Providence Journal: ‘Mellencamp Show’ Reveals An Old Rocker Who Can Still Let Loose

Providence Journal - By Susan McDonald

One cue that this wouldn’t be the typical concert was its billing as “The John Mellencamp Show” and the note that it would start promptly at 8 p.m.

The lights at the Providence Performing Arts Center dimmed at exactly that hour Friday night for a 15-minute biographical film about the 67-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer featuring clips of interviews, American Bandstand and MTV appearances and his disembodied voice talking about an industry that made him change his name, tried to direct his music and contributed to his heart attack at the age of 42.

The film stoked the audience for the arrival of Mellencamp and his six-piece band for a 90-minute music set that almost lifted the roof off the building. As Mellencamp, self-billed as the “American Poet,” told the largely middle-aged crowd, “There’s going to be songs you know, songs you don’t know, songs you can sing along to and songs you can dance to.” And that was no lie.

Mellencamp, who’s logged 22 Top 40 hits and earned a Grammy Award, has been rocking his own blend of blues, rockabilly and solid rock ‘n’ roll since the 1970s but he sounded as fresh and as powerful as ever, and when he slung low in that squatty rocker’s crouch to wail on his guitar for “Paper and Fire,” it may as well have been 1985 all over again.

True to his statement, Mellencamp offered solid versions of such hits as “Small Town,” “Pink Houses,” “Jack and Diane” and “Lonely Ol’ Night,” his husky voice rolling easily over the lyrics that tell tales of Middle Americans’ struggles and dreams. He also introduced the audience to others like the more bluesy sound of “Lawless Times,” “Minutes to Memories” and a grittier “Troubled Land.”

His band featured prominently at points, too, lending a more countrified sound to the tunes. The guitars of Mike Wanchic and Andy York ground out a fiery chorus in “Pink Houses” while Troye Kinnett on accordion and Miriam Sturm on violin combined for a riveting overture that led into “Rain on the Scarecrow.” Sturm’s playing was fierce and full bodied, whether she was offering a wail back on “Easy Target” or haunting notes in “We Are the People.”

The show was well-paced with a soulful acoustic section in the middle for which Mellencamp demanded quiet attention, telling anyone wanting to shout to go into the lobby for a beer. His down-home demeanor added charm to “Longest Days,” a song prompted by his elderly grandmother telling him “life is short, even in its longest days.”

The acoustic portion of the set darkened a bit with “Full Catastrophe” and “Easy Target,” but Mellencamp kicked it back in high gear with a raucous version of “Crumblin’ Down” before rounding out the night with more nostalgia in “Authority Song” and “Cherry Bomb.”