The Olympia: Paris France Fan Show Review

My very personal review of John Mellencamp' s show in Paris

"It took us 10 000 miles and 19 years to come back" John told us on Tuesday night.

19 years. It had been indeed quite a while since the 'Whenever We Wanted Tour' and John’s previous ‘one-night-stand’ with the Parisian crowd at 'Le Zénith' in April 1992. I don't know how many people from that night were attending John's concert at the 'Olympia' on Tuesday night, quite a few, I would say, by counting the people proudly wearing their WWW Tour T-Shirts, washed up and worn out for sure.

I wasn’t wearing mine. See, 19 years ago, I was 22 and I have since put a bit of weight, so this T-Shirt does not fit me so well anymore.

I was also afraid that my soul wouldn’t fit in. A lot of things had changed over all those years : I had left college, found a girlfriend, found a job, got married, had become the Big Daddy of two daughters, bought a home, and, a few weeks ago only, lost my Dad. "22 has turned 41, I'm surprised that we're still living". I’m a serious grown up person now. « Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone , doesn’t it ?

So booking for John’s concert at first seemed like finding by chance a few photographs from my youth and looking at them half-jokingly : « look at those hair, were you wearing some kind of wig at the time ? Look at those clothes, were you a fan of Kiss then? ». Don’t get me wrong, I have listened again and again every new album ever since and appreciated John’s work gaining in maturity with every new release. But that was my point : do mature people go to rock concerts and  pretend they’re still the young lions  ?

Nonetheless, the « kid inside » me for once took control of the driving wheel and made me buy two tickets for my wife and I. Row 15, Center left. Although I had never been to the Olympia, I knew the venue was outstanding (this is probably the most famous concert hall in France, people like Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf or, more recently, the Rolling Stones, to quote a few, have sung on this stage), that it was small enough (1800 seats) to allow John and the band to really communicate with the audience and that the accoustic was supposed to be excellent.

At 7:15, I leave the office and walk up the Avenue de l’Opéra to the Boulevard des Capucines to reach the place 10 minutes later. Staring at the big red letters that display ‘Une soirée avec John Mellencamp’ glowing above the heavy trafic on the boulevard, I feel a burst of joy in my chest. In 1992, the concert hall was in the outskirts of town. But never could have I imagined that I would see John’s name in the very heart of France's millenarian Capital. Wait a minute, this guy is from Bloomington, Indiana. I've been there twice, it is probably as far from Parisian snobbery as Pluto is from the Earth : "Get yourself a weapon 'cause they slice you up in the melting pot". 23 years ago, when I moved to Paris, my new friends were laughing at me whenever I mentioned my sheer passion for this music and a man that 99.9% of them had never heard of. It would have been so much easier to advocate for Springsteen or even Tom Petty instead ... And now, this towering red neon sign is the brightest proof that I was right, that John Mellencamp really belongs to this Pantheon of the greatest songwriters and singers. OK, I was right, who cares ?

Here is my love waiting for me. She has heard about John for the first time 17 years ago, during our very first conversation and I have since made sure that she willy-nilly listens to every John song at least 50 times (although not in a row) apart maybe for those on the 2 latest albums. Despite this brainwashing, I know she's here for me at least as much as for the show.

After a sandwich and a beer, we move to take our seats. The movie about the making of The No Better Than This album starts while people are still arriving and the noise prevents us from understanding the speaker. After 30 minutes, some people starts to complain in French : "Get to work !". "Ok, thanks, we'll buy the DVD after the show !". I fear that people in the room may not be die-hard fans after all and that this could be a turnoff for John and the band. The room is full though.

The movie finally ends and lights are switched on for another 20 minutes to the great disappointment of the crowd.

Pitch black. Johnny Cash sings "God's gonna cut you down". 

