After more than forty years of making music, John Mellencamp has solidly come into his own. In Mellencamp’s early years, his management tried to mold him into a rock star and tagged him with a series of names that he’s still shaking off (I still reflexively catch myself saying “Cougar” even though he dropped it decades ago). It would have been easy to write him off as another flashy rock singer with a goofy moniker, but even back then it was obvious there was something special underneath that separated him from the pack; nobody’s lining up for sold out theater shows from The Hooters or John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band in 2019. Maybe it comes from Midwestern roots, maybe it just comes from growing up in a town where excitement is chili dogs and Friday night football and having a moment of clarity that there’s more out there.
While Mellencamp’s early work hinted at the miniature drama of living in small town Midwest, those themes were easy to lose among straight ahead rockers like “I Need a Lover” or smooth radio gloss like “Ain’t Even Done with the Night”. You can hear him reaching for it on American Fool (“Jack and Diane”) and getting closer on Uh-Huh (“Pink Houses”), but maybe those songs give themselves up too easily. After he found success and got his feet under him, he paused, pulled back and took a wider world view and let the world fade to black and white. With new perspective, his work came into sharp focus on 1985’s Scarecrow. The black and white cover (by recently-deceased Chicago photographer Marc Hauser) hints at the seriousness of the work within and the opening stark, cinematic lyrics drive that home: “Scarecrow on a wooden cross/Blackbird in the barn/Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm.” His protagonist went from making out with girls in the back seat to worrying about the family farm going under in the space of five short years.
Realizing electric guitars were limiting to his new vision, he took it further and stretched out sonically on Lonesome Jubilee, embracing folky instruments and lacing the songs with lovely bits of banjo, dulcimer, dobro, mandolin, accordion and, the greatest addition- Lisa Germano’s sadly beautiful fiddle. As his sonic palette and social awareness expanded, his writing elevated to match his new reach. It was still Reagan-era America and people were promised a new era of rebirth and economic security; working folk were reassured that it was “Morning in America.” But morning light casts long shadows and daybreak hits harder when it’s at the end of a bleary-eyed third shift you had to work to put breakfast on the table. His confidence and ambition let him tackle the new sound and mature subject matter with a credibility that a young Johnny Cougar could never have mustered. To cap it all, as his influence, social awareness and network spread, he joined with Neil Young and Willie Nelson to start Farm Aid (an organization that supports family farming and is still going strong) and gained a whole new level of street cred. Over the last four decades he’s stayed active with music, film and painting and is ready to release a new album.
Which brings us to last night’s sold-out show at the Aronoff Center (billed as “American Poet – The John Mellencamp Show”). It’s the third date of a tour that will take him across the United States for the next three months. As the lights dimmed, a short film recounting Mellencamp’s history (peppered with interviews with him, soundbites of fans and interviews with a fellow painter) played. A sobering thought is that music was just a side hustle to fund his early painting career. If things had turned out differently, the American songbook would be short a few crucial chapters. And if the sobriquet of “American Poet” is a lot to live up to, he didn’t seem too concerned as he took the stage to massive applause and launched into the first number (“Lawless Times” off 2014’s Plain Spoken). As the band shifted into a boozy, almost-zydeco mode, he sang tongue-in-cheek about not trusting anyone, even himself:
“Well, I don't trust myself
I don't trust you
Don't get too sick
It'll be the end of you
Don't expect a helping hand
If you fall down
And if you want to steal this song
It can be easily loaded down”
The song is five years old, but it’s wry sense of humor bites even harder today.
While there was always an underlying layer of the blues to his music, it often got blended and diluted with country, rock and folk. He shed his guitar and paced the stage, digging into Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” and working the lip of the stage with preacher-like fervor as the lights cast him in stark relief.
He pumped his fists, danced and clapped along with the audience as he fed on the warm reception to “Lonely Ol’ Night” and “Check it Out”
The band exited, and John put on an acoustic guitar and set up the intro to “Longest Days”. He recounted a story about visiting his grandmother when she was bedridden and near the end of her life. She asked him to pray with her and near the close of her prayer she told Jesus that she and John (Buddy) were ready to come home. He was shocked and babbled that he wasn’t ready to come home yet, he had a lot more sinning to do. His grandma chastised him for being sarcastic when she was talking to Jesus and admonished him, “Life is short, even in its longest days”. As enjoyable as the full band numbers were, this song highlighted the simple purity and distillation of a lifetime of songwriting. It made me want to see him do an entire acoustic solo show just to see how the shades of the songs change when they are stripped down to their bare essence.
