John Mellencamp Live Review

American Dreams On Fire: Rockford, IL - November 14, 2007

Life sweeps away the dreams
That we have planned
-"Minutes To Memories"

Great artists sculpt their art from within their souls expressing feelings and emotions people can hold onto and hopefully make them reflect on their life and the world they live in. Paintings, films, statues and albums are more than just forms of entertainment; they remind us of the beautiful things in a world full of malice. Musicians have the unique ability to channel their entire career into focus over a two-hour concert that can demonstrate different forms and themes every few years. Each album and song makes the canvas from which they paint all that much more expansive. One can't make a collage of paintings or films in the same way musicians can continually evolve specific themes with their growing catalog of songs. For well over a decade, John Mellencamp has largely been a human jukebox in concert churning out his frat rock anthems to the masses and at times, I've felt he was merely running through the motions. But on his current tour the tide has dramatically turned. Instead of youthful rebelliousness of decades past, I saw an artist, parent and American who is pondering what will be left for future generations expressing genuine concerns about what tomorrow will bring. I'm not sure I've ever seen such raw emotional vulnerability from an arena artist who has sold tens of millions of records. Over the course of the thought provoking 100-minute show, John Mellencamp momentarily retired his biggest arena anthems in favor of a collection of songs that form a morality play about the dissolution of the American dream and the isolation of its people.

"Pink Houses", his signature song which has closed the main set of every single one of his concerts for well over two-decades, opened the show and was a sign of things to come. An average fan and onlooker would assume this was done merely to shake things up, however they would be inordinately wrong. He crafted a meticulous eighteen-song set to use as a catalyst for this concert which in essence was a morality play. Ironically, every review I have read has overlooked this point and to neglected to look beyond the individual songs. Mellencamp was making a statement right out of the gate with a song that in reality is about the failure of the "American Dream" despite its arm waving chorus. This isn't the cocky snarl that brought him eternal fame from two-decades past, but a mature vocal of a man who has seen an entire country struggle with maintaining a decent quality of life. The larger than life pop-hooks were omitted, replaced with an edgy set of material whose characters are wrangling with the ghosts of the past, present and future.

"Paper In Fire" was performed with a brisk raw gusto. The rustic performance accentuated the vocals so one would truly digest to the lyrics. As the opening electric set came to a close, "Check It Out" spoke volumes as an arena anthem, disguised as a moral tale, which questions who we are. Is everything we do an illusion? The opening salvo of "Pink Houses", "Paper In Fire", "I'm Not Running Anymore" and "Check It Out" was proving that everything we know and see appears to be an illusion. These songs would normally be a triumphant encore for most artists, but for John Mellencamp it was a way for him to lay the groundwork for an ethical lesson which found him questioning the morals and motivations of the wealthiest country in the world and the people who embody it.

The band drifted off stage which left nothing but Mellencamp, six strings and the truth. The four song acoustic set showcased a reflective Mellencamp. On "Minutes To Memories", a ringing tale of hope, you could see the profound conviction with which he sung the lyric "You are youth and you are the future"; the reedy warmth of his vocal had a terse edge to it, underlying a sense of uneasiness which proved to be a watershed moment for me. The lyrics literally jumped out in this bare composition. It's not a nostalgic trip down memory lane but a telling tale of the here and now. People often love Mellencamp's music because it takes them back to a specific time and place in their lives, but I view his work as progressive, urging us to not look back, but forward. This forward thinking mentality was also applied to "Small Town"; which I felt was him questioning how America has become a crazy island where we are adrift and isolated individuals. I felt as if Mellencamp was trying to demonstrate how our great nation has become deeply divided. The sense of community appears to have been lost and many of us are walking aimlessly through life alone. These songs are paired together to give us insight as to how to embrace our lives in the here and now and not thirty-years from now when it may be too late, this was part of the moral from the new composition, "Young Without Lovers, Old Without Friends" which found the crowd singing along. "Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus)" was equally well received and was performed with understated urgency speaking to the need for direction. This acoustic set, while on paper appears to be nostalgic, is more of an intense inner look at how isolated people have become from one another. It doesn't matter if you live in a small town or the big city; we've all become vulnerable to seclusion.