Light. Here he is, John Mellencamp in flesh and bones, almost unreal after all those years. The first notes of The Authority song are like a shot of hard drugs : the brain is hijacked and, before you know it, the crowd instantly stands up dancing and singing along, clapping their hands spontaneously. No more booing, everyone enters the trance and I'm in for my very own mystical experience, a journey through space, time and myself.

There's not a song that I cannot personally relate to. This has always puzzled me since it is statistically impossible to have it all right. Ok, "The real life" should ring a bell : "My whole life, I've done what I'm supposed to do, now I''d like to maybe do something for myself". But what can possibly be the connection between a urban French middle aged white collar such as me and "American kids growing up in the heartland", or a guy whose "bed is in a small town", or Jacky Brown, "poorly educated and forced to live in the poor side of town", or a "scarecrow in the rain" ?  John's alchemy probably stems from his ability to blend abstract ideas such as  humanity and fraternity into his songs and turn them into actual feelings for the listener, giving them substance and reality. Over the years, he has made me more open-minded and taught me to "Walk Tall".

Of course, as My Dad passed away just a month ago, songs about Death have a special echo on that night. Death is still an obsession for John, from the Authority Song ("Dying to me don't sound like all that much fun") to '"If I die sudden" through "Don't need this body" or the beautiful "Longest Days". But here also, maturity has set in and there is a lesson to be learned in "Save some time to dream". He's now far away from the gloom of "Large world turning, live while you can" from the "Mr Happy go Lucky" album.

The sound is excellent, neither too loud nor unbalanced, way better than at any concert  I've ever been to, the engineer deserves a medal. On acoustic songs, you can distinctly hear every guitar strum and the guy aka "The Great Mumbler" is easy to understand, even for a mostly French audience, when he speaks to us between songs. And boy, he does talk to us a lot even with an audience that won't let him because it cannot stop applauding the previous song, especially after "Save some time to dream".

The voice is mighty, the face expressive, the gesture powerful. John is in full control of its territory and yet, he frequently step aside whenever Andy, Myriam or Mike are soloing. All the colors of John's palette are used and perfectly balanced.

The re-invention of "Paper in fire", the very first song from John that I've ever heard back in 1988, makes it sound more prophetic than in its first version.

The show closes with "ROCK in the USA". John pulls a young guy on stage (20 years old) during the bridge. I think to myself that he's going to crash an burn : the song is older than him and he's supposed to sing the most difficult verse, nouns of people he has never heard of. I see John whispering in his left ear what must be the first line: "There was Frankie Lyman, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder!...". John ! He's French ! There's no way he can make it. Even me, after singing it a zillion times over the last 23 years, I still can't !

The boy seizes the mic with both hands and makes a perfect delivery !!! The crowd is on fire !

The show ends, John is the last to leave the stage. The intense light makes him look pale and tired : he has given everything he had, the best he could do. But he looks happy and, as far as I can tell, surprised by this French audience which he hardly knew and that seems to like his music so much ( I know what a pissed-off John looks like : in 1998, I attended a show in Munich where John was promoting the "John Mellencamp" album at the time : the venue looked like a warehouse, there was virtually no stage and the audience was catatonic apart from the 1st rows where I was standing).

I feel relieved that my fellow countrymen have finally done him justice. I check my wife's reaction : she's extatic and tells me that I should write a review of the show. I just can't stop smiling...

Jean-Cyril - Paris - France

Here is the Setlist, I think this is accurate.

 Unfortunately, "the Real Life" and "What if I came knock'in" were not included and there was no 'Encore' which is a pity when you consider that this is a French word.

1. Authority Song
2. No One Cares About Me
3. Death Letter
4. John Cockers
5. Walk Tall
6. The West End
7. Check It Out
8. Save Some Time To Dream
9. Cherry Bomb
10. Don't Need This Body
11. Easter Eve
12. Jack & Diane
13. Jackie Brown
14. Longest Days
15. Small Town
16. Rain on the Scarecrow
17. Paper in Fire
18. Crumblin' Down
19. If I Die Sudden
20. Pink Houses
21. R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.