Thursday, February 19, 2015

Blood on the Plow: John Mellencamp Infuses Old Hits, New Tunes with Grizzled Gravitas -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

John Mellencamp
w/ opening act Carlene Carter
Chicago Theatre
February 18, 2015
(Also played Feb. 17)

Even when he was in just his thirties, John Mellencamp--nowhere is Cougar still officially part of his moniker, although it forever remains in the minds of many--wrote a lot of lyrics referencing the passage of time.

"Days turn to minutes and minutes to memories"

"Where does our time go?"

"Human wheels spin round and round while the clock keeps the pace"

"Hold on to 16 as long as you can"

"But just like everything else those old crazy dreams just kinda came and went"

"And he saw his days burn up like paper in fire"

"We just laugh and say do you remember when"

At the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday night, with the husky growl of a longtime smoker now 63 years of age, exacerbated by a nasty bug he said he caught in Minneapolis, Mellencamp brought the gravitas of a man looking more back than forward as he and his band delivered satisfying versions of--respective to the lyrics above--"Minutes to Memories," "Check It Out," "Human Wheels," "Jack & Diane," "Pink Houses," "Paper in Fire" and "Cherry Bomb," among other greatest hits. (See the full setlist here, which is from Tuesday night's matching show.)

While he sounded strong enough to make the tunes of my youth a joy to hear yet again--with my own sense of nostalgia abetted by encountering (intentionally) the high school friend with whom I first saw Mellencamp 29 years ago this month on the Scarecrow tour--the way he balanced the harder-rocking anthems with more low-key stylings of late made for an especially compelling performance.

Seven of the night's 21 songs came from 2014's Plain Spoken, 2008's Life, Death, Love and Freedom and Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a current musical Mellencamp composed in collaboration with author Stephen King.

The newer songs are much more in a countryish vein--I think Country Blues would be an apt description, as much thematically as musically--yet still find the singer ruminating on time, albeit with considerably more wistfulness. 

On "Troubled Man," which opens Plain Spoken and follows just "Lawless Times" on the current setlist, Mellencamp attests, "So many things have fallen through my hands," while on 2008's lovely "Longest Days"--which musically reminds me of "Weakest Moments," a gem from 1982's blockbuster American Fool--he shares that "Life is short even in its longest days."

And amidst a run of classics that closed out the 110-minute performance--"Rain on the Scarecrow," "Paper in Fire," "Crumblin' Down," "The Authority Song," "Pink Houses," "Cherry Bomb"--Mellencamp made a point of inserting a song called "Die Sudden" from the Life, Death, Love and Freedom album.

Here he offers:

"If I die sudden 
Please don't tell anyone 
There ain't nobody that needs to know 
That I'm gone"

Not too surprisingly, much of Mellencamp's relatively sparse stage patter, when it wasn't about the current nagging illness that had him coughing often off mic, was also about the passage of time.

In introducing his bandmates, the Indiana native especially celebrated guitarist Mike Wanchic, noting that they've been playing together for 45 years, during which time they'd pretty much seen it all.

Yet despite the life-clock thread that connected much of the material, adding resonance to both the old and new songs, I don't mean to suggest that the show was overtly somber or overly sentimental.

All the aforementioned tunes were simply a pleasure to hear, and in many cases, sing along to. (Unfortunately some nearby dolts took "I fight authority" too literally as there was a sizable scrum in the balcony; fortunately at least this time, "authority always wins.")

And after a really delightful 45-minute opening set of her own, Carlene Carter--daughter of June Carter Cash--joined John to take lead vocals on "Away From This World" and duet on "Tear This Cabin Down," both fine-sounding tunes from Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

This was preceded by Mellencamp's hauntingly sparse take on "The Full Catastrophe" from 1996's Mr. Happy Go Lucky--accompanied by Troye Kinnett on piano--and was followed by "Overture" from the same record, an instrumental played by violinist Miriam Sturm and Kinnett on accordion.

Strains of the early hit, "I Need a Lover," made this interlude particularly sweet before the band launched into a rocking "Rain on the Scarecrow," albeit still with more of a low-key Americana groove than on the original.

Back in 1986 when my friend Larry and I saw him at the Rosemont Horizon--twice, as we went again that December--Mellencamp was a whirling, dancing dervish whose 3-hour, emotionally-charged performances made him the best live act this side of Bruce Springsteen.

Over the intervening years, I've seen him do some really good shows, but also some highly disappointing ones, including one in 1994 that came--unwittingly and forgivably--after a then-undiagnosed heart attack.

I didn't buy tickets for the Chicago Theatre as soon as they went on sale, unsure if I needed to see "JCM" yet again this far down the line.

But just last week, with a sense of old times' sake and appreciating what Mellencamp once meant to me, I decided to--without the loftiest of expectations yet with considerable anticipation.

With close friends Dave and Paolo in tow, both of whom I met only when I was nearing 40, it turned into an evening that was nearly as good in the present as it was a blast from the past.

John Mellencamp doesn't do much dancing anymore, he doesn't play for anywhere close to three hours and, even when not addled by malady, his voice isn't the instrument it once was.

But even if he no longer roars like a Cougar, seeing him in 2015 is well-worth it--and this extensive tour has numerous dates yet to come--thanks to the time-worn grit this grizzled professional brings to both his classic hits and appealingly contemplative new material. 

These aren't the 1980s anymore, for any of us, but at least for one not-so-lonely ol' night, John Mellencamp in concert was every bit as good as I hoped he would be. 

And as he sings in "Small Town"--also a joyful part of Wednesday's set--"that's good enough for me."


Here's a clip of the solo acoustic "Jack & Diane" from Wednesday night, posted to YouTube by lkarels:

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