The Kansas City Star: John Mellencamp Gives Midland Theater Crowd An Invigorating Blend Of The Past And The Present

By Timothy Finn - The Kansas City Star

Give it up for John Mellencamp. Forty-plus years into a career in music, he can still deliver a live show filled with energy and enthusiasm, even on a night when he said he was feeling worn and weathered.

Saturday night at the Midland theater, Mellencamp and his six-piece band gave a boisterous, sold-out crowd of more than 2,500 nearly two hours of music, tapping a catalog that comprises 22 studio albums and includes nearly two dozen Top 10 hits.

He opened with “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man” two songs from his most recent album, “Plain Spoken,” a solid collection of introspective roots/Americana songs that prove a guy approaching his mid-60s can still put out some of the best music of his career.

It also established the focus of this show: It would not be a cavalcade of favorites and hits from a heritage act. Rather, it was an evening of music from a songwriter who has sustained some relevance, if not his mainstream popularity.

Mellencamp announced he’d considered postponing the show because he didn’t think his voice was up to the task. That wasn’t necessary. His voice sounded a bit raspier than normal — like Tom Waits’ many times — but he made it through 20 songs without flagging or faltering.

He drew an exuberant crowd. Most stood the entire night, listening attentively during the down-tempo songs. The only lull occurred during “The Isolation of Mister,” a middling track from “Plain Spoken.” He cured that right away, following it with “Check It Out,” which aroused a loud and hearty singalong.

There were several of those, none louder and heartier than “Pink Houses,” a working-class anthem that is to Mellencamp what “Born to Run” is to Bruce Springsteen. He stopped twice and let the crowd take over. It felt like a ravenous sports arena crowd singing a fight song.

That was one of several highlights. “Jack and Diane,” which he performed solo on acoustic guitar, was another. So were “Small Town,” “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper in Fire” and the rabble-rousing “Authority Song,” which he fused with a snippet of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances.”

He also covered “Stones in My Passway,” a gritty Robert Johnson tune. He brought out his opener, Carlene Carter, for two numbers from “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a musical he wrote with Stephen King: “Away From This World” and the romping blues song “Tear This Cabin Down.” She sounds remarkably like her mother, June Carter Cash.

His band members got plenty of spotlight throughout the show, especially Miriam Sturm, his fiddler, who, with Troye Kinnett on accordion, performed “Overture,” an instrumental medley of Mellencamp hits. Guitarist Andy York also flashed plenty of skill, most notably on “Longest Days.”

The evening closed with “Cherry Bomb,” a gust of nostalgia and reminiscence — an apt ending to an evening that was as much about the present and beyond as it was about retrospection and glorifying the past.

Carlene Carter: She ignited the first singalong of the night with a robust rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” She played piano and guitar during a 30-minute set that also included “Change,” “Me and the Wildwood Rose” and “Dixie Darling.”