Rock is full of songs about life in the fast lane, big city nights, and beach life. JOHN MELLENCAMP made a career writing songs about small town life in the Midwest. Rather than having an opening act for the tour, John played clips from classic films of the American cinema, like On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Misfits, with interview clips from when he was a special guest programmer on TCM. The movies all had characters that were similar to the people he grew up with, and ultimately aided in John’s songwriting journey. It was an interesting way to start the show, but at 30 minutes, it seemed too long. 10 minutes would’ve been just as effective. For that time, I’d rather there be an opening band.
It would be 20 minutes after taking the stage that John addressed the audience for the first time, simply with “Thank you very much, I’m John Mellencamp.” After the applause died down, John gave us this promise of what to expect “We’re gonna be doing some songs that you know. There’s songs coming up that you don’t know. There’s some can dance to. And hopefully by the end of the evening, we’ll sing a couple of songs that will make you think about things.”
True to his word, John and his band started into a new, unreleased song, Hey God. Its oft repeated chorus “Hey God, if you’re still there, won’t you please come down” shows a man struggling with his faith. The songwriting is unmistakably Mellencamp, and the music, with heavy drums, and screaming fiddle, fit it perfectly into John’s songbook. We already heard he can still sing the songs, but damned if he can’t still write them, too.
Later in the set, the band took off, leaving John alone, center stage, with his acoustic guitar, to perform The Eyes of Portland, Longest Days, and Jack & Diane. Each song was introduced with a short story told by John; he told us how he met a woman in Portland, whom had to go to extremes to survive. With Jack & Diane we were treated to an impromptu lesson on music theory when, during the sing-a-long portion, the entire audience launched into the chorus, rather than the second verse.
“Guys,” John teased us “you were obviously watching the clock [in school]…songs consist of a verse, a chorus, maybe a bridge, sometimes two verses. You guys just skipped from the first verse to the chorus – and there’s a second verse! Do you know how long it took me to write it?” All said with a wink, of course.
The night would continue with wonderful highlights from John’s career, all performed to a very enthusiastic, and nearly packed audience. John has elected to do two nights each city this tour, and I’ve no doubt that the second night was as packed as the first.
Few musical artists are as associated with a thin slice of Americana as JOHN MELLENCAMP, and he received a warm welcome in this part of the heartland. With a catalog of hits, and no lecturing the audience (apart from asking those who “scream during the ballads” to “go to church and learn some manners”), it’s hard not to have a good time at his concert. His voice might not have as much power as it did, but he still sounds amazing. The songs we heard, and he wrote, when we were young, take on new meaning.
I guess John did give us all something to think about after all.
Words and Photos by Josh Chaikin