Winnipeg Sun: Heartland Rock Beyond Borders

Mellencamp's blue-collar jams follow Tom Cochrane love-in

He may not go down as easy, but there's no denying John Mellencamp is as American as apple pie.

He's a little more tart, to be sure, and he poses a bit more of a challenge to the status quo, but even when he's rocking the boat (heavy emphasis on the "rock"), Mellencamp and his blue-collar jams are still an integral part of the American experience.

That's why it's so heartening to know the Indiana native's brand of heartland-rock plays just as well north of the 49th parallel.

As he proved to an MTS Centre crowd of 11,000 last night, truly great tunes know no borders, even the ones that are unmistakably "of" a certain time and place.

Kicking off with the iconic guitar intro to the proletarian anthem Pink Houses, Mellencamp stood flanked by a series of equally iconic big-screen images -- those encountered by the road-trippers in the '60s counter-culture classic Easy Rider.

The match-up was inspired, given that Mellencamp, a diehard liberal, has built his career exposing the hypocrisy that often goes hand in hand with the American dream.

And that same undercurrent ran through much of his set last night, whether via Paper and Fire's ominous fiddle refrain, Check It Out's weary harmonica licks, or the ragged acoustic arrangement of Small Town.

Mellencamp -- who toured on the Vote for Change bill back in 2004 -- has never made much secret of his dislike for the current U.S. administration, so it wasn't too surprising to hear him calling out Dubya, or peppering his between-song banter with inspirational talk of torches being passed.

But his devotion to his back catalogue came as a welcome relief, especially in light of recent interviews where Mellencamp has seemed bored by his old hits.

Anyone worried he might have leaned too heavily on his more obscure stuff must have gone home happy after hearing the aforementioned gems, not to mention anticipated closers Authority Song, Jack and Diane, and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. -- all three of 'em as American as they come.

Almost as impressive as Mellencamp's set was the fact that -- an hour or so before it was even set to begin -- the bulk of the seats in the venue already appeared to be filled.

Could all those fans have made a point of showing up early, to catch homegrown hero Tom Cochrane's set in its entirety?

Our guess would be yes, especially after witnessing the ease with which Cochrane -- a former Lynn Lake resident who's easily the Canadian equivalent of a "heartland rocker" -- related to the crowd.

His hour-long set was heavy on the hits (our faves were the Red Rider tracks Human Race and Lunatic Fringe, but we've always been a bit crazy for the '80s), and even when he wasn't singing, Cochrane always had a bit of folksy banter ready.

And just in case he wasn't picking up on all the love coming his way -- (not only did the crowd help him with the high notes on Good Times, they also went crazy every time he mentioned hockey during the intro to Big Leagues) -- there could be no mistaking the fans' motivation when they gave him that rarest of honours: the opening act encore.


Where: MTS Centre

When: Mon., Feb. 11

With: Tom Cochrane & Red Rider

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