Not many concerts come with a kind of spoken-word user’s manual, but John Mellencamp’s show Tuesday night at Stifel Theatre did.
“Here’s the way this is gonna go down tonight,” he said a few songs into his 100-minute performance. “We’re gonna do some songs you know, some songs you don’t know, some songs you can sing along with and some songs you can dance to.”
He noted there would also be some quieter moments and said, “If you’re one of those (expletives) that need to scream during the quiet section, can you please go out in the hallway and do that?”
That’s the kind of announcement nearly every concert could use.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer delivered on his promise with a set dominated by hits, favorites and a couple of n cover tunes, and the audience held up its part of the bargain, too. But it was those quiet and lesser-known songs that gave the evening some of its most resonant moments.
Mellencamp performed a stark, dramatic take of his 2017 song “Easy Targets,” which describes the country’s disregard for its most vulnerable citizens and mourns “our country’s broken heart.” Dressed in workman’s coveralls, Mellencamp sang the song’s concluding lines and took a knee as the stage lights dimmed.
Earlier, he sang “We Are the People,” another song of solidarity with the less fortunate and a word of support — but also a warning — for those in power. “You see yourself as a leader/You know our thoughts are with you,” he sang, adding, “If you try to divide and conquer/We’ll rise up to impeach you.”
If that sounds like a promise/threat addressing issues of the day, consider that it’s a song — with slightly altered lyrics — from “The Lonesome Jubilee,” an album released in 1987.
Mellencamp, an Indiana native, is rock’s poet laureate of the heartland, but his songs form a more complex perspective on the region than the typical red state/blue state view that dominates the national discussion. The small towns and farms he sings about have been hit hard economically and are politically mixed. They’re purple, like a bruise.
He also offered acoustic takes on “Longest Day,” a song based on wisdom received from his grandmother, and a loud audience sing-along of one of his signature tunes, “Jack & Diane.”
Mellencamp made fine use of his six-piece backing band, which included guitarists Andy York and Mike Wanchic and violinist Miriam Sturm. They added dynamic twists and turns to hits such as “Small Town” and “Lonely Ol’ Night” and did a rollicking version of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” the show’s sole offering from “Other People’s Stuff,” Mellencamp’s 2018 album of cover tunes.
The latter part of the show was devoted to hits, including “Paper in Fire,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Authority Song” and, of course, “Pink Houses.”
Mellencamp told a story of his first time playing St. Louis — “probably in ‘73 or ‘74,” he said. In the middle of the night, he was called to bail Wanchic out of jail on a charge of “lewd vagrancy.”
He thought about what those words meant and said, “Well (expletive), we live in that way in Indiana every day.”
Following that trip down memory lane, Mellencamp ended the show with a song that is itself pure nostalgia, “Cherry Bomb.”
TThere was no encore or opening act. Instead, the evening had kicked off with a 20-minute film that emphasized Mellencamp’s dedication to his art and attempts to stay true to it — a point underlined perfectly by the show that followed.
“Minutes to Memories”
“Long Gone (From the Bowlin’ Green)”
“Stones in My Passway”
“We Are the People”
“Lonely Ol’ Night”
“Check It Out”
“Jack & Diane”
“Rain on the Scarecrow”
“Paper in Fire”
“Authority Song”/“Land of 1000 Dances”
“Long Gone (From the Bowlin’ Green)” (reprise)