The darkened stage is filled with instruments sitting in the shadows as the sold-out crowd of 3,600 sat in silence while a single spotlight shines on John Mellencamp and his violinist Miriam Strum as they perform his 1989 single "Jackie Brown". I've heard "Jackie Brown" hundreds of times over the last 20-years, but inside the Chicago Theatre, John Mellencamp wrangled with it in a downright evocative and compelling manner. Years of seeing it amidst sledgehammer singles in larger venues, made me look the other way. Mellencamp's reedy voice provided the crowd with visceral images that were difficult to shake. It was as if I was hearing it for the first time. His tales of a poor man who can't catch a break is more effective and real than any pie chart of excel spreadsheet. You can see the holes in the clothes of Jackie Brown; see the defeat in his eyes and the depth of despair on his face all through the gripping vocal delivery. The job of an artist is to teach and through their art, they hope to educate people on something they may not fully grasp. Just like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) become the post child for alienation three-decades back, Jackie Brown is the poster child for a failed government. As we sit around and let the world manipulate us through a series of political talk shows where talking heads spew forth venom, it's up to the listener to discern the truth. No one knew it at the time, but John Melllencamp's foresight into the state of America two-decades back was scarily spot-on. Never given the credit he has deserved, Mellencamp has made a career of piercing into the American psyche much like filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Both men obsess about characters that reek authenticity. Scorsese comes from the streets of New York and Mellencamp from the pastures of the Midwest and even though they grew up a thousand miles apart, these two men have helped capture the essence of what it means to be an American. Scorsese has inner insight into backstreet deals where gangsters rule the streets, but Mellencamp has a way of breathing life into the unpretentious characters of our nation whose dreams have been decimated by government thugs. John Mellencamp's latest concert tour is full of American fools, dreamers, saints, sinners and above all else survivors. For over two hours, Mellencamp shined a light on these characters in what is more than his best concert tour in nearly two decades, but without question, the best concert I experienced in all of 2010.
Closing out the first leg of his intimate theater tour (picking back up early next year for 3-additional months of dates), the show began with the Johnny Cash song, "God's Gonna Cut You Down" setting the tone for an evening. The last time Mellencamp toured theaters was in the winter and spring of 1997 but it was a wholly separate event. Despite a high throttle set on well known hits, you couldn't help but feel one had seen the show before. Only two songs from his latest album, the adventurous Mr. Happy Go Lucky were aired. The current tour leans heavily on Mellencamp's rebirth over the last decade where he's gone from pop star to roots interpreter and lastly to the reborn John Mellencamp. With the release of Life, Death, Love and Freedom Mellencamp has seem to find his inner muse and for the first time since 1992, he appears to have brought it along on the concert stage as well. The show is his longest in terms of time and number of songs since his 1992 tour and more than that, it's his best. Weaving more than three decades worth of songs about alienation and desolation is no easy feat, but Mellencamp and his gun slinging band are up for the task.
Opening the show with a stern and stripped "Authority Song", the instrumentation has been reduced to the essentials; guitar, bass and drum. The arrangement would have elicited a smirk from Keith Richards, a purist at heart. This is precisely what made the whole show such a revelation. The band currently backing Mellencamp is his best since his late 80's heyday. Longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic expanded his six-string horizons with additional percussion and mandolin. Miriam Strum colors in the open spaces with her violin, while bassist Jon E. Gee thrillingly slaps his bass when it needs to be rousing and dexterously glides his hands across the strings of the upright bass on more solemn numbers. Drummer Dane Clark spent most of the show on a two piece drum kit (better known as a cocktail drum kit) which let his thundering talent sit on the bench in service of the songs. Troye Kinnett embellished the songs with his accordion and bar room piano playing. However, the standout performance of the evening belonged to guitarist Andy York. Besides being Mellencamp's guitarist for nearly two-decades, his guitar work is angry, possessive and distressing. When a vocal infliction isn't appropriate York finds a way whether it be electric, acoustic or a banjo to help flesh out the emotions bristling underneath Mellencamp's lyrics. "No One Cares About Me", "Don't Need This Body" and "Right Behind Me" found York's guitar stirring voices from beyond with hypnotizing focus. The discipline the band has brought to these songs allows them to breathe in unforeseeable ways. "Deep Blue Heart", a lost cut from 2001, was given new life in an artfully fragile delivery (It is also featured on his superb box set released earlier this year, On the Rural Route 7609). "Death Letter" (from Trouble No More) trembled with a rigorous blues groove. "Walk Tall" was transformed into a depression era country honk rendering with Troye Kinnett piano evoking a Big Easy ambiance. Mellencamp has never shied away from reinvigorating arrangements in concert whether it's a stone cold classic or a new cut and "The West End" was subjected to a beefier arrangement highlighted by an unearthly yelp where Mellencamp turned up the volume to drive his point home. "Small Town" may have been performed alone on acoustic but it lost none of its triumph while "Cherry Bomb" was full-on a capella with the 3,600 in attendance providing backing vocals.
