Worcester Magazine: By Walter Bird Jr.
John Mellencamp rumbles into Worcester Tuesday, Oct. 11 to kick off the final leg of a tour that started last year. “Plain Spoken” is the name of both the tour and Mellencamp’s 2015 album, his 22nd studio recording, and the show at Hanover Theatre promises to be among the most intimate yet.
That is just fine by the band, according to Mellencamp’s longtime friend and guitarist, Mike Wanchic. Same goes for opening act Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter to Johnny Cash. Both Wanchic and Carter embrace the change of pace brought by a smaller venue.
“I can tell you this,” Wanchic, who has been playing with Mellencamp since 1976, told Worcester Magazine. “I grew up in arenas. I’m very comfortable in arenas. However, those medium-sized theaters are a perfect fit. There’s so much more subtlety in our concerts now. Everything balances out for us in the theater. It’s the perfect place to be.”
Carter, who spoke with Worcester Magazine while in Los Angeles with her husband, said the theater setting accommodates her style of performing.
“I like the intimate venue,” she said. “Really, for me it’s the perfect place to tell a story. That’s what I do. I tend to talk about my life and my family. I never know exactly what I’m going to do.”
With what promises to be a rapt audience in the cozy Hanover Theatre and friends and colleagues like Wanchic and Carter sharing the stage, Mellencamp won’t want for intimacy. He will be free to connect directly with the audience, who in turn will get to see a performer regarded by many as among the best in the business.
It didn’t happen overnight, but years of practice and working together have lifted Mellencamp and his band to great heights. They have taken it one step at a time, Wanchic said.
“When it starts out, you have goals when you’re a kid,” he said. “You do something, and then it’s, ‘What’s the next goal?’ Like, you want to play [a certain theater]. From there, it’s, ‘If we could just play Madison Square Garden. If we could only win a Grammy.’ Your goals grow, but at the same time, you realize you’re just doing what you do.”
That, he stressed, is important. The band has never compromised its ideals and ambitions.
“We’ve never tried to bend what we do to the public taste,” Wanchic said. “People that do that put a termination date on their career.”
When you play with someone as long as Wanchic has with Mellencamp, a certain chemistry develops. That bond, he said, is critical.
“It’s everything, man,” Wanchic said. “That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. We have something [other acts] don’t have. We are a team, and there is no ‘I’ in team, and it’s true. The only way you can get what we have is through time. It becomes second nature, that anticipation of what John’s going to do. You get it through time.”
Through it all, the constant has been Mellencamp as the glue that holds it all together. He is, as Wanchic described him, “the benevolent dictator.” The band contributes, but Mellencamp calls the shots.
“The philosophy of the band is John is the songwriter,” Wanchic said. “We don’t ever want to dilute that. Number one, the songwriting comes from John. The musical [part] comes from us. Things have to marry together. I may be thinking I have the coolest riff in the world. It may not serve the song, it may not serve the lyric, and I may just have to let it go.”
Just like not every song from a career that spans four decades will find its way into a live show.
“There are a number of songs from the new record,” Wanchic said of the tour. “There are so many different requirements to putting a set together. You have to play the hits, because people want to hear them. We recognized [the importance] of the legacy hits, but we also want to dig into the library. We also want to deliver material people haven’t heard.”
There is a balance to be struck when crafting a set list from such a deep catalog, but Wanchic knows the band has the advantage of a fan base that craves the rare stuff as much as the pop sensations.
“Number one,” he said, “when you have 20-plus albums, you have to recognize … let’s find the best two songs off a record and put it on the set list. Our fan base is not stupid. They know the albums inside and out. We have the option of going deeper into the catalog without people going, ‘What?’”
There is, Wanchic said, a certain amount of curiosity over the new songs.
“You learn over the years how you place those songs [on a set list],” he said. “We will play songs in Worcester no one has heard.”
For Carter, the show presents a chance to showcase the music of her family, including the works of the Carter Sisters, the influences of her famous stepfather and to show off her own music. Whatever she chooses to do, Carter said she will feel right at home.
“I love going out [on tour] myself, because I get to play longer, but this is just the right amount of time so Mellencamp fans aren’t going to fidget,” she said with a laugh. “I’m the hostess for the evening.”