The last time John Mellencamp visited the Morris Performing Arts Center, he sat in the audience for a performance of the musical he wrote with Stephen King, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.”
That was Nov. 5, 2013, and on Wednesday night, he reclaimed his rightful
place on the theater’s stage with an ultimately celebratory 102-minute
performance to open his 80-date “Plain Spoken” tour.
But even though he ended the concert with a string of his major hits accompanied by an enthused audience singing along with him, Mellencamp returned to the Morris with serious matters on his mind — and the determination to remain vital as an artist.
With 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” 2010’s “No Better Than This” and the September release of “Plain Spoken,” Mellencamp has delivered three of the finest albums of his career, a remarkable and rare accomplishment for a 63-year-old rock musician.
And the theme that links these three albums — taking account of and
responsibility for one’s life — provided the narrative for Wednesday’s set list.
“Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man” from “Plain Spoken” opened the concert, the former a jaunty political work delivered with a growling voice and the latter a blues-based tale of acceptance.
“The Isolation of Mister,” also from “Plain Spoken,” shone not as a song of regret but of recognition.
Similarly, “Longest Days,” softly strummed by Mellencamp while guitarist Andy York accompanied him with finger-picking, received a moving delivery that was neither wistful nor sentimental, just honest. Mellencamp’s gravelly voice gave the song a somber feeling, but he was still capable of producing a sweet tone, as on the title phrase.
Through the first three-fourths of the concert, Mellencamp did a good job of parceling out the hits so that most casual fans wouldn’t become restless while choosing familiar songs that fit thematically with his new ones, even if that meant altering their arrangements.
Such hits as “Minutes to Memories,” “Small Town” and “Check It Out,” for instance, provided the first half of the concert with recognizable, higher-energy, sing-along material that also fit lyrically with Mellencamp’s new songs.
But he performed “Jack and Diane” at the midpoint of the show as a solo acoustic number, albeit with the audience accompanying him, especially on the chorus and bridge.
Mellencamp seemed to enjoy himself as he delivered the song as a fond recollection rather than from the urgency of being in the moment, a smart move that allows him to avoid embarrassing himself by pretending to be a teenager at his age.
“The Full Catastrophe” provided the set with a thematically appropriate rarity, a rarely played song performed as a slow piano blues by Troye Kinnett with Mellencamp delivering it with a tinge of menace that suggested its narrator isn’t yet done living — or making mistakes — despite its valedictory-pitched lyric.
After a forceful rendition of 2008’s “If I Die Sudden,” Mellencamp turned the last quarter of the concert over to crowd-pleasers in familiar arrangements — “Crumbling Down,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to 60’s Rock),” “Pink Houses” and “Cherry Bomb.”
After about 85 minutes of ruminating on the past, its consequences and costs,
mortality, and the death of the small farm (an angry “Rain on the Scarecrow”),
these four songs provided a necessary cathartic release for the audience and the
band, the kind that comes only from a rock band playing with maximum passion and
communal bonding with the audience.
Just as Bruce Springsteen built much of his sound around Clarence Clemons’ saxophone, Mellencamp has done the same with the violinists who have been in his band, beginning with Mishawaka native Lisa Germano in the ’80s and with Miriam Sturm for more than 16 years now.
Throughout the night, Sturm’s violin served as the band’s lead instrument, whether as a soloist — scathing on “Rain on the Scarecrow,” symbiotic with Kinnett’s organ on “Small Town” — or conveying a song’s motif behind and around Mellencamp’s vocals.
She and Kinnett also performed a captivating violin-accordion duet on
“Overture,” a medley of themes from Mellencamp’s songs, with this one
concentrating on material from “Mr. Happy Go Lucky” and “Real Life,” although
they also incorporated “I Need a Lover” into the arrangement, too.
But York also provided important texture and depth with his occasional and brief solos and, more importantly, with his fills and picked chord voicings.
Opening act Carlene Carter joined Mellencamp for two songs from “Ghost Brothers,” which she performed in recently on a tour of the production.
She sang “Away From This World,” slipping easily into character with a gorgeous vocal interpretation, and then dueted with Mellencamp on the chorus for “Tear This Cabin Down,” an apocalyptic blues-rock song whose syncopated rhythm gave it a sense of hesitation and dread.
As the opening act, Carter delivered a 33-minute set that provided the perfect complement to Mellencamp’s: an acoustic, steeped-in-roots country performance highlighted by spirited renditions of “Every Little Thing” and “Little Black Train,” her loving delivery on “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” and “Lonesome Valley 2003,” a song of love and loss that she wrote about the death of her mother, June Carter Cash, and that manages at the same time to be universal and specific, its lyrics, melody and delivery honest and without a trace of sentimentality.
For this opening-night performance, both Mellencamp and Carter came out confident and purposeful, ready for the 79 dates ahead to mine the roots of American music and investigate what it means to live and die.
Morris Performing Arts Center, South Bend
Jan. 21, 2015
1. Lawless Times
2. Troubled Man
3. Minutes to Memories
4. Small Town
5. Stones in My Passway
6. Human Wheels
7. The Isolation of Mister
8. Check It Out
9. Longest Days
10. Jack and Diane
11. The Full Catastrophe
12. Away From This World (sung by Carlene Carter)
13. Tear This Cabin Down (with Carlene Carter)
15. Rain on the Scarecrow
16. Paper in Fire
17. If I Die Sudden
18. Crumbling Down
19. R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to 60’s Rock)
20. Pink Houses
21. Cherry Bomb