It wasn't until the evening's 18th performance which finally placed Dane Clark behind his full drum kit where for the remainder of the show the delivery of the songs veered towards menace. By restraining themselves for 90-minutes, the full band attack came across as a world under siege. It was a meticulous move that worked. Close to the bone renditions of "Paper In Fire" and "The Real Life", "What If I Came Knocking" found the crowd singing along to every word as the lyrics were etched into their minds despite some novel arrangements. Followed by "If I Die Sudden" and "No Better Than This" and "Pink Houses" the crowd watched John Mellencamp do more than be a human jukebox but an artist evolving in front of their eyes. This growth spilled over to the concert stage with a set that balanced his classics (all in brave new arrangements) against his salient new material. The commercially appealing sonic nature of some of his 1980's recordings may have misguided people, but on stage Mellencamp's perfectly aged voice cuts through you not just scratching you but hitting arteries in the process.
This is the type of tour artists of stature spend years talking about, but almost never do. Even when acts take the plunge going back to theaters, the results is sometimes less than satisfying (R.E.M. and Neil Young come to mind). Few are brave enough to perform in halls this small (out of fear of revenue loss) and others fail to properly execute a show that does their catalog justice. Mellencamp's 2-plus hour set was flawlessly constructed with material hearkening back three decades. The theater allowed the audience to get up close and personal with these songs as if they have known them their whole life. Instead of being cast off as mere throwaways, they can delicately digest them and wrap themselves around them in ways that are not possible in an arena or amphitheater. No Better Than This and Life, Death, Love and Freedom capture the essence of the American experience the same way notable American auteur like Martin Scorsese. With Mellencamp's attention to detail and his instinctive realism, his music has never been more vivacious or vital than it is at this moment in time. Heading down the road less traveled, Mellencamp's message may not reach the same numbers as they once did, but generations from now, this period will be seen as his most fertile. One can only hope a live album or DVD is planned as the show is a triumph molding personal and political intimacies few other artists would dare to wrangle.
While Martin Scorsese has made a career capturing a wildly eccentric characters who are guilt ridden seeking salvation ranging from Charlie in Mean Streets to Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull to Frank Pierce in Bringing Out the Dead to Billy Costigan in The Departed, John Mellencamp has weaved tales about American fools who bought into the American dream only to realize they were sold a lie. Mellencamp's stories may take place in a more rural setting far away from the streets, but they are every bit as detailed and divine. He takes you inside our homes to the kitchen tables where bills are discussed, tears are shed and dreams are diminished. This voice was alive and well on the concert stage as he evoked stark images you couldn't shake from your psyche. On his current concert tour, these tears are wet, the kitchen tables are old and the struggles are realistic. This especially hit home on two specifics numbers; "Longest Days" and "Save Some Time To Dream". These may be the two greatest songs Mellencamp has ever committed to tape. Despite highlighting the tragedies and shortcomings of the world over the last decade, it's a pair of songs that remind us of the John Mellencamp is still capable of inspiring. On "Save Some Time To Dream", Mellencamp stood alone on stage with nothing other than an acoustic guitar around his neck and as each word escaped from his mouth, it was like a prayer being sent out. In a world so filled with bile, it urges us to seek the beauty the world has to offer. Any act can steal headlines from a newspaper and write a song, but it's when they bare themselves naked that defines an artist. It's when they aren't afraid to let the audience into their mind, body and soul. "Longest Days" is a solemn tale of growing old, something we don't discuss or debate in a youth obsessed culture. However, with plaintive strumming and additional fret work by Andy York, there was vulnerability in the performance that made me stand up take notice and make me feel dangerously alive in the theater setting as Mellencamp gasped "Nothing lasts forever /And your best efforts don't always pay /Sometimes you get sick /And you don't get better / That's when life is short /Even in its longest days". Mellencamp's ability to break down his art to the most basic of levels is what makes his recent rebirth so rewarding. He has lived and experienced life to the fullest and to those listening closely; he's sharing his secrets and formulas to liberation. The characters within Mellencamp's work are all part of the American psyche. They may reside most of the time on albums, but truly come to life on the concert stage. This is where their hearts beat, their blood flows and their eyes penetrate the world. These saints, sinners and survivors are more than background noise, but characters brought to life through the ferociousness of John Mellencamp and his band. You may enter the theater in the hopes of escaping the world for a few hours, but instead you will leave with not just a better understanding of the world, but more importantly, yourself.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
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Best of 2010: John Mellencamp Live in Chicago