In the film before the concert, and older clip of John expressed how he got frustrated having certain expectations for performing and the danger of becoming a human jukebox. It seems he’s made peace with it because as he strummed the opening of “Jack and Diane” the crowd rippled with excitement. The crowd sang along, and John moved away from the mic entirely during the chorus. He likely could have just played guitar and let the audience sing the entire number; nobody would have complained.
After that crowd pleaser, he decided to throw a few curveballs.
Much like Bob Dylan, Mellencamp’s voice has weathered as he’s aged. He credits it to cigarettes and still defiantly defends his usage (side note- check out his 2015 appearance on fellow Hoosier David Letterman’s show. John walked out carrying a lit cigarette and didn’t stop puffing for the entire segment. I’ve never seen a segment like it in the modern talk show era). Whether it’s nicotine or an artifact of aging, the slight rasp he had as a young man has grown deeper and craggier. Accompanied only by a somber barroom piano, he transformed “The Full Catastrophe “into something resembling Kurt Weill via Tom Waits. It was a shocking stylistic turn, not one that the whole audience was on board for. His violinist returned, joined the pianist, and they all doubled down for “Easy Target”, another dark cabaret tune:
Such a long time ago
400 years and we still don't, let it go”
It’s not quite Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, but it’s a long way from the Tastee Freeze.
And just to stretch the audience a bit more before snapping back for the second half, the violinist and accordion player ran through an instrumental medley of several of John’s songs. The audience perked up as the band played the recognizable strains of “I Need a Lover”, maybe expecting Mellencamp to come out and pick up the song, but it was not to be.
Mellencamp has claimed he started the No Depression music movement. It’s arguable, but it’s not hard to see some similarities between artists like Jeff Tweedy or Jay Farrar, at least in the small town midwestern roots, revamping of traditional music and blurring of the lines between rock, folk and country. If he didn’t start it, he at least planted some of those seeds in the 80s
For all the work he’s done in the last few decades, the back half of the show features material solely from his 80s catalog (Uh-huh, Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee). It’s a run through of some of his strongest work, a set that could have maybe been the A-side of a beat-up cassette of his hits you would have made back in the day.
The full band reentered, and the guitarists came armed with electric guitars. The drums cracked explosively as they tore into a ferocious version of “Rain on the Scarecrow.” They pushed to the front of the stage en masse and the force was startling, guitars roaring as the violin cut through them. The band barely paused as they kicked into a Stones-y “Paper in Fire,” smash cut to “Crumblin’ Down,” veered into “Authority Song” (here mashed up with Wilson Pickett’s’ “Land of 1000 Dances”), and finally “Pink Houses.”
As the evening wound down, John told a story about gathering his kids around years ago and wanting to tell them about the past. He said he’d never been much for nostalgia but felt he should have the discussion. He marveled that after about three minutes his son Hud (then 9) said, “I hate to tell you dad, nobody cares about the past” and walked away.
John pointed to the side of the stage and said his son Hud (now 24) was here tonight with his Cincinnati girlfriend and that it’s ironic now because to them eighteen months is the past. “For me, eighteen months is a nap”. He cracked that he’s not going to sleep anymore, only nap, because you never hear: “John Mellencamp died in his nap…it’s always his sleep”.
As much as Hud discounted nostalgia, John pulled him and his girlfriend to help out on a song all about nostalgia. Even after that strong run of songs, “Cherry Bomb” was his finest moment. The song has such an easy sway and grace to it, led by the simple steady thwack of the drums, the bounce of the bass that incredible fiddle. On record, it was a time when the world slowed down, and he was confident enough to let the song breathe and spin out. He even stepped back and let a woman take part of the vocal duties. He realized that he didn’t need to be in every frame of his own movie and his hand was firm enough to guide the song, but light enough not to weigh things down.
Hud and his girlfriend danced and smiled, and he gamely leaned in to help sing the chorus. From time to time, they smiled and put their arms around each other.
The lyric “Seventeen has turned thirty-five/I’m surprised that we’re still livin’” could have come across as maudlin or self-pitying, but it seemed more matter-of- fact. Like one day you turn around and suddenly your youth is gone, and you have kids of your own to worry about and you just say, “Huh…how did that happen?” If he felt any irony about singing it at 67 it didn’t show. And when he sang, ‘Got a few kids of my own…” and looked lovingly at Hud, it was a perfect moment, maybe one that will only happen in Cincinnati. Maybe someday Hud will tell the story to his kids – if they’ll sit still long enough to listen.