A slightly scruffy rebel slid into a jazz band leader’s suit and rode a roaring ovation onto the Township stage. The two distinct aspects of his appearance reflecting diverse components of his musical style — raw, honest emotion of the clear-eyed rebel combined with songwriting skills that are as slick as the suit. It was John Mellencamp dropping into Columbia for a night on his Plain Spoken tour. An appreciative bow, a quick band huddle in front of the drum kit, and the band dove into a night covering much of Mellencamp’s career, from classic hits to the less familiar to his newest work. A solid performance, both as singer-songwriter and as band leader, piloted the way and provided some insights into Mellencamp’s music and influences.
Time has brought a deeper growl to Mellencamp’s voice and it has brought him the stories that he shared with the crowd between songs, but it has taken some of his vocal range. His newer material favors a direct lyrical style that fits this maturing voice, and that extra vocal rumble fit perfectly in the bluesy numbers. Of course, his classic hits have some great lines with strong vocals, high up into his range. The enthusiastic audience was more than happy to sing themselves hoarse on those parts, and Mellencamp was mostly happy to let them. He also roared a few of those lines out in full voice, showing that he can still bring it when needed.
In their matching black suits, playing classically-styled gear, the backing band could have been ready to play behind a crooner. There was even an upright bass and a cocktail drum kit waiting for the ballads. Despite appearances this was a rock band, and the first part of the set started out with a blues and early rock feel. Both of those influences were strong in the early song selections. One of the blues numbers, a piano and cigarette duet, threatened to break into a Tom Waits tribute. Other hints of influence, such as a James Brown-style back-bending shout, popped up throughout the performance. There was new music, a bit of dancing, story-telling, classic tunes that everyone knows — this was a professional entertainer putting on a non-stop show. The performance stayed at peak enthusiasm whether the audience was dancing in the aisles or taking a seat during a downbeat number.
The crowd really came alive for the hits but were game to bop along with all of Mellencamp’s material. The band switched instruments to fit the songs, with some of the hooks highlighted by slightly different instrumentation than the studio recordings. Violinist Miriam Sturm picked out guitar lines, played beautiful solos and accompanying parts, and even managed to give a horn line feel to the opening song. Keyboardist Troye Kinnett played more accordion than piano or B3. Drummer Dane Clark’s cocktail kit packed a bigger punch than his standard kit’s kick drum, but both locked in perfectly with John Gunnell’s bass work. Guitarists Andy York and Mike Wanchic (the band’s veteran with 45 years alongside Mellencamp) contributed tasteful solos and some impressive backing vocals.
In front of this stylish ensemble and a simple backdrop, Mellencamp signaled song endings and called for breakdowns. Even though the band was musically flawless, his leading of the band gave the performance a touch of a bar band feel, akin to the raw edge in Mellencamp’s songwriting. He drove them into the bridge of “Small Town” with the enthusiasm of a kid who had just written the song on the bus and taught it to the band during sound check. The performance was never all about the band leader, he made sure to draw applause for his players on their solo work.
Nine songs into the set, Mellencamp traded his signature Telecaster (slung a little higher these days) for an acoustic guitar. He performed one touching song accompanied by York’s slide guitar then it was time for the songwriter’s classic — telling a tale that leads into the solo, acoustic, sing-along version of one of your greatest hits. Mellencamp chose “Jack & Diane” for this part of the show. The roaring crowd skipped straight to the chorus after the first verse. With a hearty chuckle and a “We’re still in the verse part, remember these words?” admonishment, Mellencamp kicked back into the verse and the audience rollicked through the rest of the classic.
Opener Carlene Carter joined the full band to brandish her sold vocal talent singing some tunes from an in-progress musical that Mellencamp is writing with author Steven King. A violin-accordion duet an hour into the show gave the rest of the band a break but kept the crowd going. When the full complement returned to the stage with ties discarded, they were ready to drive straight through to the end of the night on a run of some of Mellencamp’s best-loved songs.
In a testament to Mellencamp’s songwriting talent and his career longevity, the night’s set list included a half-dozen top ten singles, and enough other hits to form a greatest hits album for some bands. Still, there was enthusiasm in the room for a longer night featuring a few more favorites. Although, his catalog certainly has enough material for a career retrospective tour of nothing but the hits, Mellencamp is still writing solid music that is in demand. Plain Spoken has charted at 18 and his three previous albums all cracked the top ten. John Mellencamp, a masterful song writer and gracious band leader, gives every indication that he will continue writing, and performing some of the new stuff, and some of the old stuff, and leading fans old and new through songs with tales of caution, of small towns, of protest, and of people, for some time yet to come.