Richmond Post Dispatch: Altria Theater Concert Review

By Hays Davis  Richmond Times Dispatch

Seeing John Mellencamp live illustrates why his latest album hit the Billboard top 20 and what likely prompted Republic Records to offer him a lifetime contract.

His songs continue to age remarkably well and sound of-the-moment, whether new or old. More importantly, they echo the experiences of those who follow his music. In short, they sound like his fans.

At the Altria Theater Saturday night, Mellencamp engaged the audience at times with the enthusiasm of a newbie embracing a big break.

With the crowd welcoming him like a returning hero, Mellencamp and his six-piece band led with a pair of songs from 2014’s “Plain Spoken” before lighting up the room with “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town” from 1985’s “Scarecrow.”

During a feisty take on Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” he broke into a bout of dancing before meeting the audience at the edge of the stage.

Playing before a backdrop of a graffiti wall, the band sported formal wear and fleshed out the songs with fiddle, harmonica, accordion and standup bass. Mellencamp’s vocals sounded seasoned and strong as he moved comfortably between the darker “The Full Catastrophe” and upbeat songs like “Check It Out.”

Mellencamp seemed to be enjoying himself, a point that carried into a story about how his father regularly presses him to have a good time. When a particularly ebullient fan let out a yell during a story about a young Mellencamp praying with his grandmother, he joined the moment by incorporating a holler of his own into the tale.

The set list spanned the past several decades, with highlights including “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Paper in Fire.”

While each song in the show was received well, nothing quite matched the moment when a solo Mellencamp broke into his chart-topping 1982 hit “Jack & Diane.” The audience sprang to its feet and sang along with every word, and for three minutes everyone was outside the Tastee Freez with a chili dog.

Carlene Carter opened the show with a set that charmed the crowd as she introduced songs from her latest album, “Carter Girl.” Performing solo, Carter moved from guitar to piano, and her detailed between-song anecdotes included tales of growing up as the daughter of June Carter Cash.

Carter’s rich vocals made her performance memorable, but hearing of a leather-clad Kris Kristofferson emerging from a helicopter on her lawn made it doubly entertaining.