Red Deer Advocate: Red Deer Much Better After John Mellencamp Visit

By Penny Caster Advocate staff - February 15, 2008

John Mellencamp plays a rousing rendition of his hit Paper and Fire during his show at the Centrium Thursday. The farm boy from Indiana, who’ll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month, had the sold-out crowd on its feet from the opening number Pink Houses.

Maybe we should adopt him, make John Mellencamp an honorary Canadian or something along those lines.

Oh sure, he wears his American blue-collar roots on his sleeve and he’s a serious campaigner for social justice in the U.S. — a facet of the man that is reflected in his song-writing.

But if the 5,000-plus crowd packed into Red Deer’s Enmax Centrium Thursday night is anything to go by from the way they lapped him up, we could at least share him.

And don’t we suffer from many of the same ills as our neighbours to the south?

Mellencamp urged us all to be better people.

“If you want this world to be a better place, it starts with each and every one of us,” he said, after telling us about his early years, playing at 14 with older musicians including one African-American.

That man was obliged to leave the room between sets thanks to segregation, and was attacked by an audience member just because of his colour.

That yarn was to introduce a moving new song Mellencamp has written called Jena.

That’s the town in Louisiana where white students strung nooses from a tree under which only white kids sat during breaks, due to some unwritten rule.

The black students had asked the day before for permission to also sit there.

The chorus is the song is “Oh, oh, take your nooses down.”

Video images from the civil rights era played on the giant stage backdrop behind Mellencamp as he sang.

When Mellencamp hit the stage for the start of his hour and 45 minute set, he got one of the warmest welcomes ever seen at the Centrium before he even said a word.

Pretty much the whole arena was on its feet and cheering in anticipation of the main event.

He didn’t disappoint.

Mellencamp is 56 and he’s in great shape. He moved and danced around the stage like a man half his age.

His voice is as powerful and moving as ever, and the guy can rock.

He is a songwriter with real depth, covering the issues of an America he cares about in a way that puts him in the same category as others such as John Prine.

To help put it all across, Mellencamp has an awesome band, including a female fiddle player who played her heart out.

Many of his songs have their roots in Mellencamp’s own American experience, which includes growing up in Indiana, where he still makes his home.

He kicked off with Pink Houses, a wry look at real American life.

There were many other familiar tunes, too, including Paper in Fire, I’m Not Running Anymore, Lonely Ol’ Night, Check It Out, and Rain on the Scarecrow.

This latter tune is about losing the family farm, and bleak video images ran in the background. The song itself has, appropriately enough given the subject, an ominous shade to it.

Other songs included a new one, If I Die Sudden. A driving, dark rock number that will be on his soon-to-be-released album, Life, Death, Love and Freedom.

It was a killer tune, keep an ear out for it.

This new album will be Mellencamp’s 25th, he told us, a fact that seemed to tickle him.

His performance included an excellent set-within-a-set, featuring just him and his guitar.

It began with him asking all those under 30 to raise their hands, then telling those folks that he hoped they would do a better job of managing things than his generation.

“So for those in America, we only have one more year of George Bush and then we’re done with him,” he said, to an amazing volume of cheers considering a) we’re not in America and b) this is conservative Alberta.

The acoustic set included Hey Jesus, Give Me a Ride Back Home, another powerful song on the forthcoming album, Minutes to Memories and Small Town.

There was more, and it was all good.

Mellencamp’s chats with the crowd, his leaps and fist pumping and dance moves were all entertaining.

It was a memorable, exciting performance.

Tom Cochrane opened the show, and though he’s a lot more frequent a visitor to Red Deer than Mellencamp, I’ve rarely seen the Centrium so full before the opening act starts.

But it was like that on Thursday, and I’ll take that as a tribute to the Canadian rocker’s lasting popularity.

His one-hour show included Sinking Like a Sunset, Lunatic Fringe, White Hot, Big League, and his signature hit, Life is a Highway.

Cochrane thanked Rascal Flats for making that tune his first country hit.

Cochrane did a number where it was just him and his guitar, Avenue A.

It was very effective.

Cochrane and Mellencamp made a good pairing for a bill — enough alike to draw the same crowd and different enough to deliver a different style of rock.

Read the Red Deer Advocate article online.