Mellencamp rounds out Live and In Person tour with make-up dates in Milwaukee
What can I say about John Mellencamp that hasn’t been said before. The guy has been making music and touring for nearly 50 years. He’s been both praised and condemned a thousand times over. So here’s what I’ll say: he keeps coming back for more, and he just keeps delivering.
Monday’s first of two shows at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee was a near sell out. Mellencamp was originally scheduled to perform at the venue in April, but an illness within the touring group forced the postponement to the end of the tour. It’s been said good things come to those who wait, and good things came to the Riverside audience Monday night.
That was after they had to sit through a 30-minute collage of vintage movie clips from old black-and-whites like “Fugitive Kind,” “The Misfits,” “Grapes of Wrath” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Turns out Mellencamp’s Live and In Person Tour, which wrapped up with the June 26 and 27 make-up dates in Milwaukee, has been sponsored by Turner Classic Movies. Instead of an opening act, concert goers were subjected to the movie clips. Impatience permeated through the theater as guests called for the main attraction to come to the stage.
When he did — with red lights and wailing siren —the purgatory of the last 30 minutes was quickly forgotten, and the crowd sprang (as much as an older crowd can spring) to their feet.
Mellencamp eased them into what would be a career-spanning, two-hour set with a deep track — ”John Cockers” off 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” After that, the hits followed one after another: “Paper and Fire,” “Minutes to Memories,” “Smalltown,” “Human Wheels,” “Jackie Brown” and “Check it Out.”
It was seven songs into the show before Mellencamp dismissed the band and performed what would be the one and only song from his recently released — as in 10 days old — “Orpheus Descending.” As the band exited, Mellencamp began the “storytellers” portion of the show, recalling an incident he experienced at a restaurant in Portland, Oregon.
He spoke of sitting at a table near the window where he noticed a young woman manically pacing back and forth outside. He approached her and asked if he could help. She said she wanted to go home, but was unwanted there and had nowhere to go. Whether or not the story is 100% fact, it nicely set up “The Eyes of Portland,” a seething and plaintive narrative about the problem of homelessness in America.
“All of these homeless,
where do they come from?
In this land of the plenty
where nothing gets done.
To help those who are empty
and unable to run
Your tears and prayers
won’t help the homeless.”
For many years now, Mellencamp has been an outspoken activist calling attention to the plights of the outcasts and the downtrodden, and even more importantly has worked to correct the issues and put his money where his mouth is. It’s commonly known that Mellencamp created Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985. To date, the organization has raised more than $70 million “to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture.” Over the years, he has been a generous supporter of the Boys & Girls Club of America, Fulfillment Fund (helping disadvantaged students graduate from high school, attend college and transition into the working world), Population Services International (a global health organization), Project Clean Water and the Special Olympics among others.
He shared another story, this one about when he was 35, lying in bed with his then 93-year-old grandmother, who admonished him for his frequent cursing. Using his platform on stage, Mellencamp urged this audience to not sweat the small stuff. “Don’t give a fuck about the stuff that’s not fuck worthy,” he said. Rather, he encouraged us to focus on the important things and people in our lives, because as the lyric states: “life is short, even in its longest days” — a song he performed masterfully.
He rounded out this interlude of acoustic songs with a stripped down sing along of “Jack & Diane,” but had to stop when the crowd skipped the second verse and went headlong into the chorus. “I was 26, and I spent the better part of an afternoon writing that second verse. So God dammit, I’m gonna sing it.”
In preparation for the show and this review, I spent the last week revisiting Mellencamp’s extensive and prolific catalog. I forgot just how many great songs he’s penned, and I hadn’t realized he’s put out new music almost annually for the last 45 years — 37 albums in that span. It’s apparent he rarely takes shortcuts, and he seldom takes a break.
At 71 years young, he did take one short break following “Jack & Diane.” After sharing the story of how he recorded Joanne Woodward (who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007) reciting many of his lyrics as prose, he left the stage as violinist Lisa Germano and accordion player Troye Kinnett accompanied Woodward’s recording of Mellencamp’s “The Real Life” (1987).
Mellencamp returned to the stage with the full band (long-time guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York, bassist John Gunnell and drummer Dane Clark) to finish out the night with a parade of seven more of his greatest hits.
You can see the years in the lines of his face, and hear them in the rough gravel of his voice; but that mischievous youth remains evident in his eyes. You can tell he wants to dance about the stage if only his body would let him. Instead, he was content to strut from one end of the stage to the other, actively acknowledging members of the audience before him — from the front rows to the upper balconies.
During the opening movie clip portion of the show, I was surprised to hear an audience member (who I can only imagine had indulged himself with one too many PBRs) yell out, “Enough with this shit. Get out here and sing, you old has-been!” I thought to myself, “Has-been?! John Mellencamp?” The man has been churning out poignant, meaningful music for nearly half a century. Songs that will surely last well beyond his time on this earth.
If you have any doubts, read John Apice’s review of Orpheus Descending (https://americanahighways.org/2023/06/17/review-john-mellencamp-orpheus-descending/). Mellencamp remains here, in the moment — even if not always in the spotlight. You may not hear many of his post-2000 songs on Top-40 radio, but if you give those songs a listen, you will find “the same old trouble you’ve been having for years.” As long as his health remains, I don’t see this Cougar settling down anytime soon.
One final note of appreciation for the man who has been doing things his own way for quite some time now: Mellencamp regularly shuns the tired encore schtick, and I applaud him for it. Why leave the stage when everyone in the building knows you’re going to come back out and perform one or two more of your most popular songs? Mellencamp, much to his grandmother’s chagrin, says “fuck it,” to that, too.
Find tour dates and more information here: https://www.mellencamp.com/tour
Paper and Fire
Minutes to Memories
Check It Out
The Eyes of Portland
Jack & Diane
The Real Life (Joann Woodward reading)
Rain on the Scarecrow
Lonely Ol’ Night
What If I Came Knocking?
Crumblin’ Down / Gloria
Hurts So Good