By Jim Perry - Worcester Magazine / Photos by Steven King
The last (and only) time that I saw John Mellencamp, he had just started using his birth name. Before that, he was John Cougar. It was Oct. 11, 1982, the very first year of the existence of the DCU Center, then known, of course, as the Worcester Centrum. He was sharing top billing with the gals from Heart. Adopting his family name while gradually dropping the show biz Cougar moniker was an early sign that he wanted to grow as an artist.
Fast-forward to the very same date, Oct. 11, 34 years later, and Mellencamp is still growing, as evidenced by his show at Worcester’s Hanover Theatre Tuesday night.
After a spirited, countrified opening set from Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of the late, great Johnny Cash, Mellencamp opened with two songs from his new album, “Plain Spoken,” making it clear this was not to be a night of strictly radio friendly hits. The songs, “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man,” were both mature and dark, dealing with the trials of a man who has experienced quite a lot in his long life. The audience didn’t seem to mind, as they were obviously absorbed from the first note.
His backing band was stellar, bringing out every nuance the songs demanded,
and you could tell immediately this was going to be a night of serious music.
Following a quick “hello” to the enraptured, sold-out audience, Mellencamp dove into the familiar “Minutes to Memories,” from the 1985 “Scarecrow” album. Violinist Miriam Sturm stood stage left, and delivered the familiar melody line, as the band settled into an irresistible groove. Guitarist Mike Wanchik played a gorgeous semi-hollow body guitar, producing a sturdy round sound that anchored the rest of the arrangement.
At this point in the show, the tease was over, as the iconic guitar riff of the classic “Small Town’ filled the Hanover. The crowd leaped to its feet, and Mellencamp delivered.
As if to remind the crowd he was still not giving in to just basking in his hit tunes, Mellencamp then took a sharp left turn with a stunning rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway.” The man can deliver the blues.
Mellencamp’s band was dressed as if they were playing a wedding reception, with dress shirts and bow ties, which added to the sophistication of the show. Not him, though. Mellencamp wore a white tee shirt and jeans, meandering back and forth in a very casual manner. He caressed the audience as if they were hanging out in his living room.
After performing a lovely Celtic-influenced song, titled “The Isolation of Mister,” Mellencamp pulled out all the stops with the classic, “Check It Out.” The song featured Sturm on violin and keyboardist Troy Kinnett playing accordion, reproducing the classic riff that had the crowd on its feet.
Mellencamp then quieted down the crowd with a monologue about his grandmother, with whom he shared intimate conversations. Sounding very much like Bruce Springsteen, he had the audience enraptured with the story, which led into the intimate song, “Longest Days.” Just him and his guitar. A wonderful moment.
Before the band returned, Mellencamp had some fun with the crowd, claiming, “I don’t know why I do this song, except that you like to sing along,” and broke into the classic “Jack and Diane.” The singalong nearly brought down the rafters.
What followed was one of the greatest performances I have ever seen live. With keyboardist Kinnett playing an upright piano way over in the corner, Mellencamp sang the song, “Full Catastrophe of Life,” from his 1996 release, “Mr. Happy Go Lucky.” Bending over his microphone, eerily like Tom Waits, he proved to the crowd what a deep thinker he can be. The lyrics are as good as anything I’ve heard.”“I’ve ridden down the sunset drank expensive wine
“I’ve been married two dozen times
Raised 10 children on a workman’s pay
And I’m glad to say I’ve enjoyed every day
Of the full catastrophe of life”
Carlene Carter joined Mellencamp at this point, as they performed two songs from their soon-to-be-released CD, “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.” They were obviously enjoying themselves, and the audience responded in kind.
After walking Carter off the stage, Mellencamp let loose with a bevy of classics to close out the show, including “Rain On the Scarecrow,” “Paper In Fire” and a one-two punch of “When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down” and “Authority Song.”
But he wasn’t done. People were not going to walk out without hearing “Pink Houses,” which Mellencamp obliged in spectacular fashion. Then he said goodnight with one last blast, “Cherry Bomb.”
Overall, John Mellencamp delivered one of the finest shows I have seen. He continues to prove that he is an artist who does not sit on his laurels, but continues to grow.