Selling out 2,180-seat Ruth Eckerd Hall on back-to-back nights is no small feat. Still, shouldn’t things have gone differently for John Mellencamp?
The Indiana icon has accrued enough massive hits that he could spend his 60s cruising through arenas and amphitheaters, blasting through a cavalcade of Baby Boomer belt-‘em-outs like Springsteen, Petty or Bon Jovi. Who wouldn’t raise a Tastee-Freez chili dog to that?
But Mellencamp goes his own way, always has, even when those paths weren’t the most obvious or popular. In trading down for smaller stages, he’s managed to remain exactly who he wants to be, even if it means leaving a few huge hits in the chamber.
Doing so on Thursday did nothing to diminish an overwhelmingly crowd-pleasing kickoff to Mellencamp’s two-night stand in Clearwater. He may be a legacy act, but the way he sees it, it’s a legacy he hasn’t finished writing.
“The only critic that ever really matters,” Mellencamp told the crowd at one
point, “is time.”
His grizzled, graying mop as tousled as ever, Mellencamp, 63, has a bit of lounge lizard in him these days, a gum-chomping, casino-club swagger befitting a man who's bagged himself a Meg Ryan. It seemed almost anachronistic compared to the Grand Ole Opry aesthetic of his stellar backing sextet – the men in genteel Southern tuxes, violinist Miriam Sturm in a tulle gown.
But the oddness of it all kind of worked, in a Tom Waits-y way, with the hard-earned texture in Mellecamp’s voice conjuring up images of a twisted piano bar on The Full Catastrophe or a folksy, zydeco-tinged picnic on Check It Out. The whip-smart precision and multi-instrumental diversity of the band (not to mention the understated but effective lighting) sold each song, from the triple guitar riffage of Small Town to the fully fleshed-out Americana of Lawless Times and Minutes to Memories.
After he was joined by opener Carlene Carter for a couple of numbers from Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, his musical co-written with Stephen King, Mellencamp left the stage while Sturm and accordionist Troye Kinnett played a brief, lovely overture that included teases of I Need a Lover, Just Another Day and Key West Intermezzo (I Saw Her First).
This was it: The wink that reminded everyone that Mellencamp knows exactly what he’s doing, that he knows he could pack a show with big hits without batting an eye, and that, yes, he knows everyone there would probably sing every word. (Well, perhaps not – at one point, he had to admonish the crowd for royally boning the lyrics during an acoustic Jack & Diane, screaming “Oh yeahhh…” instead of “Suckin’ on a chili dog…”)
Mellencamp is a severely underappreciated songwriter, and if you’re looking for reasons why he’s not playing bigger stages, you might find one or two in the songs you haven’t heard. Take Longest Days, a powerfully reflective song from 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom. He introduced his acoustic performance by talking about what can become of a young man who dreams of huge success.
“He gets to be about my age, and he realizes the dream is all that really mattered,” Mellencamp said. “If it came true or not, does it really matter? The point is that he kept the dream alive.”
And so it is for Mellencamp. After Sturm and Kinnetts brief overture, Johnny Cougar shed his jacket and spit absolute fire for the rest of the set – the righteous, resilient Rain On the Scarecrow; the seething Paper In Fire; the hot-rodding Authority Song and more. On the roaring Crumbling Down, a few women didn't just dance but actually jumped for joy in their seats. Even without an encore, it was an utterly guns-a-blazing finish.
Yes, things could have gone differently for John Mellencamp. He could be -- should be -- playing much larger stages. But for his sake and ours, it’s pretty nice he ended up where he did.