GROOVIN’ WAS GROOVIN’: John Mellencamp and his band hits the stage in Charlotte in the early stages of a lengthy theater tour running through late June. (Don Muret/Staff)
Movie Night? No, it’s a rock concert
John Mellencamp has forged his own path as a performing artist with a ‘screw you’ attitude ever since the music industry tried to pigeonhole him as cool “Johnny Cougar” almost 50 years ago, rebel without a cause.
That theme was on display during his return to the stage in Charlotte this week (Feb. 8), the third show of the “Live and In Person” tour, a massive 76-date route running through June 24. Fans knew they were in for something completely different heading to their seats at Ovens Auditorium to the strains of “Blue Tail-Fly” (Jimmy Crack Corn), part of a Burl Ives greatest hits medley serving as the warm-up music.
Given a big chunk of attendees were in their 50s, 60s and 70s, there was some fear that half the crowd would fall asleep by the time the show started.
Then, as the lights came down, an exhausting ode to tour sponsor Turner Classic Movies kicked in on a big screen: a 30-minute stretch of black-and-white clips showcasing a half-dozen vintage films: “The Fugitive Kind,” featuring Marlon Brando, a guitar-playing drifter, “The Misfits,” “Giant,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront” and “Hud.” It appeared the selection of specific clips, particularly with Brando, was a tie-in to the false persona foisted upon Mellencamp when he first broke nationally in the late 1970s.
Regardless, the crowd was in no mood for Movie Night. Two clips into the extended montage, folks started yelling for the show to start. There came a point where you wondered if things could get ugly in the audience.
Mercifully, it finally came to an end with sirens wailing and emergency lights flashing. Mellencamp’s six-piece ensemble took the stage, including violinist Lisa Germano, back in the fold for the first time in almost 30 years.
Set against a mix of mannequins on stage and a streetside night scape backdrop, the group kicked off with John Cockers from “Life, Death and Freedom” followed by The Eyes of Portland, a new song written about the ravages of homelessness to be included on “Orpheus Descending,” Mellencamp’s new album coming out in 2023.
A string of hits ensued with Minutes to Memories, Small Town and Human Wheels. Mellencamp’s voice is now a bit rough and gravelly at age 71, a result of decades of smoking cigarettes, but he pulled it off with support from a stellar lineup of musicians as usual. Guitarist Mike Wanchic, as Mellencamp pointed out to the crowd, has been part of the band since 1976.
A nice acoustic mini-set featured Jack and Diane, which Mellencamp stopped early as the crowd skipped to the second verse. Funny enough, from watching YouTube clips before the show, the same thing happened during his performance at Farm Aid 2021.
Continuing his disruptive force as a touring musician, the show came to a pause with the poem “The Real Life,” a political piece recorded in spoken word by Joanne Woodward, now 92, and whose late husband Paul Newman starred in “Hud.” (Mellencamp’s son, Hud, assistant tour manager, is named after Newman’s character). Germano’s violin work punctuated the reading, which flowed into more hits: Rain on the Scarecrow, Paper in Fire, Crumblin’ Down/Gloria and the 1980s anthem Pink Houses.
Cherry Bomb and Hurts So Good, Mellencamp’s biggest hit, concluded the 1 hour 45 minute set spanning 21 tunes, and all was forgiven over the stilted start to the show. One piece of advice, though, given the steep ticket prices: cut the Turner Classic clips in half in favor of more music and the theme will still be effective. It’s going to be a long tour. Devil be damned.