of the band, adding elements you just don't get in many rock bands.

The final seven songs were like a greatest hit's record--from an outstanding rendition of "Paper in Fire" to a rocking version of "Authority Song" that had the crowd dancing in the aisles. To close out the show, he went back to a song about them good old days. When he started "Cherry Bomb" it made you think about days gone past, as the lyric states: "when holding hands meant somethin' baby." His songs bring back an innocence and introspection that made the crowd all feel 20 years younger. As Mellencamp walked off stage to thunderous applause, it was obvious he had made us all feel like we were young again sharing his songs with each other.