By Jamie Lee Rake - Shepard Express
There is something almost weirdly dispiriting about hearing a theater full of people decades past high school sing along to a chorus of a song that goes “Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.”
Yet John Mellencamp led that chorus from his biggest hit from 37 years ago, “Jack & Diane,” Friday night at the Riverside Theater to a nearly packed house. It’s to his credit that Mellencamp has become a legacy rocker who doesn’t so much romanticize his and his listeners’ lives as reflect them without much in the way of aspiration—and that his music retains enough resonance among enough of an audience so long after being an MTV mainstay to fill the Riverside.
Likewise, it’s a mark of his gift for melody that he can strip “Jack” to an even more spartan arrangement than its original hit iteration to find fresh layers of cockiness and melancholy with solo acoustic guitar accompaniment. For most of his short-seeming, encore-free set, however, he employed a full band that captured the sound of his late '70s-mid '90s commercial hot streak. That ensemble, including violinist Miriam Sturm and keyboard/accordion player Troye Kinnett, got thoroughly sprightly workouts in the show’s last third of higher tempo smashes.
The night opened with a short documentary. Chocked with TV interview and awards show appearances as well as shots of him painting serenely in a church, the film told of how the degree of success he achieved made him uncomfortable to the point of suffering anxiety attacks that included vomiting. He has overcome that discomfort, at least to the extent that he has continued recording and touring into his late 60s. It ended with Mellencamp saying he learns something from every audience, and he wondered what he would be taught by that night’s.
It’s probably a lesson he has encountered before in other cities, but he now knows that his Milwaukee aficionados are about responsive to his later catalog as they are to the biggies from his halcyon heights. And the borderline sinister, Tom Waits-ian rasp he evinced during lesser known numbers such as “Lawless Times” and “The Full Catastrophe” contrasted effectively with more amiable tone he conveyed for less menacing favorites including “Small Town” and “Lonely Ol’ Night.“
Just as in the commercial radio country music his signature sound has influenced and occasionally intersected, Mellencamp’s political expression in song is often most effective when listeners can project their own perspective into them, such as in “Pink Houses.” To that end, 2017’s he preached a tad too hard and easily from the left in 2017’s spoken word ballad “Easy Target.” Conversely, his 1986 single, “Rain On The Scarecrow,” remains effective because the music’s anger matches the singer’s still palpable rage at corporate a agribusiness’ hand in the decimation of family farm entrepreneurship.