As the band returned to the stage, Mellencamp continued his focus on the plight of the struggling American. It was no coincidence that "Ghost Towns Along The Highway" followed "Small Town". "Ghost Towns" paints a harsh picture at what has become of the farm towns that once could be found all around this nation. I overlooked this song on the few dozen listens I gave 'Freedom's Road' earlier this year, proving why the live performance is so essential. The studio version, no matter how many times I listened to it, never spoke to me. However, placed within the context of this show, it stood out and will send me back to the album to see what else I may have missed. There was a time a decade back where I'd give anything to see a Mellencamp show and not have to hear "Rain On The Scarecrow", just because I had seen it so many times. Music, at its best, is personal and crawls under your skin and in Rockford "Scarecrow" did just this. Mellencamp is taking a cue from Dylan in the 60's; he's speaking succinctly and directly about social issues. He could be earning more money playing his greatest hits, but he's making philosophical and weighty statements with his introspective songs. The fire and brimstone of his lyrical delivery on this particular night hit you square between the eyes in ways other poets could only dream of. He was boiling over with emotion to the point where I was afraid he was going to have a vein in his neck bust open. The somber and reflecting "Human Wheels", which was performed with defiance and brevity, is turning into a reactionary anthem instead of a solitary tale. This is arguably one of his preeminent songs from a masterful and underappreciated album and fifteen-years after originally writing it, he's not just fervent about it, he's redefining the song through the sheer sway of performance. Mellencamp's best weapon is his ability to speak directly to his listener. This is not a fault, but a gift. His unsubtlety and directness is a potency others could only dream of mastering.

Besides radical reworking of classic songs, Mellencamp appeared to be reborn with a handful of new songs, which should appear on an album he has been working on with producer T-Bone Burnett in 2008. "If I Die Sudden" reminds me of the type of song Dylan would have performed a few decades back with the Band…but only better. "Jena", which has soared across You Tube, finds Mellencamp at his best as a songwriter in fifteen-years. Mellencamp is pissed, provoked and passionate in his delivery of these new songs and if these performances are any indication, it may lead to his best record in well over a decade. He's questioning the events of our world and wondering if sanity will prevail. He doesn't have an answer but what he does have is a passion for these songs which were harrowing and chock full of incendiary discharge. If the studio versions are half as determined, we are in for one hell of an album.

"Are you ready to dance" is how Mellencamp addressed the crowd as the evening was drawing to a close. "Crumblin' Down", "Lonely 'Ol Night", "Jack & Diane" and "Authority Song" triumphantly followed as they closed the evening out bringing the communal feelings of the arena and the lyrics full circle. It should be noted that arena anthems "Hurts So Good", "Cherry Bomb", "R.O.C.K. In The USA" and "Wild Night" was MIA as they thematically did not gel with the story Mellencamp is telling on this tour. These final four songs were the Easter Sunday portion of the performance as he strove to resurrect not just the characters in his songs, but those in the crowd as well. Beneath the struggles and desperation, we believe in a creed where there will be a resurrection and Mellencamp did just that with his stinging protest rock.

The entire evening teetered between the introspective and the revealing and one of the reasons it worked so gloriously is because this band's intensity matched the material and the vision Mellencamp had. The performance was acute, intricately crafted and may very well have been the best I have seen Mellencamp in a decade and a half. He found himself severely redefining his own songs while broadening the story and his legacy with a few new ones. The revitalizing performance was subtle when it called for and superbly unsubtle when it needed to be. Unlike other artists, Mellencamp didn't preach inherent moral superiority over his audience but instead, put himself inside the shoes of those who listen to him and the collective audience found an artist who proved to be the voice of their worries and concerns. John Mellencamp, at this stage in his career, has raised the stakes and is transmuting the power of his catalog to not just open our eyes to our surroundings but hopefully have us walk away with a lesson or two in the process.

Afterward: I can offer only one suggestion to Mellencamp on this current tour; make the show a little longer. Nobody wants to see any show this fierce and focused end too soon. I would add one rocker to the opening portion ("Crazy Island" or "We Are The People"), another to the acoustic set ("Weakest Moments" or "Between A Laugh & A Tear"), two to the second electric set ("The Americans", "Teardrops Will Fall", "In Our Lives") and one more in the encore ("Now More Than Ever"). Add five songs to the show and every reviewer and fan will be overwhelmed and want to see more shows in the future.

A million young poets
Screamin' out their words
Maybe someday
Those words will be heard
By future generations
Ridin' on the highways that we built
Maybe they'll have a better understanding
-"Check It Out"

Rockford, IL Set list :
Pink Houses
Paper in Fire
I'm Not Running Anymore
Check it Out

Minutes To Memories
Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus)
Young Without Lovers (Old Without Friends)
Small Town

Ghosts Towns Along The Highway
Rain On The Scarecrow
Human Wheels
If I Die Sudden
Our Country
Crumblin' Down
Lonely 'Ol Night
Jack and Diane

Authority Song

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and can be found at The Screen Door

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