Victoria Times Colonist: Heartland Rocker John Mellencamp Delivers

Veteran performer still goin' strong after 30 years in rock 'n' roll.
Mike Devlin, Times Colonist

Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2008
What: John Mellencamp with Tom Cochrane
When: Tuesday night
Where: Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre
Rating: Four stars (out of five)

When the somewhat underrated John Mellencamp - who is often placed well behind the likes of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty in terms of his contribution to the Americana movement - released a career-spanning collection in 2004, one thing became immediately apparent.

Man, this dude's got a lot of hits. A tonne, in fact.

We encountered a similar sentiment Tuesday night as Mellencamp - making his Victoria debut at the sold-out Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre - delivered one '80s rock radio staple after another during his 90-minute set. And a few curveballs, too.

The intensity Mellencamp brings to his concerts and recordings has yet to waver, despite more than 30 years in the rock 'n' roll business. He has used the position to benefit others (the native of Indiana co-founded Farm Aid in 1985), and has embraced art for art's sake (he is quite an accomplished painter), but the roughly 7,000 fans assembled Tuesday night likely came to hear and see one thing: Mellencamp the rocker.

And like the pizza guy, he delivered.

He's complex, forthright, difficult. But over the years, the once-maligned performer has become a well-ensconced man of the people. A number of his songs last night dealt with people less fortunate, from farmers (during Rain on the Scarecrow) to the residents of Jena, La., whose white high school students hung nooses in a tree as a message to blacks.

Things were much more subdued during Tom Cochrane and Red Rider's hour-long opening set, Lunatic Fringe was great, but Sinking Like a Sunset was felled by Cochrane's weathered vocals.

He couldn't hit the high notes, which was a problem all night for the native Manitoban; he was helped by the crowd, however.

"I can always count on Victoria, you know," he said, citing at one point his now-legendary concert at Western Speedway, which attracted 10,000 fans in 1991.

Cochrane was in good spirits throughout. He kidded guitarist Bill Bell about his recent divorce from Mount Doug secondary grad Tara McLean, before launching into Big League, perhaps one of his biggest hits.

Sadly, he couldn't carry it. His voice was, like the album of the same name, a "ragged-as road" that was difficult to traverse. It was the end of the national tour which began in three weeks earlier in Montreal, so perhaps all was to be forgiven.

Cochrane's encore fared far better. His band - multi-instrumentalist Kenny Greer, bassist Jeff Jones, guitarist Bell and drummer Davide Dorenzo - were in top form, and when they supported Cochrane moments after he began Boy Inside the Man, it was resplendent. Bell on mandolin and Greer, a dead ringer for Robin Gibb of the Bee-Gees with his sunglasses and close-cropped hair, on pedal steel were an unbeatable combo.

Pink Houses opened Mellencamp's 19-song set in brash fashion. Backed by images of Easy Rider, the biker classic featuring Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson, chopper-style, it was a revelation.

He would play many tunes from his forthcoming album, Life, Death, Love and Freedom - but like many heritage acts touring new material, his catalogue was best.

His six-piece band, who would become a standout throughout the night, starting with the night's second song, Paper in Fire, a showcase for fiddle player Miriam Sturm. She was a highlight, to be sure.

Mellencamp, of course, is not to be denied his own praises. During Lonely Ol' Night, he rolled up his sleeves and got down to work. Without a guitar, which he strapped on and off all night, he was free to shimmny shimmy shake, to the delight of the women in the audience.

He took one fan to task, however, during one of his many political rants. Shortly thereafter, he was back at it with Human Wheels, which was tight - thanks again to Sturm, who simply overtook Crumblin' Down, a rocker that came three-quarters of the way through his set.

"Sometimes you just need to dance," he said, as he launched into R.O.C.K.. (In the USA), one of the three classic hits that closed that set.

Jack and Diane and Authority Song were the penultimate closers. When he sang "I had myself a ball in this small town," it felt like he meant it.
Read the Times Colonist article online.