John Mellencamp Brings A Hearty Dose of Roots Rock To Youngstown
February 21st, 2019
Roots Rocker and homegrown Hoosier John Mellencamp played to a very enthusiastic Youngstown crowd at the beautiful Stambaugh Auditorium Tuesday night. The 67-year old singer/songwriter brought his rarified blend of Blue Collar Rock, front porch Country, and juke joint Blues to the Mahoning Valley on a clear, chilly evening.
Mellencamp, who burst onto the scene in the late 1970s, having major hits with such seminal tunes as "Jack and Diane," "Pink Houses" and "Small Town," brought his six-piece band onto the stage after a twenty-minute video that really encapsulated what he's always been about: Homepsun, tell-the-truth music that cuts to the heart of American life in the waning decades of the last century. Raised in Indiana during the turbulent Sixties, much of Mellencamp's music reflects the everyday hardships that many Americans faced and, sadly, still are facing today. His most popular songs have always spoken on a very personal level to those experiences. We all had a Tasty Freez in our neighborhoods, didn't we?
Starting the night with a warning, the erstwhile musician said that any "motherfuckers" that liked to talk loud during the quiet parts of the show (his acoustic guitar accompanied by a lone piano about midway through the set) should take it "outside" because people "paid good money to hear live music tonight." That went over well; the audience cheered that sentiment and actually behaved well when the former John Cougar got quiet with a few somber tunes about halfway into the gig.
Offering up "Lawless Times" from 2014's Plain Spoken, Mellencamp took the crowd through a few of his lesser-known cuts before settling into a perennial fave. Tearing into a great rendition of "Small Town" brought the sold-out crowd to their feet. He then segued back into a few covers, most notably a Robert Johnson tune, "Stones in My Passway." The band, piano, violin, rhythm and lead guitar, bass and drums, were amped a little high for the first few tunes, somewhat drowning out Mellencamp's vocals. The mix was changed, and by the middle section of the concert the singer's voice balanced well against the fantastic backing musicians that he employs as his road partners. After giving us "Lonely Ol' Night," he cleared the stage for his acoustic set (when he wanted all the mofos to leave if they were going to be a little boisterous.)
Perhaps the highlight of the set was his version of "Longest Days," clearly an important song to him and an evocation of how quickly life moves. Offering up "Jack and Diane" next as a spirited sing-along, the two songs were perfectly paired. I sat, taking in his gravelly voice on "Days" and then ruminated during his ode to young lovers; has it really been almost forty years since that song debuted? His teenaged counterpart in that song was sixteen, about the same age I was when that song flew up the charts.
Now, I hear a grizzled musician, his voice made raspy by time and a chainsmoking habit that has given his voice a bassoony Lou Rawls timbre, and the words from "Longest Day" resonate. It was a great concert-going moment. I sat, frozen, for a few moments after he finished "Jack and Diane" and gestated the thought of forty quick years, blasting by me at light speed. His next tune was "The Full Catastrophe," served up with a juke joint piano and delivery that would have been home on the South side of Chicago at the height of Prohibition. I can't imagine all those cigarettes are healthy, but they sure do give his voice some gravitas.
After those sublime moments, the show ended with a barrage of his hits. "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Paper in Fire," "Crumblin' Down," and "Authority Song" all made their appearances; it was a Greatest Hits album presented for the 2,500 or so souls that had braved the February chill to hear an American master at his peak. Closing the night with "Pink Houses" and "Cherry Bomb," he proved that he's still got it, and that's what makes a show like this something special. Many of his contemporaries phone it in. Not Mellencamp; he had the audience in the palm of his hand for almost two hours. Even the semi-loud motherfuckers kept it to a dull roar.
And in today's concert-going environment, that may be the biggest compliment an artist can get.
Photos and Review by Brian M. Lumley