By Paula Owen,
Telegram & Gazette Reviewer
WORCESTER — John Mellencamp rocked the Hanover Theater Tuesday night, kicking off the final leg of his “Plain Spoken” tour on his only stop in New England scheduled during the extended performances.
He is touring with an entourage of stellar musicians on accordion, violin, guitar, keyboard, bass and drums performing heartland rock with traditional instrumentation on his "Plain Spoken" Tour, named for his 2015 album.
Though his voice sounds a little gruffer, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, whose career spans more than four decades, didn’t look like he was slowing down any at 65.
Mellencamp, conjured “The Voice of the Heartland” with songs that often tell a story of the common experiences of ordinary people, started the night off with "Lawless Times," "Troubled Man" and "Minutes to Memories."
But, it was his performance of "Small Town" that seemed to really get his fans moving — standing up, hooting and dancing through the entire song.
A fan jumping around in row 12 remarked that he “rocked the (expletive) out of it,” and “destroyed it.”
Mellencamp told his fans he would be performing songs they knew and didn’t know, but either way, he wanted them to sing and dance with him — and they did to songs including "Stones in My Passway," "Human Wheels," "The Isolation of Mister" and more fervently to "Check it Out," which brought screams when the audience recognized it.
In a more intimate moment, Mellencamp prefaced the song "Longest Days" with a story about his grandmother, who he said called him “Buddy” and lived to be 100.
“She said, 'Buddy, you better drive over here and see me this afternoon,’"
Mellencamp recalled. “She was ready to go.”
Mellencamp said his grandmother would tell him they needed to pray together.
“She would say, ‘If you don’t stop cussing and smoking, you’re not going to get into heaven,’” Mellencamp said. “She’d say, 'God, can you hear me? Buddy and I are ready to come home.' And, I told her, Buddy was not ready to come home. Buddy has a lot more sinning he’s intending to do.”
Mellencamp said his grandmother told him it was like him to make a “smart Alec” remark like that. Then they locked eyes, and his 100-year-old grandmother’s face took on the face of a child, he said.
“And, she would say, ‘You know Buddy, you find out life is real short, even its longer days,'” he said.
Mellencamp also performed "Jack and Diane," though he said, “I don’t know why I do this song, except that you like to sing along,” and the crowd devotedly did.
Mellencamp also rocked "Full Catastrophe of Life," on stage only with his piano player. His voice seemed to take on a Louis Armstrong-ish quality during some parts.
Mellencamp performed "Indigo Sunset" and "My Soul's Got Wings" with Carlene Carter, 61, who is the daughter of country music legends June Carter and Carl Smith and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. He said when he heard Carter's voice, he knew he wanted to work with her. Mellencamp said they managed to sneak in making an album while touring the past two years. It's called "Sad Clowns and Hillbillies," and it's set to be released in February.
After a short break, Mellencamp came out on stage, crushed out his cigarette and went into "Scarecrow," telling the crowd it was a song he was very proud of. A fan remarked after the song, “Imagine that at Farm Aid? He rocks!” (Mellencamp is one of the founding members of Farm Aid, an organization he helped start in 1985 to raise awareness about the loss of family farms.)
Mellencamp also performed "Paper in Fire" and "If I Die Sudden," and during the driving drum beat of "Crumbling Down," fans took the aisles and screamed during an awesome drum solo. That song was followed up by Mellencamp classics including "Authority Song," "Pink Houses" and "Cherry Bomb."
Timothy G. Davis of Upton, who attended the performance with his wife, seemed to sum it up best.
“It was just awesome,” Mr. Davis said. “He played a lot of great songs from many years ago plus a whole lot of other new stuff. It was a fantastic show!”