Johnny Cougar. John Cougar. John Cougar Mellencamp. Now just John Mellencamp. Which one were we going to get?
I wanted the idealistic, chili dog suckin’, farmer lover. Not tonight.
“I’ve had some pretty stupid ideas that worked out,” said the grizzled band leader.
On Friday, nothing quite worked out for John Mellencamp (or the crowd) at the Midland by AMC. For starters, his opening band was an hour-long documentary.
The film showed Mellencamp touring minor league baseball stadiums and recording his latest effort, “No Better Than This,” at Sun Studios and a few other musically significant places. Not many concertgoers seemed too interested, preferring instead to hang in the back and slam down cocktails until the man himself was ready to take the stage.
By the time the curtain went up most everyone had taken their seat and it looked as if the show was a near sell-out.
Mellencamp started his set with “Authority Song.” Once a swingin’ rock anthem, this night it was reduced to a gaunt shell of itself, with bare bones exposed. Same with a bunch of the songs, especially the first hour or so. Missing were the radio-friendly, guitar folk rocker tunes.
Instead, Mellencamp’s gravelly blues slowly subdued an otherwise up-beat crowd, with a somewhat odd combination at times, of accordion, violin, and stand-up drums. The regular drum kit didn’t even get touched until the end of the show.
A few songs in, it was clear that the band was tight, if restrained.
Little time was wasted between songs with witty banter or other stage antics. Instead, Mellencamp and his band drove on through the night, in a workmanlike fashion, getting grittier by the song. Just when the audience thought surely the Cougar would come out, John let us all know “This is what happens to a race of people when they get too greedy,” with “The West End.”
No chili dogs here.
As the set wore on, even the die hards in the front rows sat down. The fist pumping was gone. An odd, acoustic, thirty second version of “Cherry Bomb,” seemed a bit cheap. But when Mellencamp launched into a weird, sparse, almost bluegrassy version of “Jack & Diane,” the crowd was truly confused.
Surely, at any moment, the real John Mellencamp would come bursting onstage in a Chevy truck.
Luckily, the next song was the highlight of the night – “Small Town.” Only this time, with this song, the stripped down thing worked. The violin and accordion paired for an unlikely extended outro that was actually quite fitting. And the crowd was momentarily optimistic about the rest of what, to this point, was a fairly dull show. Even the Cougs himself seemed to revel in the weight of that iconic song, saying, “You know, my wife was thirteen years old when I wrote that song.”
Touché, Cougs, Touché.
By the time the regular drum kit was utilized the night was nearly over, and it would take some heavy hitting now to save the show. As Mellencamp revisited some favorites like “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper and Fire,” “Pink Houses,” and the last song of the night, “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” it ultimately was a case of too little too late. As the band exited it seemed obvious no encore was coming.
Most concertgoers didn’t even stick around to make sure.
Ultimately, I think, it was a case of mistaken identity. John Mellencamp is not the mainstream American star he once was. Nor is he an aging rocker cranking out his hits at any county fair that will have him (yet). And maybe that’s the most respectable thing about the whole deal. But respectable or not, the show simply was not what you would expect from a Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer.
Would have been great at a smoky hole in the wall, with sticky tables and dirty glasses, though.
No One Cares About Me
Deep Blue Heart; Death Letter
The West End
Check It Out
Save Some Time To Dream
Don’t Need This Body
Right Behind Me
Jack and Diane
Rain on the Scarecrow
Paper and Fire
The Real Life
If I Die Sudden
No Better Than This
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.