Although he might often be left out of the conversation when talking about legendary singers, John Mellencamp has chipped out an impressive career of All-American, small-town hardworking folk/rock that’s in a league of its own. Not only does he know how to create a rock anthem but also knows how to make a song with an impactful message. While other singers might sing about mortality, faith and relationships, Mellencamp Indiana-raised honest approach has hit home with many people.
Over the past few years Mellencamp has played Milwaukee several times, including a stellar Farm Aid performance. But in the intimate confines of the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, he and his band seemed to relish the atmosphere and for two hours provided a diverse collection of songs spanning Mellencamp’s career.
The band kicked off the show with a powerful rendition of “Authority Song,” one of many hits from his multiple decade career. The night provided a pretty through look through his career as well as focusing a little bit on his past two albums “Life, Death Love and Freedom” and “No Better Than This.”
For someone best known for his rock and roll hits, Mellencamp and his band provided a diverse genre-spanning selection of songs, touching into Americana, folk, and even a little blues like in the country/blues of “No One Cares About Me” with infectious delta blues guitar riffs.
When you consider how much Mellencamp has traveled around the country you’re bound to get influenced by a lot of different things (the documentary shown before the show gave plenty of proof towards this). The show for the most part seemed to be presented in three parts: the first part of the show featured more Americana numbers, the middle stripped down and often solo and the latter seemed more rock heavy.
Mellencamp is getting up in years but his rugged and rough vocals haven’t faltered any. He mixed up songs about hope and struggle, and mixed in a little bit of humor to keep things from getting too serious. While he excelled quite well at giving energy to his rock anthems (including many commanding renditions of hits like “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper and Fire” and “Pink Houses”), the solo and stripped down versions of songs put his voice at the forefront and sometimes enhanced by a guitar, violin and accordion.
During “Save Some Time to Dream” off “No Better Than This,” his voice shot through the Riverside Theater as he sung “Save Some Time/Cause Your Dreams Might Save Us All.” A stripped down acoustic “Jack and Dianne” provided a more intimate version of the song, which got the crowd loudly singing the chorus of the song. “Small Town” offered a heavy dose of accordion and violin, as the song ended on a beautiful duet of the two musicians under the spotlight. Mellencamp assembled quite a talented backing band, especially Miriam Sturm who almost stole the show many times with her beautiful violin playing.
The most powerful moment of the show was when Mellencamp told a story about his grandmother months before she passed. He explained that he would often lie in bed and talk with her about faith and living. Sometimes she would give him a hard time about his hard-knock “sinful” ways. “You’ll get me in heaven, right?” he asked which she replied “That’s not how it works.”
This led to them praying the Lord’s Prayer which got sidetracked when his grandmother went off course and got louder. “Send me and Buddy there soon,” she prayed which surprised John who said he had a lot of living and sinning left to do. She said that eventually “You’ll learn that life is short even its longest days.” That message inspired “Longest Days,” off the “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” album. That gave even more meaning to the song as they played it.
During “Easter Eve,” a song about an allegedly true story about him and his 14-year-old son getting in a brawl, he used humor and tongue-in-cheek lyrics with inflections in his voice and helped give life to the song. He was really getting into the song and the crowd laughed and cheered.
John Mellencamp may not be mentioned in the same breath as some of the legends like Neil Young or Bob Dylan but he has shown time and again that he’s got his own unique Indiana-raised kind of songwriting and inspired by his travels has provided a unique American voice for many.